The Bighorn proposal supported by three-quarters of Albertans should not be derailed by ignorance and intimidation.
In November, after more than five years of consultations and planning, the government of Alberta released a proposal for further consultation on the establishment of Bighorn Country.
The proposal would see the creation of new provincial parks and recreation areas, and improvements in campsites, trails, staging areas and enforcement on public lands west of Rocky Mountain House in Alberta. Information was made public in 2018, select public meetings were held across western region towns and all Albertans have been encouraged to complete an online survey with their views of the plan.
Yet over the last two months, the government of Alberta abruptly cancelled the remaining public sessions, citing reports of intimidation and concerns about public safety due to the behaviour of opponents of the proposal, and then rescheduled teleconference meetings instead. Since then there continues to be accusations of poor public consultation.
But just how controversial is the plan actually? At the end of 2018, The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society commissioned a scientific public opinion poll by Advanis, a professional market research firm, to ascertain Albertans’ views of the proposal. The results are striking. Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of the random sample of Albertans are in favour of the Bighorn proposal, including majorities of likely voters of all main parties. Albertans love their mountains and it's no surprise that protecting and enhancing recreation in this wonderful area would be seen as so popular.
The current government deserves credit for continuing with the work of the previous government in proposing this area for better protection and management.
From a political perspective, these results represent a challenge for the Opposition United Conservative Party to navigate.
With almost three-quarters of Albertans onside with protection of the Bighorn – and the enthusiasm among Albertans for the establishment of more conservation and recreation areas generally, the UCP, and particularly local MLA Jason Nixon is in a bind.
On the one hand, the UCP must know -- likely from its own polling -- that a plan to create a “New Kananaskis” in Bighorn Country is extremely popular with voters of all stripes across the province, and the investment of $40 million in trails and enforcement in this long neglected area makes sense from a conservation and economic development perspective.
The scientific poll also shows even greater support – at 81 per cent -- from those valuable undecided "swing" voters. How the UCP responds to mainstream issues like the need for more protection of Alberta’s valuable landscapes is a bellwether on their ability to represent all Albertans and not just a vocal minority of partisans and special interests.
Yet Jason Nixon appeared to double down on the minister’s call for calm by repeating the unfounded myth that the proposal would cost local residents their jobs. It won’t. There are no industrial tenures in the proposed park areas at all and the proposed public land use zone is simply for trail management and clearly will have zero impact on any natural resource operations.
By both promoting and remaining silent about the misinformation circulating about the plan, and generally encouraging local and online opposition, by repeating falsehoods like the plan is being rushed – it's not, discussions started under the previous government in 2014 – it will impact industry -- it won’t -- or that it is not consistent with the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (NSRP).
It is fully consistent with the regional plan recommendations for the area and covers most of the public land in the NSRP.
The UCP runs the risk of falling into a trap of its own making. Do they want to be seen as the party that is against mainstream conservation, recreation and investments in public land management?
Opposition to the proposal sits at less than 20 per cent of Albertans, although there is an online push to spread wild conspiracy theories, generate anger, and swamp the survey with multiple entries.
It's likely a significant number of those are affiliated with the number of very loud ATV interests that have vocally opposed the proposal – which is ironic given that the proposal is clear that there is no impact on designated ATV trails in the proposed parks.
Some of the concern appears sincere based on a lack of understanding on what the proposal contains, but there is also a darker element that appears to be seeking to inflame tensions by spreading misinformation. This needs to stop.
The Bighorn proposal is a well thought out plan that would conserve these landscapes for Albertans and wildlife, while maintaining access for all recreational users.
It would bring much-needed resources for management of the region, and add welcome economic diversification for Clearwater County, Mountain View County and the communities of Rocky Mountain House, Nordegg, Caroline and Sundre.
Some ideas transcend partisanship. Just like Peter Lougheed’s decision 40 years ago to protect Kananaskis for all Albertans, the Bighorn proposal is similarly visionary.
As the proposal outlines, detailed public consulting and management planning with Albertans is going to take many years, but let us start by designating and valuing these lands as conservation and recreation areas and start investing in the management that is needed now.
Let's not turn this into a political football, or let a good idea supported by nearly three-quarters of Albertans fall victim to bullying and falsehoods.
The public consultation process is now completed and a feedback report is expected in early spring. Till then let’s not make this a mountain when it’s not even a molehill.
– Marlow Currie,