It's something of an irony, then, that only slightly more than 52% of the land in Kananaskis Country is actually under the protection of Alberta Parks - the rest is crown land under the management of Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, allowing commercial logging, resource extraction, oil and natural gas development, and hunting - on the same trails, at the same time, as you hike them in the fall.
Local residents, businesspeople, and visitors have been clamouring for more protection for some of the higher-use areas of Kananaskis - particularly within the Elbow River watershed, as it provides nearly half of Calgary's drinking water supply.
In late June, they got some good news.
The Alberta Government has released a draft management plan for 51 of the Provincial Recreation Areas within Kananaskis calling for, among many other items, the creation of the Elbow Valley Provincial Park. While this new park wouldn't, in fact, offer protection to any more land than is already protected in the area (simply redesignating several PRA's to Provincial Park status), the change in designation would free up funding for, among other things, increased interpretive programming, visitor services, and enforcement.
Predictably, area activists say the plan doesn't go far enough to address their concerns. And I happen to agree with them - the amount of protected land in the Elbow Valley needs to be increased, drastically. That's not tree-hugger hippie talk, it's motivated self-interest: I'd prefer very much if there was as little industrial development as possible happening upstream of my water tap.
However, as a first step, this is a good proposal. It calls for increased access for several types of recreational activities, more trailheads, improvements to visitor services and the return of the famous Kananaskis Interpretive Programs, which have been sorely missed since they left the Elbow Valley in the early 90's.
Does it outlaw quadding in the McLean Creek area? No. Does it ban forestry, or resource extraction, or hunting on SRD-controlled lands? No.
But it's the thin end of the wedge. It's a start - an honest-to-goodness Provincial Park, with more boots on the ground making a difference in education and enforcement.
It very well may be that the environmentalists, myself included, have to get used to the idea that the whole area, including the forestry lands, won't be a fully-protected park until the resources have been exhausted. And that's not without precedent in that part of Kananaskis, either. Bragg Creek Provincial Park and Paddy's Flat Campground are both former sites of oil wells. Bragg Creek P.P. was also the site of a sawmill in the early 1900's, and one of the more popular areas in the Elbow Valley is the site of a long-abandoned coal mine.
It's not a perfect proposal. It's not the ideal solution. But it's a START - a step in the right direction. And if every journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, this is that single step. The Government of Alberta wants to give Calgary another Provincial Park to play in, and simultaneously educate us about the outdoors and protect our drinking water... anyone inclined to say no?
The release and full plans are available here. The government is taking feedback on the proposed plans until September 30th, and then will finalize details for what will hopefully become the Elbow Valley Provincial Park before Christmas.