A Mount Royal University professor is one of nearly sixty scientists who signed a letter urging Alberta's environment minister to stand firm on the plan to phase out off-highway vehicle use in two ecologically sensitive parks in southwestern Alberta, saying evidence supporting a ban is clear.
The plan was first revealed in January as part of a larger conservation strategy to preserve just over 1,000 square kilometres of mountains and foothills in the Castle Wildland Provincial Park and Castle Provincial Park.
Opposition from groups that represent ATV, truck and jeep drivers has been growing ever since.
That prompted 57 scientists to step forward, including Jon Mee, a professor of biology at Mount Royal University.
He spoke to the Calgary Eyeopener Thursday morning about why he signed the letter.
Q: Why did you sign this letter?
A: Like many of the other scientists, we are concerned that there have been some statements about how the evidence behind the decision to phase out OHVs was unsound. We wanted to write this letter to affirm that this evidence is well-documented, it's been around for a while, it's firm and it's good science behind the government's decision.
Q: What, if anything, is debatable about the notion that OHVs should be banned in the parks?
A: The only thing in the scientific community that people debate is whether this five year phase-out is actually appropriate. A lot of scientists say that the evidence is clear that OHVs are harming all the values we have as Albertans, and the Castle area, and that we should just ban OHVs immediately.
I think the government has tried to have this concession where they phase them out. There's debate among scientists about whether that actually has any merit, scientifically. But that's the only point of contention among the scientific crowd.
Q: What does the science say about the effect of quads and other OHVs in an area like the Castle?
A: Basically it says that any motorized trail, whether it's sanctioned or not, whether it's used responsibly or not, is incompatible with the protection of wildlife, plants, with the maintenance of clean water. That's basically the main message.
A: Even if they're on sanctioned and well used trails, they're still loud, heavy machines and these are still motorized vehicle roads. These cause things like edge effects, even if they're not running in the stream bed or near a stream bed, they still cause increased runoff. Just being in the environment compromises the ability of at-risk species to recover. Things like grizzly bears get pushed out of the area.
Q: Your own background is in fish genetics. What impact does OHV use have on fish populations?
A: I've studied the westslope cutthroat trout populations in several of the rivers in the Castle and they're some of the few remaining populations of westslope cutthroat trout — an endangered species — in Alberta that remain in the province.
Q: Many OHV enthusiasts say they stick to the trails and do work to restore local ecology. What do you say to that?
A: Like I said before, whether you work on the trails, whether the trails are used responsibly, all that is besides the point. Having any kind of motorized vehicle use in this kind of habitat is inappropriate at any level. That's what the evidence suggests. I know people who are OHV users and ride responsibly and it's just not appropriate to have those machines in an area where we're trying to protect particular values like clean water and wildlife.
Q: You — and most of the scientists who signed this letter — don't live in the Castle area. Is it fair for outsiders to tell locals what to do?
A: I wouldn't say we're telling locals what to do, as scientists. The government is basing their decision on [its] perception of public values. The government is saying that...the primary value of the Castle is to protect wildlife and headwaters.
As scientists, we don't impose values or tell people what to do. What we're saying is if you have that value, then what do you have to do to protect that value? As scientists, we can chime in on that. It doesn't matter where we live.
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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener