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Alberta’s Government prioritizes conservation of Castle

“The first call to protect this land came in the late 1970s,” says Stephen Legault, Y2Y’s program director for Crown, Alberta and Northwest Territories.

“The first call to protect this land came in the late 1970s,” says Stephen Legault, Y2Y’s program director for Crown, Alberta and Northwest Territories.

This place? Alberta’s Castle. As its name suggests, it’s a powerhouse on an ecological scale. It’s one of the area’s most bountiful, productive — and fragile — landscapes. It also narrows the gap of largely unprotected lands between Waterton and the Central Canadian Rockies National Parks.

Serving as a water tower to southern Alberta, its headwaters provide a third of the water in the Oldman Watershed, supporting Lethbridge and other cities and towns. It also has profound cultural meaning to the Nakoda, K’tunaxa, Nitsitapii, Piikani, Siksika, Kainaiwa and Blackfeet First Nations, all of who have sacred ties to the land.

Rich in life, many rare and at-risk species call this area home, from the vulnerable whitebark pine to the enigmatic wolverine. It’s also key grizzly habitat.

After a period of consultation, on January 20, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Environment Minister Shannon Phillips made an announcement and released a draft management plan.

The boundaries of two parks, Castle Wildland Provincial Park and Castle Provincial Park, were set and a plan to phase out off-highway vehicles in the area was released. The announcement was welcomed by generations of Alberta ranchers, hunters, guides, hikers and nature lovers who worked for decades to support this designation.

Long considered a jewel of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, this 254,509-acre (103,000-hectare) area is an important section of the Yellowstone to Yukon landscape. Partners such as the Castle Crown Wilderness Coalition, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and others have worked tirelessly with Y2Y, local communities and scientists for decades to support this designation.

“The draft management plan is a model of science-based and socially-responsible planning and will make Alberta a world leader. Action to protect the spectacular country southwest of Pincher Creek from ongoing vandalism and over-exploitation was a long time coming,” says Kevin Van Tighem, author, local landowner and former Banff National Park superintendent.

Due to the sensitivity of this area, part of protecting it means the province will transition the use of certain types of recreation — such as OHVs, snowmobiles and quads — out of the new Castle Parks over the next three to five years. This decision comes at a key time to preserve this region.

“We would have preferred a faster phase-out,” says Legault. “We’re hopeful that through the management plan review the government will speed up the process to protect vulnerable westslope cutthroat trout and other wildlife.”

All this, plus international significance. The designation of these parks helps bring Canada one step closer to meeting the United Nations goal of protecting 17 per cent of landscape by 2020.

Y2Y congratulates Premier Notley and Minister Phillips as they set a standard for how decision-makers will proceed with other headwaters conservation issues.

We’re not done yet, though. We encourage you to support the province’s direction in the draft management plan for Alberta’s Castle Parks now through March 20.

This story originally appeared in our February 2017 Connections newsletter. Subscribe to get more news like this delivered right to your inbox.