An Alberta environmental group says a recent survey shows strong public support for creating a new provincial park in the Bighorn area west of Rocky Mountain House.
A poll done last month for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative found 83 per cent of Edmonton respondents back the idea, as do 68 per cent of people living near the area.
There’s already about 5,000 square kilometres of provincial public land in the Bighorn Backcountry along the eastern borders of Jasper and Banff national parks, but Yellowstone to Yukon wants to roughly double the district’s protected space.
“What we’re actually proposing to government is something significantly larger than what’s in the public land use zoning,” says Stephen Legault, a program director for the Canmore-based non-profit group.
Other organizations such as the Alberta Wilderness Association also support a Bighorn park.
The expanded region would give a major boost to Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips’ goal announced last winter to protect 17 per cent of Alberta’s natural landscape by 2020, Legault says.
Legault would like to see the park expand the current Bighorn boundaries east of Forestry Trunk Road 734, protecting the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River as well as important habitat for grizzly bears, cougars, bighorn sheep and other animals.
It could cover 10,000 to 11,000 square kilometres, although the exact size would need to be negotiated, he says.
“There are more than one million people downstream from this landscape that depend on it for clear, clean water,” he says.
“(As well), we feel new protected areas will provide a form of economic stimulus that’s not simply here today, gone tomorrow … It’s something investors can bank on.”
The group’s telephone poll questioned 400 Edmonton residents and 200 people living west of the city, with both groups identifying wildlife protection, environmental conservation and increased tourism as the top potential park benefits.
But Edmonton respondents also worried the move could hurt wildlife and the environment, while the top concern listed by rural people was that there could be too much mechanized activity.
The urban results are considered accurate within 4.8 percentage points and the rural results accurate within eight percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The backcountry has been managed reasonably well for the past three decades, but pressures are increasing, including forestry in the area and coal leases that could be developed, Legault says.
“Our concern is if coal mining was to proceed in this region, in particular on the tributaries of the North Saskatchewan River, that would pose a direct threat to Edmonton’s water.”
Phillips says she has read the survey and thinks the park proposal is a good idea, but wants to get more feedback.
“It’s an important place for drinking water quality and recreation opportunities and wildlife conservation and habitat conservation,” she said from a climate change conference in Marrakech, Morocco.
“We will have a look at how we can (consult) on our conservation objectives more broadly across the province … We will talk to communities and other stakeholders.”
There are similar issues with the Castle wilderness region in southwestern Alberta, a source of river headwaters made into a park in 2015, she says.
“Headwater protection and drinking water and water quality are really important for us.”
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