By Dave Mabell
Southern Alberta Newspapers — Lethbridge
More than 50 scientists are speaking out in support of the provincial government’s plan to eliminate off-highway vehicles from the new Castle River parks.
Fourteen University of Lethbridge professors and a Lethbridge College instructor are among 57 biologists, geographers and scientists in related fields who are calling on Environment Minister Shannon Phillips to proceed with plans to phase out their use and protect the park areas from further damage.
“It is important for the government and public to understand that there are very real impacts to natural areas from motorized trails and use,” said Mount Royal University professor Jon Mee, speaking for the group.
“The letter outlines these impacts on the land, water, plants and animals. As scientists, we commend the government for using strong science in the decision to phase off-highway vehicles out of the park.”
While the recreational vehicle owners have mounted strong opposition to plans to exclude their machines, the concerned scientists say there are more suitable areas for their use.
“The science is clear” that the vehicles are causing damage “even under controlled circumstances,” the researchers point out in an “open letter” released to reporters.
The draft management plan for the Castle Provincial Park and the Castle Wildland Provincial Park calls for the vehicles to be phased out over a five-year period, while more opportunities are provided there for quiet, low-impact recreation.
“Recreation using heavy, powerful, noise-producing machines seems inappropriate in ecologically sensitive wilderness areas such as the Castle,” stated John Spence, a renewable resources professor at the University of Alberta.
“Such rich and sensitive natural areas ought to be managed so as to minimize unnecessary disturbance,” he said.
Scientists in British Columbia and Montana also signed onto the letter, along with professors in Saskatchewan, downstream from the Castle and Oldman Rivers.
The vehicles’ impact on wildlife was highlighted in the group’s message, along with their disruption of fish habitat, vegetation and trees, and a watershed that’s vital to southern Albertans.
“The Castle is part of the Crown of the Continent, which is internationally important for fish and wildlife, especially as the climate changes,” said John Fisher, speaking for the Alberta chapter of the national Wildlife Society.
“The connection of habitats across boundaries allows wildlife to move safely across the landscape,” he said.
“We need to ensure the Castle is properly managed if we want wildlife to be able to survive and thrive now and in the future.”