The Alberta government is making a major tourism push for the Castle parks and implementing its first significant restrictions on off-highway vehicle use in those parks as part of a promised phase-out.
Environment Minister Shannon Phillips announced Friday that the province will spend $3 million for capital upgrades in Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park this year, while Travel Alberta will launch a $400,000 advertising campaign for the Castle region.
The government also released its final management plan for the southwestern Alberta parks, which will see off-highway vehicle use phased out in the parks over the next three years.
As of June 1, the current 350 kilometres of trails open to vehicles such as quads and motorcycles will be reduced to 137 kilometres, as they will only be allowed north of the Carbondale River.
In 2019, the trails accessible to off-highway vehicles will be cut further, to 37 kilometres, and by 2020, only a tiny one-kilometres section of trail on Castle Provincial Park’s northwest edge, which is connected to a route outside its borders, will remain open.
Phillips said the move to eliminate off-highway vehicle use — which has been highly criticized by recreational riders — is necessary to protect the park, which is home to the headwaters of the Oldman River basin.
“We had very serious environmental questions around this area and that’s why conservationists and scientists and the public and the people of Lethbridge asked for a long time for action in this particular area,” she told reporters at the announcement at Fish Creek Provincial Park.
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Snowmobile use will be allowed to continue in the winter, as it has less impact.
The NDP government announced last year that it would establish Castle Provincial Park and expand the Castle Wildland Provincial Park in a region that is one of the most biologically diverse areas in Alberta and home to a range of rare and at-risk species, including wolverine, grizzly bear and westslope cutthroat trout.
It promised a phase-out of off-highway vehicle use in the parks within five years.
Micheal Dobovich, the land advocacy director for the Rocky Mountain Dirt Riders Association, said that instead of banning riders, the government should be working with them to address environmental issues.
“When I look at the Castle, I think there’s a great opportunity. There a huge landscape out there. Why can’t we share the same trail infrastructure?” he said in an interview Friday.
But the government’s decision was hailed by conservation groups.
The Alberta Wilderness Association said in a news release that there is an “overwhelming body of science that shows off-highway vehicles are not compatible with conservation goals and headwaters protection.”
While the government is restricting off-highway vehicle use, Phillips said planned infrastructure upgrades from new funding will allow increased camping, hiking, cycling and equestrian activities as the province looks to bolster tourism in the area.
She said there is an opportunity for the Castle parks to rival Kananaskis Country and Banff as attractions within the province. It is especially important economically to bring people to the area as Waterton National Park, located just south of the Castle region, recovers from last year’s wildfires.
“While some areas are closed or unavailable for visitors, most of the greater Castle region is open for business,” said Travel Alberta president Royce Chwin.
“We want to ensure visitors are considering southwest Alberta for the 2018 summer season.”
The organization’s $400,000 online advertising campaign is intended to bring in vacationers both from Alberta and outside the province, especially international travellers.
Among the improvements to the parks planned for 2018 are 12 new campsites in Lynx Creek, nine improved rustic camping areas with space for more than 150 camping units, two new warming huts, five new comfort cabins, trail improvements at Table Mountain, Grizzly Lake and Barnaby and refurbishment of backcountry campsites.
There are currently around 200 official campsites in the park, a number likely to double in years to come as random camping decreases.
Also on tap for future years is a new “epic” cycling trail that will connect to the community of Crowsnest Pass and existing trails.