EDMONTON — The Alberta government says it will upgrade facilities in the province's west-central backcountry where increased use has left behind garbage, damaged sites and human waste.
Critics say the $1 million to be spent on outhouses, trail improvements and safety measures in the Bighorn area is inadequate for a region getting tens of thousands of random campers every weekend.
"It's at best a symbolic gesture, that they're admitting that there's a problem," Marlin Schmidt, parks and environment critic for the Opposition New Democrats, said Thursday.
"If they were serious about this, they would be making a much larger investment."
The money is not new. It is coming out of the existing parks budget.
The Bighorn covers almost 5,000 square kilometres of lakes, mountains, streams and forests from the community of Nordegg to the Jasper-Banff highway.
Estimates suggest the region has been getting 30,000 visitors every weekend as COVID-19 has forced Albertans to look for places close to home to enjoy the summer.
Facilities are few.
A provincial committee that oversees the region has called the level of usage "insane" and has said people are being forced to camp in ditches.
Local groups say they have had to put out dumpsters to keep campers' garbage off lawns. Trees have been felled for campsites. Human waste dots the landscape. Search-and-rescue groups report large increases in calls for help.
First Nations say there are so many people in the bush — traditional Stoney band territory — that members are afraid to hunt.
Environment Minister Jason Nixon acknowledged the problem in a July 31 Twitter message.
"We've seen an increase in unsafe and irresponsible behaviour," he said.
"This includes garbage left behind, parking on roadways, blocking emergency vehicle access, illegal campfires, criminal behaviour and completely dangerous and harmful activities."
Late Wednesday, Nixon announced trail upgrades, 10 new outhouses, safety signage and a ring road around one particularly popular area.
"This is a perfect time to invest in outdoor recreational infrastructure, since we're seeing a record number of visitors to public lands," Nixon said on Facebook.
Nixon has promised more "boots on the ground" to enforce laws and said a July 27 ministerial order provides them. But that order deals mostly with hunting regulations and it isn't clear how it would improve backcountry enforcement.
Nixon's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Schmidt pointed out the previous New Democrat government had proposed a park for the area along with $40 million in infrastructure upgrades.
"This investment that Nixon is proposing is a drop in the bucket and will do next to nothing to address the real problems that uncontrolled recreation is having," he said. "Putting up a couple outhouses and safety rails on some trails is not nearly enough."
Lorne Hindbo, an outfitter who sits on the Bighorn supervisory committee, was pleased about the spending.
"Any money that's gong to be spent upgrading facilities is more than welcome," he said.
But he added that this year's heavy usage isn't likely to stop now that people have discovered the area.
"I think it's an indication of the future."
Hindbo said more investment will be required, sooner or later.
"There's a lot of good random camping areas but they need to be upgraded. Driveways need to be hardened. Lots of trails need to be hardened."
Much of the work has been done by volunteers, but that's no guarantee for the future, said Hindbo.
"Volunteers are going to get sour if there's not a responsible plan. We've got to look after this neat country we have."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2020
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Bob Weber, The Canadian Press