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An important piece of Alberta’s Eastern Slopes, the Bighorn Wildland is a large and intact wilderness that retains its ecological integrity largely due to the absence of roads and industrialized access.

The AWA is seeking legislated protection of the Bighorn as a Wildland Provincial Park as was promised by the provincial government in 1986.

    • Introduction
    • Concerns
    • History
    • Trail Monitoring
    • Archive
    • Other Areas

    Bighorn_map_150px        2002_highway11_bighorn_sbray_460x150px

    The Bighorn Wildlands are home to a rich tapestry of life. Elk, bighorn sheep and grizzly bears roam freely; harlequin ducks float down pristine streams which contain bull trout. The Bighorn encompasses much of the headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River. Rivers and streams flowing out of the Bighorn provide up to 90% of the water supply for the city of Edmonton. The area fits neatly, like a missing jigsaw puzzle piece, into a gap of protected National Parks lands, just where Banff and Jasper abut.

    In fact, much of the Bighorn Wildland was once included in the national parks nearly a hundred years ago. This protection was withdrawn during the First World War. It was again promised for protection by the provincial government in 1986 – a designation that never came to pass. The Bighorn has remained largely unscathed due to the 1977 Eastern Slopes Policy which designated most of the Bighorn as either Prime Protection or Critical Wildlife Zones; making the Bighorn off-limits to industry and Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) use. This protection was partially revoked in the 2002 Bighorn Backcountry Access Management Plan (AMP), which permitted OHV use. The AWA is seeking legislated protection for the Bighorn as a Wildland Park as was promised by the Alberta government in 1986.

    The protected Bighorn Recreation Area as proposed by the Government of Alberta in 1986.

    The protected Bighorn Recreation Area as proposed by the Government of Alberta in 1986.


    The Bighorn Wildland has been divided into six Public Land Use Zones (PLUZ). Each PLUZ has its own set of restrictions and permissible activities.

    2001 Bighorn

    Credit R. Pharis


    With the designation of the Bighorn Backcountry in late 2002 the Government created 6 Forest Land Use Zones (FLUZs), now Public Land Use Zones (PLUZs) in the Bighorn region. A Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ) is an area of public land to which legislative controls apply under authority of the Public Land Administration Regulation (187-2011) to assist in the management of industrial, commercial, and recreational land uses and resources. In many cases, these have overridden the Eastern Slopes Policy by legalizing motorized access in the Prime Protection Zone. Although PLUZs offer a higher degree of protective management, they serve to fragment the landscape further.

    The 6 PLUZs

    • Blackstone/Wapiabi: Provides a year-round network of trails for non-motorized and equestrian users. No motorized recreation access allowed.
    • Job/Cline: Provides motorized, non-motorized and equestrian users with designated trails and areas by type of use and seasonal access.
    • Kiska/Wilson: Provides a large network of trails for motorized, non-motorized and equestrian users. Most trails are year-round access though a few trails have seasonal restrictions.
    • Upper Clearwater/Ram: Provides year-round access for non-motorized users and seasonal access for motorized users.
    • Panther Corners: Provides a year-round network of trails for non-motorized and equestrian users. No motorized recreational access allowed.
    • Dormer-Sheep: Provides year-round access for motorized, non-motorized and equestrian users.


    Historically, the area was managed under the Eastern Slopes Policy and the  Integrated Resource Plan (IRP):


    • The Bighorn Wildland is zoned as Prime Protection and Critical Wildlife zones under the IRP
    • There are extensive Multiple Use Zones adjacent to the Wildland.

    IRP map:  JPG | PDF

    Prime Protection Zone

    • “to preserve environmentally sensitive terrain and valuable aesthetic resources”.
    • Industrial development and OHV use are prohibited

    Critical Wildlife Zone

    • “to protect wildlife populations by protecting habitat that is essential to those populations”.
    • Industrial development and OHV use are permitted.

    Multiple Use Zone

    • “to provide for the management and development of the full range of available resources, while meeting long term objectives for watershed management and environmental protection”.
    • Industrial development and OHV use are permitted.



    The 8,000 km² Bighorn Backcountry consists of:
    ► A 5,000 km² pristine wilderness area which would ideally be protected as a Wildland Provincial Park.

    1. No mineral leases other than existing ones which would be phased out in time (minimal change from existing status).
    2. No coal development, of which there is currently none.
    3. No commercial forestry (some management for fire and other threats)
    4. No cattle grazing allotments, of which there are none now.
    5. No provision for commercial tourism developments.
    6. No motorized recreation within Prime Protection and Critical Wildlife Zones, as well as federally protected critical habitat for species at risk

    ► An additional 3,000 km², mostly marked as Multiple Use Zone under the Eastern Slopes policy, would serve as a transition zone (P.R.A) to the protected area.

    1. Critical Wildlife Zones must have a proper assessment conducted to identify areas requiring conservation.
    2. Industrial activities must be conducted with the highest standard.
    3. The transition zone offers scope for motorized recreation on designated and enforced trail systems provided it recognizes and protects key conservation values.

    What is a Wildland Park?

    • “Wildland Parks are large, undeveloped areas where visitors can experience the beauty of unspoiled wilderness and the challenge of self-reliance.”
    • Traditional activities including hiking, horseback riding, backcountry camping, hunting and fishing are permitted in Wildland Parks.
    • “Wildland Park” is an appropriate designation for the Bighorn Wildland due to its large, relatively pristine and unfragmented nature.



    AWA is grateful for the support we receive from TRAFx Research Ltd. for our on-the-ground monitoring work in the Bighorn.

    TRAFx logo

    Since 2003 AWA has successfully used TRAFx vehicle counters to monitor motorized vehicle traffic levels in our study areas. Learn more about the TRAFx Vehicle and Off-Highway Vehicle Counters at

    Threats to the Bighorn Wildland

    The Bighorn is one of the only intact, roadless areas remaining in Alberta. Industrial development and road construction would devastate the natural values of the area. Access has become an issue of paramount concern. New roads and trails built for industry open up the backcountry and facilitate access by all users. Motorized off highway vehicles (OHVs) in particular, have negative impacts on the environment. OHVs cause damage to habitat and watersheds, disturb wildlife, and disrupt activities of low-impact backcountry recreationists. Management is critical, however the lack of enforcement in the Wildland due to government cutbacks compromises the integrity, wildlife, habitat, watersheds, and recreational opportunity that the Bighorn Wildland supports.

    OHVs and Snowmobiles

    In 2003 AWA began what was envisaged to be 4-year recreation monitoring study, but which still continues to this day. AWA’s concerns and recommendations follow from this work:

    1. Restrict motorized recreation in the Prime Protection and Critical Wildlife Zones, consistent with the intent of the original Eastern Slopes Policy. Additionally, there must be no motorized recreation in federally protected Critical Habitat for species at risk.
    2. Establish permanent enforcement presence and action in backcountry areas.
    3. Only permit motorized use on hard-packed, engineered trails that can support this use, and in non-sensitive watershed areas.
    4. Ensure all non-designated trails are physically blocked and signed at the junction.
    5. Ensure that stewardship programs to repair damaged trail sections are conducted by professional engineering and construction personnel with expertise in hydrology.
    6. Address water quality and fisheries objectives by building structures at every water crossing along designated trails
    7. Increase management responsiveness to changing trail conditions

    Other Recreation

    • Large tourism development threatens to compromise the wilderness character of the area.
    • Heli-tourism activity over sensitive wilderness is incompatible with wilderness values. Noise negatively impacts wildlife and backcountry recreational experience.

    Insufficient Management

    • Cutbacks to conservation officers and resources
    • Public Land Use Zones fail to provide a holistic approach to managing the complete set of wilderness values of the Bighorn
    • Inadequate educational signage in the area in terms of clarity of message, number, size and positioning
    • Inconsistent use of terminology

    Summer 2015

    20150815_bh_canary_creek_trail In 2014, sections of the trail along Canary Creek were rebuilt under the Backcountry Trails Flood Rehabilitation Program (BTFRP). These sections were built to a high engineering standard yet less than ten months later, these new sections were already suffering significant erosion and soil slumping.



    July 2014

    AWA prepares a submission on priorities for the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan, which included:
    – AWA’s proposal to have the Bighorn protected as a Wildland Provincial Park
    – A request to expand the Ecological Reserve within the Parkland Dunes,
    – Request to have the Bodo Hills protected
    – Concerns for secure, clean and abundant water from the North Saskatchewan River must be addressed

    January 2014

    Various motorized trails in the Bighorn are closed and some re-routed due to flooding and trail erosion, including Job/ Cline, Upper Clearwater and Kiska Wilson.

    September 2013

    AWA Bighorn Trail maintenance trip finds severe damage from the June flooding. Some portions of the trail are almost completely inaccessible and will need major work.

    August 2013

    AWA trail monitoring trip finds more severe trail damage on the Canary Creek trails: “The cumulative effects of the floods, the erosion, and trails reconstruction have devastated the Canary Creek valley.” Much of the damage is from misguided and poorly-planned attempts to cut major new trails, which have been cut through the vegetation and riparian areas with little regard for anything other than short-term motorized access.

    January 2013

    Members of the stakeholder Bighorn Committee write to the Alberta government to call for more enforcement on trails in the Bighorn.

    July 2012

    July 3: ESRD closes all trails in the Hummingbird FRA circuit – except the Onion Lake road – to motorized traffic until further notice, due to extreme trail erosion. AWA trip corroborates this erosion and accompanying damage to vegetation, streams and soil structure. This confirms what AWA has been saying for several years: that these wildland valleys cannot sustain this type of development and activity.

    July 14: AWA annual maintenance trip on the Historic Bighorn Trail.

    July 27: AWA releases 2012 update to the Bighorn Wildland Recreation Monitoring Project, highlighting observations and measurements taken during the 2012 monitoring trips. This update reiterates the position that the trail network near the Hummingbird FRA is unsustainable, that OHV traffic is nevertheless increasing, and that ESRD should take action to close the trails permanently.

    July 30: AWA meets with ESRD to discuss the report and other issues of concern to AWA regarding the Bighorn, including the Sundre Forest Products FMA, wildlife – including Grizzly – protection, and AWA’s long-term vision for management of the Bighorn, as well as the recently-released ESRD 5-year report.

    June 2012

    Three years after it was originally due, ESRD releases the Bighorn Access Management Plan “5 year” Implementation Review. The report provided to AWA is based on a review of current and past members of the steering and standing committee and states that members of the committee “garnered input from the larger groups they represent as users of the Bighorn area”. Regrettably AWA and its 40 years of efforts at maintaining trails as well as our trail and access management monitoring work for the past eight years, including our reports to the ESRD department, did not qualify to comment as part of the review.

    May 2012

    AWA trail monitoring trip to Hummingbird FRA reveals disappointing ongoing illegal OHV use during trail closure periods. AWA is however encouraged to note new signage erected by SRD at all trailheads clearly indicating closure dates.

    August 2011

    AWA staff spend four days backpacking in the Bighorn Wildland, within the Clearwater Ram FLUZ trail system. Staff observe extensive trail damage inflicted by unregulated OHV use. In response AWA writes to AB SRD to ask that government respond to unacceptable trail degradation, and close the most damaged trails to allow for recovery.
    AWA is disappointed by the response of AB SRD, and of the Premier. AWA’s request for trail closure is denied, and any commitment to better manage and regulate trail use within the Bighorn is yet to be seen.

    July 2010

    During the annual summer maintenance trip to the Historic Bighorn Trail, an outfitter’s report directs the group north to the Chungo Creek section. It takes several days of concentrated work to cut out at least 80 trees across the trail and to nip out as many new trees threatening to choke the trail as possible. In 2010 approximately half the entire trail is surveyed for problems and worked on.


    AWA completes the Bighorn Wildland recreational trail monitoring project begun in 2003 and produces a final report, Is the Access Management Plan Working? Monitoring Recreational Use in the Bighorn Backcountry. The report details increased illegal use of trails with seven major findings and makes a strong case for the removal of motorized trails from the Prime Protection Zone. AWA meets with Alberta SRD Minister Ted Morton to present the findings of the report and discuss protection of Bighorn Wildland.

    June 2008

    AWA begins a water quality study of the Panther River to measure the impacts of Alberta Tourism Recreation Lease developments on the river. Testing will continue through the summer and into the fall.

    AWA joins Weyerhaeuser for a flyover of their Forest Management Area in the vicinity of the Bighorn. Discussion surrounds forestry practices that mimic natural disturbances such as wildfire.

    AWA begins its summer field work in the Bighorn. This year will mark the fifth and final year of primary data collection for the Bighorn Wildland Recreational Trail Monitoring Project. Over the course of the summer, data will be downloaded from the eight traffic counters placed along a trail system for motorized and non-motorized recreation. As well, AWA will begin the long-term monitoring of identified damage “hot spots” to understand the long-term sustainability of the trails.

    AWA presents its work on the Bighorn Trail Monitoring Project to the Ghost Stewardship Monitoring Group.

    May 2008

    AWA meets with Sustainable Resource Development in Nordegg, AB for the purpose of updating each other on work being carried out in the Bighorn. The trip includes a visit to various sites within the Bighorn where SRD has been doing work such as posting signs and building camping areas.

    April 2008

    AWA meets with Sustainable Resource Development and Parks Canada to discuss the prescribed burn at Whirlpool Point. AWA expresses concerns regarding the necessity of the burn and how it will affect rare species in the burn zone.

    March 2008

    AWA releases its report titled Recreational User Perceptions of the Bighorn: Land Management Values and Concerns, Present and Future. Based on the recreational user survey AWA conducted during the summer of 2007, the report finds that both individuals and organizations listed wilderness values as their top priorities for the area. Based on the research, AWA made several recommendations within the report including the establishment of a Wildland Provincial Park and the immediate removal of motorized recreation within the areas identified as Prime Protection and Critical Wildlife Habitat by the Eastern Slopes Policy.

    November 2007

    After local residents contact AWA with concerns over construction along the Panther River, AWA visits the area in the south of the Bighorn. We find an unprecedented level of development on four Alberta Tourism Recreation Leases (ATRLs) that run along the river. Leaseholders seem to have free rein to build any number of permanent structures with concrete foundations and adjacent amenities. They also now offer year-round services such as lodging, RV parking, and horse boarding, all on public land and regardless of season. AWA documents development and notifies government of our concerns.

    September 2007

    AWA staff continues work on Bighorn Trail Monitoring Project with two trips out the Clearwater-Ram Forest Land Use Zone to download the summer’s traffic data and change batteries. While out near the Hummingbird Forest Recreation Area, AWA continues to see perennial abuse issues on trail system. The results show that the trend in increasing use of the system continues. As well, illegal activity is on the rise especially on the non-designated trails that had previously seen a decline in use until this past summer.

    The data collection for the Bighorn Recreation User Survey finishes up. In total AWA spent 11 days out actively surveying over the summer. 158 individuals and 22 organizations completed the survey. Results will be compiled and reported on early in the new year. Preliminary analysis suggests that users see pristine wilderness as the number one priority for the Bighorn and are looking for better management to preserve its natural character and limit OHV use.

    July 2007

    SRD calls to inform AWA that for the first time in more than 20 years, individuals on quads have violated the FLUZ zone in the Blackstone Wapiabi, entering into an area where meadows have finally recovered from prior years of abuse and damage by quadders. SRD increases patrols in the area. A local outfitter reported the offence.

    June 2007

    AWA receives a letter from Kevin Gagne, SRD’s Senior Area Forester, regarding the R11 Forest Management Unit (FMU), under which the Bighorn Backcountry is currently managed. Mr. Gagne states that in the time since the September 2005 planning meeting, SRD has been “doing analysis, fine tuning the recommendations, and drafting the plan.” Attached to the letter for review is the draft of the Preliminary R11 Forest Management Plan. The plan states that “decades of fire suppressions to protect human development and values … has allowed fuel indices and mountain pine beetle risk to reach extreme levels, making the R11 FMU area very susceptible to sudden, dramatic, and massive stand-level changes.” The plan focuses on restoring age classes and fire cycles to the area that fall within the natural ranges so as to create a forest condition that

    • reduces the threat of large-scale fires and mountain pine beetle,
    • provides suitable habitat for bear and elk populations,
    • maintains visual qualities of the landscape,
    • diversifies stand age and tree species to provide habitat to a wider range of organisms,
    • maintains the health of the watershed for the aquatic ecosystem and downstream users, and
    • provides sufficient habitat to maintain or improve conditions for specified endangered flora and fauna.

    AWA responds to the Preliminary R11 Forest Management Plan with a formal letter to SRD’s Kevin Gagne, copied to Bruce Cartwright, Area Manager, SRD. AWA explains that although the fire plan has taken a more ecological approach than most sub plans for areas on the Eastern Slopes, it has one major deficiency that AWA sees as hindering overall management for the Bighorn. A lot of time and resources have gone into this plan, but it has been developed in the absence of an overall management plan. Management plans were supposed to be a logical outcome of the broader Integrated Resource Planning carried out along the Eastern Slopes in the 1980s, following basic directives laid out by the 1977 Eastern Slopes Policy. Without overall management planning, a number of sub plans, like Access Management and Fire Management are being developed. They are often taking planning in directions – or establishing priorities – that were not intended by the Eastern Slopes Policy or the Integrated Resource Planning.
    AWA feels strongly that large watersheds along the Eastern Slopes require overall master planning before sub plans are created in order to consistently interpret the Eastern Slopes Policy, to maintain its established priorities, and to establish planning directions in line with the policy.
    AWA outlined a number of other problem areas it sees with the Preliminary R11 Forest Management Plan, such as calling for commercial logging in two portions of the Bighorn Wildland (Backcountry). This logging is apparently to eliminate forest seen as having dangerous potential to be invaded by the mountain pine beetle, or that is posing a fire danger to nearby commercial timber or to the more distant town of Nordegg. AWA has again questioned the scientific reasoning behind cutting forests to save them. We are also concerned that there are no provisions for maintaining old-growth forests.

    Two AWA Board members and two staff travel to Rocky Mountain House to present the findings of the 2004-2006 Trail Monitoring Project to SRD’s Bruce Cartwright and his staff and to discuss five areas within the Bighorn that AWA believe need significant management and/or restoration work:

    • Panther Ya Ha Tinda – trail degradation
    • Scalp Creek – snowmobile frolic area
    • Job Pass – trail erosion
    • Headwaters cabin – site rehabilitation
    • Blackstone Gap – increasing use and potential for abuse

    AWA begins conducting a recreational user survey in the Bighorn Wildland. The purpose of the survey is to gather usage statistics as well as to understand the values and concerns of recreational users within the area. AWA will continue to conduct the survey throughout the summer, asking individual and user groups to participate.

    May 2007

    AWA receives a letter from SRD Minister Ted Morton acknowledging the “significant time and effort that went into preparing the Bighorn Wildland Recreational Trail Monitoring Project Report.” Morton thanks AWA for the information they continue to provide SRD regarding the Bighorn and encourages further work alongside recreational user groups and SRD staff. As well, Morton states that this summer, fines will be increasing for offences within the Forest Land Use Zones and Forest Recreation Areas, and on Forest Recreation Trails, while SRD staff will be working to educate users about responsible use and will be responding to non-compliance issues.

    April 2007

    Westworld magazine publishes a short article about the Bighorn Wildland and its uncertain future. Citing the 1986 naming of the Bighorn Wildland Recreational Area by the Alberta government and the government’s subsequent standstill on further protection, the article discusses the opening up of the area to off-road vehicles and snowmobiles. As well, it states that local residents fear the government may soon allow the petroleum and forestry industries into the area. AWA is mentioned as one of the groups seeking official protection for the area.

    March 2007

    AWA releases its final report on the Bighorn Wildland Recreational Trail Monitoring Project. The purpose of the project was to assess the efficacy of management in the area with respect to the objectives of Forest Land Use Zone (FLUZ) planning. After two years of monitoring the 76-km trail system of motorized and non-motorized trails in the Upper Clearwater-Ram FLUZ, the report highlights three main findings:

    • The willingness of backcountry users to abide by FLUZ regulations is decreasing. Neither regulated use nor voluntary compliance is reducing the amount of illegal use.
    • Current levels of recreational activity are causing severe environmental degradation.
    • There is a trend of increasing use of the trails. With the increase of use comes the likelihood of an increase in degradation.

    These three lines of evidence strongly suggest that current management in the Bighorn Backcountry will not protect the environment from degradation caused by recreational impacts.
    Shell Canada defers further coalbed methane (CBM) exploration in the Ram area after drilling one exploratory well. According to Shell, this is the first CBM exploratory well Shell has drilled in Alberta. In a letter to AWA, Shell states that they are deferring their CBM exploration of the Ram area to focus on other exploratory opportunities.

    September 2006

    AWA releases its 2006 Trail Report for the Bighorn Historic Trail. Since 1994, AWA has been helping to maintain and report on the trail through the Alberta government’s Adopt-A-Trail program. The Trail Report details maintenance activities carried out by the trail crew and reports on the condition of the trail, including impacts such as erosion and deadfall. It also includes details of findings about the camps along the trail.

    Alberta SRD Land & Range Manager for the Clearwater area, Robert Popowich, commends AWA for its continued work on the Bighorn Trail. In a letter to AWA, Popowich calls the organization’s efforts “invaluable to the stewardship of the Bighorn Backcountry.”

    July 2006

    AWA sends out four volunteers and nine horses for its annual maintenance trip on the Bighorn Historic Trail. After flooding in July and September of 2005 halted last year’s efforts, volunteers expected to find considerable trail erosion and deadfall this year. Fortunately, this was not the case. The trail crew removed 50 trees that had fallen across the trail between Bighorn River and Vimy Creek. Repairs were made to the Wapiabi-George Creek Pass. The trail crew made note of the erosion along the main access trail between Wapiabi and the top of the Bighorn Range. As well they found signs of increasing human impact at the camps along the trail such as the installation of plastic tarp toilets and showers, larger fire rings and the clearing of trees.

    AWA staff conservationists continue trail monitoring activities in the Upper Clearwater/Ram FLUZ throughout the summer field season with six official trips. Discouraging results of significant damage is found in areas where erosion problems have been exacerbated by off road vehicle activity. Signage and efforts by SRD to close off some areas are noted. In general, trail conditions suggest activity can not be sustained.

    January and February 2006

    AWA meets twice with SRD in Rocky Mountain House about bighorn monitoring, sharing findings from past field season and making recommendations about signage and damage on specific sites.

    December 2005

    AWA completes the 2005 interim report for its third season of field work on its Bighorn Wildland Recreation Monitoring Project. The interim report highlights the question of the sustainability of these recreation activities with respect to maintaining ecological integrity in the area. Key findings include:

    • Illegal ATV activity persists in the study area. (Hummingbird Recreation Area) Data from the traffic counters show that illegal activity is occurring anywhere from 4.8% to 31% of days monitored, depending on the trail section observed.
    • The field work in 2005 involves surveying 58 km more of trails in 5 different trail sections and reveals that more than 13 kms (>22%) of trails have some level of damage to them.
    • 79% of the damage, resulting from ATV and equestrian use, is in the moderate/severe to severe categories.
    • The trail sections frequently cross creeks, streams, and rivers, but there are less than 8% (4 of 54) of these crossings that have any type of crossing structure in place.
    • Frequently used random campsites have extensive structural and vegetation damage.

    November 2005

    The Alberta Equestrian Federation (AEF) invites the AWA to a meeting to discuss our various perspectives on land and recreation use and how the two organizations can work together. Three representatives from AWA and AEF meet in Red Deer.

    • AEF has a sizable public representation with their membership at approximately 12,000.
    • Both parties agree that equestrian activity has a significant economic impact and that this should be emphasized in any advocacy or education efforts. This is supported by a recent (Nov.2005) Edmonton Sun article which states that approximately $200 million is spent annually on recreation with about $73 million of that coming from the equestrian community.
    • Public land access and use is discussed with both parties agreeing that one problem with land access decision in Alberta is that they tend to be heavily influenced by local populations; yet, these lands are public and decisions should be made with broader influence from the general Alberta public.
    • These public land access and use decisions appear to be more politically influenced rather than approaching these decisions from a landscape-scale management perspective.
    • On the subject of multiple recreation use, an AEF representative feel that as far as mixed use with horses and OHVs, the concept is not workable.
    • With respect to damage to recreation trails from equestrian activity, AEF suggests that some trail closures might be necessary to repaid damage from overuse.
    • The damages in the South Ram River/Ranger Creek are discussed with AEF coming up with an idea to use this area to experiment with a reclamation and repair project, including possibly re-creating the historic trail.
    • Vivian Pharis, an avid equestrian user, expresses great concerns with the damage she has observed at the Headwaters Historical Patrol Cabin near the headwaters of the South Ram River. She proposes the idea of a Headwaters Cabin Restoration Project.

    October 2005

    Parks Canada releases Ya Ha Tinda Ranch Fuel Break – Prescribed Fire –Elk Conditioning – Elk Proof Fencing Environmental Assessment, a report on its environmental assessment on potential management actions to be taken on its Ya Ha Tinda Ranch.

    • Parks Canada is particularly concerned with challenges associated with maintaining the rare mountain fescue grasslands, and the migratory patterns of elk.
    • In 1970, more than 90% of elk migrated off the ranch in spring: by 2002, only 65% migrate. This is having a damaging effect on the grasslands and reduced prey for carnivores.
    • Sustaining the rare mountain fescue grasslands, both as feed for the Parks Canada horse herd (numbering ~ 30 in summer, ~ 170 in winter) and for their ecological value.
    • Providing winter range for migratory elk that enter Banff National Park in summer, and in turn providing a regional prey source for grizzly and black bears, wolves, and cougars.
    • Providing a regional population “source” for wolves that may disperse to a population “sink” along the Trans Canada Highway and Canadian Pacific Railway in Banff National Park.
    • Maintaining or restoring a herd of woodland caribou in the upper reaches of the Red Deer, Clearwater, Bow and Pipestone watersheds in Banff National Park. This herd has declined from ~30 to ~5 individuals in the last 15 years, likely due to predation from wolves using elk wintering on the greater Ya Ha Tinda landscape.

    Parks Canada concludes the following course of action to be performed over the next 5 years:

    • Build fuel breaks west and north of the ranch buildings to reduce wildfire risk to infrastructure, and provide containment lines for prescribed burns.
    • Conduct the Hat Mountain Prescribed Burn east of Scalp Creek on the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch and adjacent Region 11 Alberta public lands.
    • Conduct aversive conditioning of elk by horseback to move elk off of the main pasture grasslands into adjacent forests, fuel breaks, and burned areas. This may increase elk migration; and
      If the above steps are not effective, possibly replace the existing main pasture fence with an elk proof fence, and seasonally close gates to reduce elk use of the area.

    AWA makes a submission:

    • AWA believes these problems identified in the environmental assessment have mostly originated from a long history of human interference. The EA methods involve further human intervention rather than attempting to restore natural systems which, in the long term, will be more effective and less costly.
    • There is little ecosystem perspective on planning in the proposed actions. Planning on a much greater landscape scale is needed and work should involve coordinated planning efforts between Parks Canada and the Alberta government.
    • Natural fire regimes should be re-established.
    • Human activity should be managed to ensure maintenance of ecological integrity.
    • Integrity of water, land, and wildlife habitat must be the primary considerations for planning and management of lands along the entire Eastern Slopes.

    September 2005

    Although the minister of SRD had encouraged AWA to continue its participation R11 Forest Management Plan, no invitation for AWA to participate in the September meeting is received.
    The 2005 Bighorn Historic Trail annual trail maintenance trip is cancelled due to record precipitation events during the spring and summer restricting access to the trail by destroying bridges, closing roads, and making riding the trail without damaging it an unacceptable risk. This is the first season that the trail maintenance trip is not made in 10 years of AWA stewardship. AWA plans to resume the trail maintenance in 2006.

    August 2005

    The Minister of SRD responds to AWA’s letter regarding the R11 Forest Management Plan and meeting held in June 2005:

    • The Nordegg FireSmart Community Zone Plan is separate and distinct from the R11 Forest Management Plan.
    • Watershed protection remains a priority for SRD and they believe the R11 plan will address a variety of values, including protection of watersheds, soils, fish and wildlife habitat, aesthetics, and natural disturbances.
    • The R11 Forest Management Plan is not intended specifically for the protection of communities from wildfire. Prescribed fire will be the primary tool to meet plan objectives. Timber harvesting will be used only where practical and as permitted by the Eastern Slopes Policy and Integrated Resource Plans.
    • The FireSmart-Protecting Your Community from Wildfire Manual is intended for use within communities in the Wildland Urban Interface Zone and has limited, if any, application to the broader Community and Landscape Zone scales as are being addressed in the R11 plan. One of the objectives of the R11 plan is to protect the values at risk within and adjacent to the planning areas by reducing the threat of large, high intensity, catastrophic wildfires.
    • The minister encourages AWA “to continue to participate in the next stage of public consultations scheduled in September of this year,” and says that “the process is designed solicit public comment within a framework that respects existing integrated resource plans, legislation and existing landscape plans for the regions and, as such, will benefit from your (AWA) contributions.”

    July 2005

    Further to the meeting in June 2005 on the R11 Forest Management Plan, SRD forwards a description of the process and list of all participants and their inputs, after the meetings for all stakeholder groups had been completed. As a consequence of the June meeting, AWA director, Vivian Pharis, writes to SRD Minister David Coutts emphasizing:

    • Watershed concerns were expressed by all stakeholders present, as they were also expressed in the 1973 Eastern Slopes Hearings, and these concerns were not reflected in the R11 plan.
    • SRD presenters had no knowledge of a new province-wide land management plan that is supposed to be ecologically based.
    • The FireSmart concept presented at the meeting bore no resemblance to the science-based FireSmart program developed, of which SRD was a key sponsor. The presenters had no knowledge of this other FireSmart program.
    • The province appears to be prepared to spend needlessly millions of taxpayer dollars on this program which encourages logging – a practice which current scientific research is showing increases wildfire threats in dry-forest habitats. And ignores the science behind the original FireSmart approach.
    • The process is not an open, public one and is designed to claim public “approval” simply by being invited to participate and attending the session.
    • 4 questions are asked of the minister:
      • Why is a piece-meal planning approach being used at the same time a province-wide planning process is being launched?
      • Why is Alberta loath to support ecosystem-based land planning, and unwilling to protect its watersheds?
      • Why is the R11 plan for fire protection of communities being based on logging, which contributes to increased fire hazards?
      • Why is the R11 plan not based on the government’s original FireSmart plan, where the onus is on building owners, not taxpayers, to protect their buildings?

    June 2005

    AWA is invited to and attends a meeting held in Rocky Mountain House by SRD on its R11 Forest Management Plan:

    • SRD representatives say this planning process started about a year ago as their was no active timber management plan except for fire suppression and a response is needed due to a build-up of materials creating wildfire threats, and to suppress mountain pine beetle infestations.
    • SRD says at the meeting its stated goal is to reduce risk by 5% by such actions as prescribed burning, which would also reduce pine beetle risk and improve wildlife habitat.
    • AWA is one of a number of “environmental/cultural” groups lumped together as SRD sees these groups as having common values which could be represented to SRD. Those groups attending include ALERT (Alberta League for Environmentally Responsible Tourism), North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance, Red Deer River Watershed Alliance, Sierra Club, and Sunchild First Nations.
    • Other types of stakeholder groups to attend other meetings were classified as Adjacent Land Managers, Commercial (Accommodations/Helicopter Operators), Commercial (Trappers/Recreation Industrial), Fish and Wildlife Associations, and Recreation.
    • Early on in the meeting, both the representative from ALERT (Martha Kostuch) and AWA (director, Vivian Pharis) express strongly their view that, from their lengthy experience in such presentations, this meeting has the appearance that SRD has a pre-determined plan to increase the allowable cut of forests in R11 by 5% under the guise of managing wildfire and mountain pine beetle threats.
    • Vivian and Martha jointly also state concerns that planning based on arbitrary boundaries, rather than on a more expansive landscape-scale, ecosystem-based approach to maintain ecological integrity in the area.
    • Again, Vivian and Martha jointly raise skepticism that SRD is merely asking for the public, via this closed process, to provide more or less tacitly, a façade of support for its pre-determined, agency-developed plan.
    • Martha emphasizes that the main drivers behind this process appear to be FMA and timber management, not management driven by natural ecosystem-based values as it should be.

    April 2005

    The Province cancels the land reservation for the development of the Abraham Glacier Wellness Resort. The Province will not accept any new applications for the area until the Whitegoat Lakes Development Concept Plan is completed. The Concept Plan is a document that dictates what the county and province consider for development within the Node. This decision means that even if the Abraham resort proponent wishes to reapply, there are now several new applications ahead of him. Suggested modifications to the Concept Plan include the establishment of a wildlife travel corridor, limits of small to medium sized accommodation, and the elimination of some discretionary uses, including the establishment of a heliport.

    AWA says that although the resort has been denied, high standards must be applied when reviewing new applications for the Node. The area is too sensitive and too valuable to be ruined by unsuitable projects.

    March 2005

    SRD responds to an AWA letter that had more questions on the R11 Forest Management Plan with the following points:
    Their “goal is to incorporate landscape level firesmart initiatives with other values such as mountain pine beetle, wildlife, and watershed values within the framework fo existing plans such as the Bighorn Access Management Plan and Integrated Resource Plans (IRPs).”

    Their intention is to do the above primarily through prescribed burning, but will consider harvesting where IRP zoning permits.

    They will use a public Charette process to receive stakeholder input and advise they have already identified 12 categories of stakeholder.

    They advise AWA that, as a stakeholder, AWA will be contacted and asked how they can become involved.

    February 4, 2005

    AWA meets with Minister of Community Development Gary Mar to discuss, among other items, designating Bighorn as a Wildland Park in celebration of Alberta’s centennial year. Mar indicats that, with the current government, it is extremely difficult to get any new protected areas in Alberta. Although Mar says that he wants Alberta’s parks to be the “lens through which the world sees Alberta” he says his focus is to maintain existing parks in Alberta with upgrades to infrastructure and programming. This is backed up in following months with the release of the budget allocating ~60milion dollars to parks for infrastructure, staffing and fire prevention. Unfortunately, there is no mention of the creation of any new parks or protected areas.

    February 3, 2005

    AWA meets with Gary Mandrusiak, Clearwater Wildland Fire Prevention Officer with SRD. He informs AWA of the county’s efforts to minimize impact of fire on the community of Norgegg and region with the new Firesmart initiative. The program involves the clearing of hundreds of acres of forest in and around the area. AWA worries about the need for these measures, if it will work, and if alternatives have been adequately contemplated.

    February 3, 2005

    AWA meets with SRD in Rocky Mountain House on the subject of Bighorn burns. The major points from the meeting are summarized as follows:

    • The project near Nordegg WILL happen.
    • Timing is dependent on when final approval is received.
    • SRD will mitigate all activity.
    • AWA representative believes the project has a feel of being done to preserve the forest economy, not for general forest health management.
    • Wildlife is receiving no concern in the planning, and the plan is heavily focused on a fire-management perspective.

    December 2004

    SRD’s Forest Protection branch replies to AWA’s earlier letter which outlined concerns with proposed timber harvesting activities near Nordegg.

    November 30, 2004

    Alberta Appeal court denies Abraham Glacier Wellness Resort Permission to Appeal.

    August 2004

    A statement is released August 5th, 2004 by 1006335 Alberta Inc. (Don McCarger) that he is appealing the decision by the County’s SDAB to refuse the development of the Abraham Glacier resort. If successful in his appeal, the proponent would begin building the resort.

    June 2004

    The County of Clearwater Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB) denies the appeal for the development permit for the Abraham Glacier Wellness Resort.

    May 2004

    On May 4th, the proponent for the Abraham Glacier Wellness Resort provided new information regarding the resort to the County of Clearwater Subdivision and Development Appeal Board (SDAB). The SDAB determined that in order to make the process fair to all parties involved, they, along with the public, would require more time to review the additional information before the hearing can continue.

    At the hearing on May 27, affected persons and groups were given the opportunity to make oral presentations to the Subdivision and Development Committee (SDAB) in support or opposition to the resort development.

    There was overwhelming opposition to the resort development by groups and individuals. Among the main points of emphasis were the size, type and location for the resort, as well as the need to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to identify the impacts on wildlife, vegetation and special features in the area.

    April 2004

    The proponent for the Abraham Glacier Mineral Spa and Resort in the Whitegoat Development Node appeals the decision by Clearwater County’s Municipal Planning Commission to deny his application.

    March 2004

    Clearwater County’s Municipal Planning Commission (MPC) refuses the application for a development permit for the Abraham Glacier Mineral Spa and Resort in the Whitegoat Development Node.


    A draft plan is developed which identifies concepts for fuel reduction in 3 areas to create primary and secondary containment lines. A detailed project plan was prepared for the priority areas during the summer of 2004. Approximately 280 hectares is identified for commercial harvest using patch cut, stand conversion, and clear-cut methods. As of December 2004, the Nordegg FireSmart Community Zone Plan is still in the draft stage, with the public consultation process still to be completed.

    The 10th anniversary of AWA’s stewardship of the Bighorn Historic Trail.

    December 2003

    Clearwater County upholds the original decision to deny an increase in activity by Icefield Helicopters over the Bighorn and National Parks.

    November 2003

    AWA meets with Mike Cardinal and representatives to demand Wildland designation for the Bighorn and the prohibition of motorized and industrial access.

    Icefield Helicopters appeal Clearwater County’s decision to restrict their heli-tourism activity over sensitive areas of the Bighorn Wildland and the National Parks.

    October 2003

    AWA begins meetings with provincial MLA’s regarding issues concerning the Bighorn. AWA completes first field season of Bighorn Recreation and Impact Monitoring project.

    The Municipal Planning Commission of Clearwater County declines the application made by Icefield Helicopters (Rimrock Holdings Inc.) to increase their activity over sensitive areas of the Bighorn Wildland and the National Parks.

    September 2003

    AWA publishes new book Bighorn Wildland and begins a book tour through Alberta communities to educate Albertans about the Bighorn and conservation and to re-launch Bighorn Campaign

    Alberta Government decides Abraham Glacier Resort does not need to undergo an environmental impact assessment.

    July 2003

    AWA annual maintenance trip on the Historic Bighorn Trail.

    Summer 2003

    AWA launches Bighorn Recreation and Impact Monitoring Program

    Spring/Summer 2003

    AWA is shut out of Government OHV monitoring efforts.


    Due to more wildland urban interface fires in 2002 and catastrophic fires in the Crowsnest Pass and B.C in 2003, SRD identifies 32 communities in Alberta as having high priority for FireSmart Community Zone Plans, with Nordegg ranked 6th. In late 2003 a planning committee with stakeholders was formed to help develop this plan.

    September 2002

    AWA expands Bighorn campaign to Eastern Slopes issues with media ads and pamphlet distribution

    Alberta Caucus approves Bighorn access plans, including trails for motorized recreation in Prime Protection Zone
    Abraham Glacier Mineral Spa and Resort proposed for the Whitegoat Development Node on Abraham lake.

    August 2002

    Access management plan endorsed by Alberta cabinet. Plan goes to Caucus for final approval. Plan allows motorized access into Prime Protection Zone in violation of Eastern Slopes Policy. This means that all of the Eastern Slopes are at risk.

    August 2002

    AWA gives presentation to Standing Policy Committee

    July 2002

    AWA annual maintenance trip on the Historic Bighorn Trail.

    April 2002

    AWA declines to sign off on the Bighorn Access Management recommendations due to poor process

    January 2002

    AWA initiates public forums

    December 2001 – April 2002

    AWA participates in Bighorn Access Management Advisory Group

    June 2001

    Increased awareness of Wildland Urban Interface wildfire problems elsewhere prompts SRD to look for additional fuel reduction opportunities around Nordegg. This results in the Nordegg Fuel Reduction Harvest plan being approved. Later in 2001, wildfires destroy more than 200 homes and structures and leads SRD to conclude that larger scale fuel reduction is necessary for effective community protection.

    Approximately 410 acres of commercial partial-cut harvest were completed between 2001 and 2003 under this plan. Not all objectives were met, however, due to stakeholder concerns with harvest locations and methods.

    From the initial meeting in April 2000 and 12 subsequent meetings of the Public Advisory Committee (PAC) set up for the Nordegg Forest Harvest Plan, 10 issue areas were identified and the become the framework for developing the PAC’s recommendations. They are fire hazard reduction; traditional rights and claims; historical resource protection; ecological integrity; tourism/recreational needs; aesthetics; access; harvesting operation; public participation; and other considerations.


    Government denies existence of Bighorn Wildland.

    AWA demands promised Bighorn Wildland Recreation Area be protected by legislation.

    Government initiating limited access management plan, industry developing cooperative access plan, conservation groups planning protective strategy.


    Bighorn Country with protected core Bighorn Wildland formally presented to Alberta Government by conservation groups.

    Land and Forest Service holds a public open house in Nordegg to announce initiation of the Nordegg Forest harvesting planning process for the area south and west of Nordegg. A public advisory committee is established and is made up of stakeholders such as Nordegg, County of Clearwater, motorized and non-motorized recreational users, commercial tourism, First Nations, trappers, and timber operators. Early in the process, the PAC agrees that one of the main priorities for harvesting should be fire hazard reduction, and the name of the project is changed to the Fire Hazard Reduction Plan.


    15 groups led by AWA form Bighorn Country Coalition.
    The public process results in the development of the Nordegg Wildland Urban Interface Plan, which results in approximately 34 hectares of land thinned, pruned, and downed fuels removed near a north sub-division.


    Alberta government studies find that parks & wilderness contribute same dollars to economy as agriculture & forestry


    AWA adopts the Historical Bighorn trail through Alberta Land and Forest Services and leads a yearly trail maintenance initiative


    AWA volunteer program to clean all backcountry trails and camps of 60+ years of garbage


    Bighorn Wildland Recreation Area named by government, included on maps, but not protected from industrial development


    Integrated Resource Plans (IRP’s) developed, AWA a full public consultant


    Alberta government proposes establishment of David Thompson (Bighorn) Country similar to Kananaskis Country


    Public hearings recommend establishment of wildland recreation area in foothills region


    AWA proposes area for protection at Eastern Slopes Hearings

    In 2003, AWA initiated a project called the Bighorn Recreation and Impact Monitoring Project. With the growing threat to landscape integrity from human use and the recent legislation legalizing motorized activity in the area, trail monitoring is crucial within the Bighorn Wildland. The project was designed to identify and assess the current status of recreational activity in the Wildland and document the local physical and environmental impacts that these recreational activities are having on the landscape. The study area covers approximately 110km of both motorized and non-motorized trails adjacent to the Hummingbird Public Lands Recreation Area (PLRA). Since 2003 AWA has performed annual trips to visually record and monitor the health of the landscape and ecosystems through which the trails run. We have also used TRAFx vehicle counters to record and analyze motorized vehicle traffic levels in this study area.

    Significant Trail Erosion. AWA Files

    Significant Trail Erosion from flooding events. AWA Files

    Key Findings:

    • Trails are built in unsustainable areas. The particular topography, soil type and vegetative communities found in the Bighorn are unable to support motorized recreation.
    • Motorized traffic on trails is increasing with time and population, and continues to rise following temporary closures and access restrictions related to flooding in 2012/2013.
    • There is a complete lack of enforcement in the area and illegal trail use is occurring. Users are ignoring seasonal closure periods. They are also going off-trail and riding in areas with clear signs prohibiting this activity.
    • Trail damage is increasing.
    • The total footprint on non-designated backcountry camping is significant.
    Trail erosion. AWA Files.

    Trail erosion. AWA Files.



    Total monthly OHV counts from 2007 - 2015 in the Hummingbird PLRA. Green and blue lines show counts from the trailheads of year-round motorized trails. Yellow line shows counts from a trail permitted for equestrian and winter use only.

    Total monthly OHV counts from 2007 – 2015 in the Hummingbird PLRA. Green and blue lines show counts from the trailheads of year-round motorized trails. Yellow line shows counts from a trail permitted for equestrian and winter use only.


    OHVs going off designated trails. J. Skrajny

    OHVs going off designated trails. J. Skrajny


    AWA is grateful for the support we receive from TRAFx Research Ltd. for our on-the-ground monitoring work in the Bighorn.

    TRAFx logo

    Since 2003 AWA has successfully used TRAFx vehicle counters to monitor motorized vehicle traffic levels in our study areas. Learn more about the TRAFx Vehicle and Off-Highway Vehicle Counters at

    AWA is also grateful for the support we received from ASRPWF for our 2012 on-the-ground monitoring work in the Bighorn.

    ASRPWF Logo

    April 17, 2018

    North Saskatchewan Region – Time to speak up for Headwaters, Bighorn, Foothills and Parkland

    Dear Wilderness Defender, This is an important opportunity to speak up and contact your elected…

    Read more »

    April 17, 2018

    Letter RE: North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (NSRP) Regional Advisory Council (RAC) Advice

    Dear Premier Notley and Minister Phillips, Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) appreciates the opportunity to comment…

    Read more »

    December 1, 2017

    Five Days on the Bighorn Historic Trail

    Wild Lands Advocate articleby Heinz Unger. A pdf version of this article is available here. Gourmet…

    Read more »

There is an urgent need to engage people with nature. All aspects of it. Not just the pretty bears and cute snakes. Also the realities of it, the death, struggles, and pain. Not only are people losing touch with nature, they are losing touch with the realities of nature.
- Clayton Lamb, January 2018
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