Recently the Government of Alberta announced its intention amend the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) to protect the Castle as a Wildland and Provincial Park. This is an integral step to preserve clean water for downstream communities, safeguard our province’s biodiversity, provide habitat to important wildlife such as grizzly bear and cutthroat trout and provide places for Albertans to connect to nature. But the work is not done yet!
The government public consultation period ended October 5th on the designation of the Castle and its management plan. We will keep you posted.
The Castle is a special place because:
• It is a water tower for much of Southern Alberta, providing one third of all water in the Oldman Watershed.
• It has profound cultural and sacred value to the Nitsitapii, Piikani (Peigan), Siksika, Kainaiwa (Blood), and Blackfeet First Nations, as well as the Nakoda (Stoney) and K'tunaxa First Nations.
• It is second only to Waterton National Park for species richness (number of species) in the province. It is home to over 120 provincially rare plant species and 59 species of mammals.
• It encompasses Alberta's second largest montane landscape.
• It is crucial to the state and health of the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem and the greater Rocky Mountain ecosystems.
• It is a critical connection for grizzly bears, and other wide ranging mammals, from Waterton-Glacier National Peace Park to other protected areas in Canada.
• It holds great recreational opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, backcountry camping, and wilderness discovery.
The Caste Special Place is part of the headwaters of Southern Alberta. The Castle supports a full suite of aquatic ecosystems in Southern Alberta including rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands and groundwater systems. In water scarce Southern Alberta, the Castle headwaters are vital to providing water to multiple users. Intact forests in the Castle supply water to agricultural, municipal, industrial, and recreational users, help maintain healthy crops and crop yields, support wildlife habitat, and regulate natural processes such as flood control, soil erosion and sedimentation. Protection of these headwaters is integral to protecting the quality of life for Albertans.
The Castle provides critical wildlife corridors that allow the movement of large animals and keep wildlife populations connected to each other. It acts as a critical link for wildlife moving between the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, British Columbia's Flathead Valley and Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. The area contains core grizzly bear habitat, precious and rare pure strains of cutthroat trout, and is home to other endangered species such as limber and whitebark pine. As part of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, the region is internationally recognized as an area of critical importance for ensuring human and wildlife communities successfully adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Although the Castle was designated by the Government of Alberta as a Special Place in 1998, the area was not legislated as a protected area under Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation. The attempt to manage this landscape for all uses including forest and water conservation, clear-cut logging, oil and gas exploration, roads, unregulated motorized recreation and random camping failed to address the continued environmental degradation evident in the Castle.
The final land-use plan for southern Alberta, the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, released in July 2014, protected parts of the Castle as a new Wildland Park. While this was a step forward, approximately half of the area was left unprotected and most of the protected area lay in the highest elevations above tree line. The recent announcement of the government’s intention to amend the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP) to protect the Castle as a Wildland and Provincial Park was an integral step to preserve clean water for downstream communities, safeguard our province’s biodiversity and provide habitat to important wildlife such as grizzly bear and cutthroat trout.
Clear-cut logging and associated access roads impact water quality and seasonal flows, wildlife habitat and the scenic and recreational value of the area. Due to actions by CPAWS, our partners and the public, the logging plan was put on hold in 2012 and the new protected area will preclude all future logging in the area!
While providing places to experience Alberta’s amazing wilderness and connect people to nature is very important that the management plan prioritized conservation. Any recreation trails (motorized and non-motorized) and facilities within the wildland and provincial parks should be developed only where ecologically appropriate. This ensures that the things people are there to experience will be preserved now and in the future.
The information provided on the Alberta Parks website on Enhancing the Protection of the Castle area indicates that off-highway vehicle (OHV) use will be permitted in the provincial park. There are no other provincial parks in Alberta where OHV use is permitted and the Alberta Parks website states that “Operating OHVs is not permitted in provincial parks. OHV use is permitted on designated trails in a limited number of provincial recreation areas and wildland provincial parks.”
Amendment of the SSRP and the legal designation of the Castle as a wildland and provincial park must also explicitly include bans on logging and mineral extraction to ensure these land-uses cannot be reintroduced in the future.
While much of the Castle remains as wilderness, there are many areas that have been damaged by the cumulative effects of intensive land uses such as oil and gas, forestry, grazing and off-highway vehicle use. Studies of linear densities in the Castle indicate that in many areas linear disturbances are far above thresholds for species at risk in Alberta such as grizzy bear, cutthroat trout and bull trout. Many trails and other linear features will have to be reclaimed in order to protect our waterways and species at risk. It is important that management includes plans for restoration of damaged areas.
The work of CPAWS SAB along with communities and environmental groups was integral to obtaining legislated protection for the Castle. Much of that work was based on the hard work of the Castle Special Place Working Group whose work was to create and submit a conceptual proposal for protection of the Castle. This work was completed in 2010 and forms the foundation of our recommendations to the Government of Alberta.
CPAWS Southern Alberta chapter is highly involved in the public and stakeholder consultation for the designation of the Castle as a wildland and provincial park and for the management plan. Links to our full comments are in the Resources section below.
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