AHEAD OF THE HEARD — An announcement by the Notley government establishing a new provincial park west of Pincher Creek has a familiar pattern. The government first announces that it is considering an initiative, then states it will be consulting with stakeholders, and after sham meetings, proclaims what it planned to do all along. This sort of cynical political process is not unique to the present government but it is more obvious being that its power base is so heavily dependent on Calgary and Edmonton voters. Therefore voters’ interests outside those centres are easily thrown under the bus. NDP political strategists in the Premier’s office know that the folks affected by this decision, mostly ranchers and off-highway vehicle (OHV) users, probably never voted NDP and probably never will. But urban-based green lobby groups and their city supporters will cheer this decision, and they are more likely to be NDP voters. It’s really that simple.
One has sympathy for the political naiveté of the groups involved in the consultation meetings to create the new park. The Crowsnest Pass Quad Squad, noted their honest intentions in coming to a compromise. They cited millions of dollars, both government and private, used to build OHV trails and bridges to protect the environment. What they should have realized is that green lobby groups like the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society are the soulmates of the NDP government. They have the government’s ear and NDP political connections that overwhelm the other stakeholders. Both groups are also advocates of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, an organization dedicated to turning the entire Rocky Mountains into a park. That group is mostly financed by mysterious American foundations. This new park is part of their plan.
But here’s the reality: I expect few members of these green lobby groups ride OHVs in the wilderness, nor do they graze cattle on public land. What they do is hiking, mountain biking, bird-watching, etc. To a city-based government those activities seem a lot more politically-correct when considering city voter attitudes. The fix was in from the start. The government tried to placate the OHV users by promising that other areas would be opened to them – only the truly innocent would believe that tall tale. Any such promise means years of delaying tactics with busybody studies and bureaucratic procrastination. For folks who favour OHV use in this park your only hope is time – until a new, more sympathetic government is in office.
It’s a bit different for ranchers who have grazing leases and forestry grazing permits within the new park boundaries – some of those leases are 100 years old. The government plan for the new park acknowledges that cattle grazing contributes positively to the habitat and ecology of the area – there is much science and evidence to back up that contribution. There is also the economic stake and dependency that many ranchers have in those grazing leases. Arbitrarily cancelling the grazing leases would be an economic hardship, if not financial ruin, to many ranching families in the area. Continuing cattle grazing in the park would be the common-sense approach, but make no mistake about it, the green lobby groups that influenced this government decision have no more love for grazing cattle than they have for off-highway vehicles. Those city folks want to see wildlife in the new park and not have to dodge cow pies on hiking trails.
It presents a conundrum for the government – getting rid of OHVs from the park can be done with the stroke of a pen. Getting rid of cattle and 100-year-old grazing leases is another matter – there are definite economic and even legal ramifications. Relocating the leases is difficult as all of the public grazing lands in the area have been leased out for years to other ranchers. That leaves only two options for getting rid of the cattle and the leases – compensation or coercion. Compensation could work but to satisfy those affected but it would take millions of taxpayer dollars. Coercion would be more devious – the government could place new onerous and costly rules on grazing within the park thereby forcing ranchers to give up their leases – I suspect the latter has the edge. The best outcome may be for ranchers to agree to a compensated extended phase-out of the leases within the park in the hope that, as with the OHV users, a more understanding government will be in place in a few years. I expect more such OHV-free and cattle-free parks are being planned.