User groups say OHV trail funding unlikely to effect change in McLean Creek
Alberta is pumping a total of $8 million into the maintenance, repair and improvement of motorized vehicle trails across the province, but some user groups aren’t holding their breath that a notorious section of Kananaskis Country will see a penny put to good use.
The McLean Creek public land use zone (PLUZ) – exempt from the Kananaskis Conservation Pass – is infamous for its trails and unchecked off-road culture, which persists due to a lack of enforcement and overall environmental conservation.
Shaun Peter, owner of Bragg Creek and Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation, is all too familiar with the destruction that occurs on and off the area trails.
“I could send you hundreds of pictures from McLean Creek that show there has been little to no conservation and very little enforcement in that area for decades,” said Peter.
“Now we have $8 million going towards off-highway vehicle (OHV) groups to create more trails, even though we can’t regulate and control the ones that currently exist.”
The funding, announced on Friday (Feb. 17), is spread across four years. The Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association and the Alberta Snowmobile Association – the first two community organizations selected as trail managers under the Trails Act – will be accountable for managing a number of designated snowmobile and off-highway vehicle trails in the province.
“As a lifelong outdoorsman, I know first-hand how important trails are for Alberta families,” said Minister of Forestry, Parks and Tourism Todd Loewen during the announcement. “That’s why I’m pleased to recognize the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association and the Alberta Snowmobile Association by designating them as official trail managers and supporting their ongoing work with sustainable funding. This will allow them to create additional recreation and tourism opportunities and larger projects over the coming years.”
The organizations each received $1 million in 2022-23 and will receive another million each over the next three years to help co-ordinate the building and maintaining of trails with local clubs.
But based on what was said at the press conference, Peter said he believes the needs of arguably one of the province’s worse-off OHV zones, are once again being ignored by the province just as they were during the launch of the Kananaskis Conservation Pass in 2021.
“When you look at McLean Creek, there are trails that run through huge wetlands – you can’t just bridge or make improvements to that area,” said Peter. “You can’t do anything that was said at the press conference about how they’re going to make the trails more environmentally responsible, other than to close that down and not allow vehicles in certain areas.”
Peter was one of many trail users who, at the time it was implemented, called upon the province to include McLean Creek under the annual $90 K-Country pass, with revenue supporting conservation efforts and infrastructure improvements within the mixed land-use region.
There are four PLUZs in K-Country, created with the intent to manage and balance environmental protection with responsible and sustainable land use, supporting recreation, forestry, agriculture, and oil and gas activities.
Travel in Sibbald and Cataract Creek PLUZs is restricted to snow vehicles and the Kananaskis Country PLUZ is restricted to all OHVs with the exception of two trails which allow snow vehicles in winter – Elbow Loop and Powderface.
McLean Creek is the only PLUZ in K-Country exempt from the pass fee and is also the only area which allows both snow vehicles and all other OHVs. All OHV users must pay a required $58 registration to use their vehicle, which also goes into general revenue for the province.
“To highlight the unfairness, if I own a Jeep and I drive it to Gooseberry area in West Bragg Creek, right across the road from McLean Creek, I have to pay for a $90 pass,” said Peter.
“But if I turn left and go into McLean Creek, I can go off-road through all sorts of areas that should be pristine wilderness and just tear it up for free, and not pay a single penny because that vehicle is registered on road and there is no OHV fee attached to it.”
While there are many trail users who respect the environment and work hard to protect it on a volunteer basis, Peter said the balance of recreation and environmental protection needs a much closer look in K-Country before conversations about building more trails throughout the province can begin.
“I think there is some intent in other areas of the province but as far as McLean Creek is concerned, there won’t be any improvement from what I’ve seen from this announcement,” he said.
In 2018, the province began a bioremediation project on a portion of Silvester Creek in the McLean Creek area to help conserve and protect an isolated population of westslope cutthroat trout – listed as a threatened species under both Alberta’s Wildlife Act and the federal Species at Risk Act.
Goals of the creek restoration project included the rehabilitation of flood-eroded stream banks and the creation of cover for various fish life stages, including the introduction of large woody debris.
As a result of the project, a trail near the creek was permanently closed and the Friends of Kananaskis Country, a volunteer-based organization responsible for much of the trail maintenance in the region, was asked to help reclaim the area.
“We went in and planted a bunch of trees – willows and shrubs,” said Friends of Kananaskis Country communications director Derek Ryder. “We must’ve planted about 1,000 in a day.
“We carried them in there and the creek underwent a whole restoration. But by the next week, practically all the trees and shrubs were torn out.”
While the Friends of Kananaskis Country do not usually take on OHV-related trail work and stay away from McLean Creek, the experience was still a lesson for the organization, said Ryder.
“The rules are very clear. OHVs have to stay on designated trails, but you will run into them anywhere out there,” he said. “Nobody in their right mind goes out there for a leisurely walk or a bike ride.
“It’s a really challenging thing to manage.”
Ryder is in support of the new OHV trail funding if it goes where it is needed and was encouraged to hear the news of the province naming official OHV and snowmobile trail managers.
Trail agreements with the organizations are being developed to ensure a shared understanding of funding objectives and environmental protections, which will also help guide the development of future agreements with other trail organizations in the province.
Just as the Friends of Kananaskis Country maintain various hiking trails throughout K-Country, OHV user groups should do the same for OHV trails, Ryder said, citing the Calgary Snowmobile Club’s trail management of Cataract Creek as an example.
“There’s models where this has been working and Cataract is one of them,” he said. “For this to be done more broadly through the province is a very positive thing in my world, because somebody needs to worry about these things.”
The Trails Act, enacted by the UCP government in 2021, sets up a framework for managing both motorized and non-motorized trails on public land. This involves implementing trail planning to identify appropriate trails for designation, ensuring that trail planning takes into account other land uses and values, designating trails as property of the Crown, and providing for the repair of any damage to trails caused by other land uses.
According to the Trails Act, the approval of new trails can only be granted via a planning process that involves the identification and designation of the trails, while accounting for social, economic, and environmental factors.
“This new framework and funding help increase both the capacity and support for our clubs working to improve the quality of trails, and mitigating impacts of recreation,” said Garrett Schmidt, president of the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association on Friday. “We are very pleased to be working in collaboration and partnership with our government to ensure sustainable recreation and having Alberta’s Provincial OHV trail system develop into the world-class recognition and destination.”
In a statement following the announcement, NDP environment and parks critic Marlin Schmidt said it was encouraging to see some funding for trails where the UCP previously underfunded the province’s trail system.
“However, families travelling to Kananaskis country this weekend still have to pay to access the area,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to fund trails across the province and then punish those using K-Country. It’s unfair and is another example of why Albertans can’t trust the UCP.
“The UCP must scrap the K-Country fee.”
Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook