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Final SSRP still criticized over Castle protection

The final South Saskatchewan Regional Plan has added more area in the Castle region to be protected, but critics say it is not enough to ensure the critical landscape of that area is preserved in its entirety.

The final South Saskatchewan Regional Plan has added more area in the Castle region to be protected, but critics say it is not enough to ensure the critical landscape of that area is preserved in its entirety.

Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Robin Campbell unveiled the finished regional plan on Wednesday morning (July 23) during a press conference in Calgary.

He said specifically when it came to the Castle area along the Eastern Slopes, the government heard from Albertans that more protection was needed and responded.

“The Castle area is of great value for its beauty and biodiversity,” Campbell said. “During our consultations we received large amounts of feedback about how this area is important to Albertans. Based on the feedback we received on our draft plan, we made changes to ensure we have greater protection of this area.

“The SSRP will establish a new conservation area in the Castle that totals 54,588 hectares. The Castle Wildland Provincial Park includes lands long protected by restrictions on use and extends into adjacent lower valley areas.

“Albertans expressed this was important to them and we listened to them.”

Wendy Francis with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative was critical of the change in the Castle, saying it adds only 100 square kilometres to the provincial park and takes that land out of an already protected area.

“They did that by taking land that was designated as the public land use zone in the draft and making it wildland park,” Francis said. “What I understand by speaking with colleagues down in Pincher Creek is that land they added was pretty much protected anyway by policy. It was under a 20-year moratorium from logging because it is important grizzly bear habitat.

“By adding it into the park, it isn’t really creating any new protection for that land.

“There have been various proposals to protect the Castle over the years and virtually all of them have said that about 1,000 square kilometres stretching from the northern boundaries of Waterton Lakes National Park all the way up to the Crowsnest Pass should be included in a new wildland park and this proposal only protects about half of that.”

Others critical of the protections afforded the Castle area said the government ignored their concerns to conserve the headwaters of the Oldman River. The Castle Special Place was designated by Premier Ralph Klein during Special Places 2000, one of 80 new protected areas in the province. The Castle, however, never received its final designation and over the past decade and a half has seen increased logging, off-highway vehicle use and oil and gas development.

“The government found it easier to ignore the concerns of the vast majority of Albertans about the Castle than to stand up to industry and motorized recreation groups. Albertans have been telling the government that we expect top-to-bottom protection for the Castle,” said Gord Petersen of the Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition.

“It is vital to conserve the headwaters of the Oldman River, to protect bull trout and grizzly bears, and to ensure wildlife connectivity along the Rocky Mountains. Three-quarters of local residents are in support of protection. This should have been easy for the government to do.

“Instead of listening to common sense solutions that we have suggested, they’ve taken the easy way out. With the exception of 100 square kilometers, they are simply re-designating areas protected through existing policy.”

On the other hand, there were gains in the SSRP that came out of the consultation process, which saw 7,500 people engage in the draft regional plan. The draft set out to address linear disturbance on the landscape in 2017 and that was moved up to 2015 in the final version.

Francis said that is a good thing because linear features – roads, pipelines, seismic lines, trails and anything that cuts a path in the landscape – allows motorized vehicles access to wilderness and it is a key issue in the South Saskatchewan area.

“They have also taken a first step towards thinking about connectivity and the need to provide for wildlife movement between protected areas,” Francis said. “They have kind of created what I would call a pilot project to connect the Pekisko Heritage Rangeland, which is one of the new designations, with Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park.”

The Pekisko Heritage Rangeland totals 34,356 hectares in size and is a new type of provincial park that allows grazing. In addition to that, Francis said a special management area would connect it with the provincial park.

“We don’t know exactly what that looks like yet, but it does seem like it is taking the first step towards some kind of land management that will protect wildlife movement between protected areas,” she said.

Bev Yee, stewardship commissioner for the province, pointed out the final version of the plan recognizes connectivity on the landscape is important when considering land use.

“What you’ll see in the plan is we have mapped out some key areas for connectivity and those have to be considered when we do management planning in the region, so that will also involve stakeholders, but we’ve specifically identified that in a map right in the plan itself,” she said.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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