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Bighorn Country – a Bizarre Fall and Winter

March 1, 2019

By Vivian Pharis, AWA Emeritus Board Member

Bizarrely this past fall, the possibility of Bighorn Country was sprung upon us. It appeared as a complex plan covering a massive land area. After 50 years of working to see this grand and wondrous idea realized, at least for the approximately 4,000 square kilometres of alpine and subalpine that AWA calls the Bighorn Wildland, I should have felt relief and joy. I didn’t.

Selfishly, I first thought of the loss that human “discovery” would bring to my favourite Eastern Slopes wilds where for decades, I had roamed freely by foot and horseback. But, I was also struck by the sheer size of the area slated to be parks and public land use zones – not least the huge chunk of highly industrialized and recreationally ransacked foothills lands to the east of the Trunk Road. I think, lumping the industry-free, pristine alpine/subalpine headwaters area with the much larger very compromised eastern lands would, if implemented, become a management nightmare. The origins and the intended uses of the two regions are just too different to live together well in one plan. Trying to control the madness of the West Country would be controversial, and could possibly sink the whole, grand plan.

Still, the carrot of possibility is hard to resist and AWA did its best this winter to arouse public support for the government’s plan. From January until the consultation window closed, I had the opportunity to phone about 300 Edmonton area AWA members to encourage their support for Bighorn Country. Most people were away, so I left a detailed message and went on to the next name on my list. I spoke to about 125 of the 300 people on my list. Of those I talked to, about 50 to 60 were well informed and some had completed the daunting government survey. Roughly another 50 knew something of the plan and area – their drinking water source or opposition to the government’s proposal from motorized recreationists. Most of these people were thankful for being called and helped to participate. I was startled that about 10 of the 300 knew nothing of the area or the plan and that a few had no interest in the proposal, even though the Bighorn is headwaters for their water. Of Edmonton AWA members, probably half held passionate views in favour of protection for the headwaters area and management controls for the larger area, and another quarter had enough concerns to write to government.

I participated in the first phone survey conducted by Minister Shannon Phillips and estimate that 90 percent of callers that night were in favor of establishing Bighorn Country. On Februrary 8th Christyann Olson and I were invited to one of the plan’s last “in house” meetings in Red Deer. About 10 civil servants who would implement the plan were there, three facilitators and about 40 members of the public. It was an eclectic crowd. It included a few conservationists, a contingent of Drayton Valley industry spokespersons, several trappers, and others from the area interested in recreational tourism. Despite good facilitation, the participants from Drayton Valley tried to dominate the session. But, once others began to speak the climate improved for the possibilities of Bighorn Country and what sort of management could proceed. Surprisingly, after 3 hours, the most outspoken Drayton Valley representative stood and said: “Drayton Valley still wants out of this plan, but of the meetings I’ve attended, this is the first time I’ve heard the other side of things. Some people have reasonable things to say.”

I hoped then that we could find a compromise that will deliver the wildland protections AWA has so long advocated for in Bighorn Country.

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