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Rising to over 3,050 metres and covering more than 1 million acres, Willmore Wilderness Park stands as one of Alberta’s true wilderness areas virtually untouched by the hands of industry and development.

Tucked away in the crook of Alberta’s elbow just south of Grande Cache, mountain ranges and running rivers transect this landscape, home to some of Alberta’s iconic species – the grizzly, the wolf and the caribou. Willmore also contains the drainage for the Smoky River, a major tributary of the Peace River that flows north to join the Mackenzie River system. Designated a park in 1959 by the provincial government, Willmore has seen little tourism and recreational development, leaving the area pristine for backcountry enthusiasts to explore. Traditional activities such as trail riding, hunting, and trapping are allowed in the park, continuing the rich heritage of Aboriginal peoples and early outfitters.

    • Introduction
    • Concerns
    • Features
    • History
    • Management
    • Archive
    • Other Areas

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    Status

    • The area was designated a Wilderness Provincial Park in 1959.
    • In 1963 and 1965 the park was reduced in area to its current size.
    • In 1965 it was renamed the Willmore Wilderness Park in memory of Norman Willmore, who, as Minister of Lands and Forests, promoted the creation of the Wilderness Park for the recreational enjoyment of Albertans.
    • Backcountry recreation includes trail riding, hiking, and hunting along the approximately 750 km of trails.
    • Presently, there is no formal management plan for the park.

    Vision

    • That the park remain an undeveloped backcountry wilderness area
    • That a Management Plan be developed that holds true to wilderness, watershed, and wildlife values
    • That the park be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site under an expanded nomination for the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks.

    “The broad basic problem is whether or not the Government should condone and encourage the industrialization of Alberta at the expense of the rivers, the air and the countryside of our Province through a lack of policy and foresight, or should we endeavour to promote industrialization in an orderly manner which will bring the greatest possible benefits to all the people in Alberta without necessitating the improper exploitation of our greatest natural resources – which are the air we breathe and the water and the soil.”
       – Public address by Norman Willmore to the Edson community on February 25, 1955

    • A management plan that addresses key concerns for the Willmore, including wildlife, watersheds, wilderness protection, fire programs, trail system maintenance and recreation is urgently needed.
    • Pressures for inappropriate resource development such as commercial recreational use. Recreational developments including a downhill ski operation, golf course and alpine village, as well as new roadways for off-road vehicles have been proposed in and near Willmore Wilderness Park.
    • Commercial sales and inappropriate development of registered traplines that include increased and out-of-season use of ORV’s and the growth in size and numbers of associated cabins.
    • Non-commercial recreational use. Trails must be maintained for the safety of park users and to limit their impact on the park. The rules of the area, including a prohibition on off-highway-vehicle use must be enforced.
    • Pressure to remove boating prohibitions for the section of the Smoky River in the park.
    • Lack of official stewardship is allowing trails to become eroded in some areas and unsafe in others due to lack of maintenance.
    • Backcountry guardianship is almost non-existent and few parks people know the Willmore, except perhaps from aerial overviews.
    • Lack of fire has allowed the former excellent wildlife habitat of the area to become overgrown with shrubbery and trees and poor for ungulates in particular. Fire hazards are also building to the point where conflagrations may be supported once the area burns. A program of controlled burns to create habitat and relieve fuel loads is important.
    • Species at risk such as the grizzly and mountain caribou are not receiving adequate official attention.

    Area

    • Located in the “elbow” of Alberta, at the northern extent of the Canadian Rockies within the province just south of the town of Grande Cache.
    • Approximately 4,600 km2 bordering British Columbia, Jasper National Park, Kakwa Wildland Park, and Rock Lake–Solomon Creek Wildland Park.
    • Elevation ranges from 300 m in the northeast to over 3,050 m for some peaks along the Continental Divide.
    • Terrain includes exposed mountains, alpine meadows, and sub-alpine forests. There are numerous rivers, creeks, lakes, and unnamed tarns throughout the Willmore.

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    Township and Range map: JPG | PDF
         
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    Natural Subregions map:  JPG | PDF

    Natural Regions

    • Rocky Mountain Natural Region
      • Alpine Subregion characterized by lands above treeline including tundra, rockland, snowfields and glaciers.
      •  Sub-alpine Subregion characterized by forests of lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce.
    • The Smoky River valley is classified under Upper Foothill Subregion.
    • A small portion near Grande Cache is classified under the Montane Subregion.

    Ecological Significance

    • Most of Willmore has been designated a Prime Protection Zone under the Eastern Slopes Policy.
    • (1977). Under this designation, the objective is the preservation of “environmentally sensitive terrain and valuable ecological and aesthetic resources.”
    • The entirety of Willmore has been designated an internationally significant area under the Government of Alberta’s Environmentally Significant Areas (ESAs).

    20101117_Willmore_Wilderness_ESA_v3_small.jpg
    Environmentally Significant
    Areas map:  JPG | PDF

    Geology

    • The diverse scenery in the Willmore is a product of different rock types, complex folding and faulting and erosion by running water and glacial ice.
    • Three physiographic units can be recognized: the foothills, the front ranges and the main ranges of the Rocky Mountains.
    • As the ice sheets receded at the end of the last glacial period, alpine glaciers gouged-out many of the river valleys to their present U-shapes and created such landforms as cirques, arrets, and cols.

    Watersheds

    • Originating in Jasper National Park and snaking north to Grande Cache and beyond, the Smoky River is the largest river in the park, with many of the smaller rivers and creeks draining into it.
    • Other important rivers include the Berland, Wildhay, and Muskeg Rivers in the east and the Jackpine, Muddywater, and Sheep Creeks in the western part of the park.
    • There are numerous lakes and unnamed tarns tucked in the valleys and alpine slopes throughout the park.

    Plants

    • The vegetation in Willmore Wilderness Park is characteristic of the Rocky Mountain Natural Region with spruce-fir and pine forests at lower elevations and mosses, lichens, and other dwarf plants at the higher altitudes.
    • In summer, showy displays of alpine flowers can be found in meadows, including paintbrush, elephant head, and mountain marigold.

    Wildlife

    • Home to some of Alberta’s iconic wildlife species, the Willmore is crucial habitat for the dwindling species of grizzly and woodland caribou.
    • Caw Ridge, an adjacent area and once part of Willmore, is home to the largest population of mountain goats in Alberta.
    • Other species present include cougar, wolf, and bighorn sheep.

    Cultural

    • The Willmore has a long and rich heritage for Aboriginal peoples and early outfitters.
    • With the help of Iroquois guides, early trappers working for the Hudson Bay and North West companies sought out beaver, lynx, and marten in the Willmore, making it an important fur trading area.
    • In 1910, the Aseniwuche Winewak – or Rocky Mountain People – were relocated to Grande Cache from Jasper when the federal government created Jasper National Park.

    Sustainable Activities

    • This magnificent pristine wilderness is ideal for low-impact recreational pursuits.
    • There are approximately 750 km of trails in the eastern part of the park for hiking, backpacking, and trail riding.
    • Consumptive activities such as hunting and trapping are sustainable if managed properly under the values of healthy wildlife populations and biodiversity.

     2011

    Interim report for the Willmore Biodiversity Research Project is published. Mammals recorded include grizzly, wolverine, caribou and mountain goat. Bird species recorded include sensitive species such as pileated woodpecker, Clark’s nutcracker and Brewer’s sparrow.

    August 2010

    AWA meets with Alberta Parks and Protected Areas Deputy Minister Bill Werry and his team, to express extreme concern and disappointment in proposals to build a number of new wardens’ cabins in the Willmore; existing cabins are already used routinely as a destination by some visitors to the park who seem to have little recognition that this park is meant to be primitive and without fixed roof structures for its visitors. Alberta Parks agrees that all new structures will be secured and unavailable to the public and that signage at the trailhead will be improved to inform those who use the cabins that they are not for public use except in emergency. AWA continues to press for a management plan for the Willmore Wilderness Park, as the foundation underlying any future developments in the park. There is a real danger that the many individual small decisions being made about Willmore Wilderness will produce a cumulative effect that diminishes the wilderness resource the Willmore Wilderness Act was written to protect.

     2010

    A survey of wolverines estimates 30 individuals live within the Willmore Wilderness.

     2009

    The Willmore Biodiversity Research Project is launched to collect ecological data on plant, bird, and mammal communities in the Willmore Wilderness Park. The project is a partnership between the Government of Alberta (Parks Division), Alberta Innovates, and the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. The project is intended to design and test new approaches for quantifying biodiversity in protected mountain landscapes, while still integrating with Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute data from across the Province. Vegetation and mammal surveys are to be carried out in 2009-10; bird surveys in 2010.

    2008

    The provincial government considers changing the boundaries of the recently created Rock Lake Provincial Park northwest of Hinton. In 2006, Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation (TPR) expanded the Rock Lake Provincial Recreation Area and re-designated it as a provincial park after problems with poaching inside the recreation area and the discharging of firearms within campgrounds. Since 2006, many locals have voiced their opinions about the expanded park, focusing primarily on the elimination of hunting from areas where it was previously allowed under wildland classification.

    2007

    Alberta Tourism, Parks, Recreation and Culture (TPRC), along with Parks Canada and B.C. Parks, considers a new nomination for UNESCO World Heritage status of Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, one that could include the Willmore along with other protected areas that are adjacent to the current UNESCO designation.

    AWA supports the inclusion of Willmore Wilderness Park in any future nomination. While the Willmore Wilderness Park Act is a strong piece of legislation, there is still no management plan for the area. World Heritage designation requires that a management plan be in place and clearly outlines the values on which management must be based. By having the clear value of ecological conservation put into a management plan, we can ensure that this wilderness area remains intact well into the future.

    Willmore Wilderness Foundation spokesmen oppose the designation and speak out against designation of the area under UNESCO status.

    2006

    August: AWA reports that six bulldozers were brought 35 to 40 km into Willmore by Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) to help fight a forest fire. AWA is concerned that the bulldozer use may have caused environmental damage and may open the area to off-highway vehicle use. In letters to the ministers of SRD and Community Development, AWA requests that the fire management plan be utilized in future and that no heavy equipment be brought into Willmore.

    November: The Willmore Wilderness Park Draft Fire Suppression Plan is released. This plan permits natural fire processes to occur when negative impacts are not expected. Fire contributes to the overall health of a forest, which in turn staves off severe mountain pine beetle attacks.

    2005

    The Government of Alberta undertakes a program of cutting, burning and baiting in northwest Willmore Wilderness Park to stem the spread of the mountain pine beetle. AWA supports the scientifically based approach to prescribed burning in order to renew areas of forest transformed by years of fire suppression in Willmore, and made this clear in our submission to the plan.

    November 2004

    The Town of Grande Cache, located adjacent to the northeast boundary of Willmore Wilderness Park, initiates development of their Community Protection Plan. The scope of their planning area is a 10-km radius around the town. This planning area includes a portion of the Smoky River valley within Willmore Wilderness Park. Prevailing winds from the west and extensive contiguous forests pose the risk of wildfire escaping Willmore and threatening Grande Cache.

    2004

    Community Development Minister Gene Zwozdesky refuses to bow to the pressure exerted by off-highway vehicle enthusiasts who lobby for a route across Willmore from Grande Cache to McBride, B.C.

    1999

    The mountain pine beetle is first found in Willmore Wilderness Park. Under the direction of the Alberta Forest Service, 900 infected trees are felled and burned. This action is intended to protect commercial timber interests 60 km away, outside of the park boundaries. AWA is disappointed because this action denigrates one purpose of the park (to act as an environmental benchmark against which to measure changes in the environment) for industrial interests outside the park

    1995

    The Willmore Wilderness Park Act is strengthened to legally preclude industrial development. Until 1995, Willmore had been protected and managed through unwritten government policy and via public pressure. The government continues to have the authority to remove land from Willmore without public review or debate.

    1993

    A Brule resident proposes the building of a lodge on Mumm Creek in Willmore. AWA opposes such development without the completion of an Integrated Resource Plan for this area, an Environmental Impact Assessment, and a review of the amendment process of the Eastern Slopes Policy.

    1983

    Grande Cache Chamber of Commerce creates a development proposal to increase access into Willmore for economic purposes. AWA vows to fight “tooth and nail” against developments that would open the Willmore to inappropriate human access and activity.

    1982

    The Municipal Affairs Minister suggests the creation of “Kananaskis II” involving part of Willmore Wilderness Park. The proposal is similar to the failed 1978 proposal by Bob Dowling, then Minister of Business Development and Tourism. Minister Moore suggests that such development is necessary for the physically handicapped who are unable to traverse the park by foot or horseback. AWA again opposes such inappropriate development and responds by releasing a statement regarding economic stability for Grande Cache. AWA believes that the current economic downturn in Grande Cache must not become an excuse for development in Willmore Wilderness Park. Instead, residents of Grande Cache should be encouraged to become involved in year-round outfitting and associated services.

    May 1980

    Alberta Energy and Natural Resources releases the Terms of Reference for the proposed Willmore-Kakwa Current Regional Plan.

    AWA receives a copy of the Willmore Wilderness Park Management Plan marked “Preliminary Draft for Discussion Purposes Only.” It seems this plan disappeared into the ether and was never seen again. It was never completed and does not officially exist. There was a point where AWA asked that they be allowed to complete the plan but the government did not allow for this.

    April 1980

    Alberta Energy and Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Division, releases a report entitled A Wildlife Management Plan for Willmore Wilderness Park. The conclusion states: “Willmore Wilderness Park today represents the last area of true wilderness in the southern half of Alberta capable of supporting self-sustaining wildlife populations. […] Willmore is of particular importance for populations of those species which are vanishing quickly in other parts of the province, most notably caribou, mountain goat and grizzly bear. However, the steadily increasing activity in Willmore has caused concern and identified a need to design a comprehensive management plan. As recreational demand in Willmore increases it will have to be managed more carefully to prevent the over-use of Park resources and to avoid conflicts between human activities.”

    1980

    Grande Cache Chamber of Commerce and a local businessman request that motorized boating be allowed in Willmore Wilderness Park. AWA moves quickly to ensure that legislation prohibiting such activity is maintained. The provincial government announces that no development will occur in Willmore Wilderness Park.

    1978 – 1979

    Uncertainty in the global coal market results in economic hardship in Grande Cache. In hopes of alleviating financial strain, Bob Dowling, Edson MLA and Minister of Business Development and Tourism, commissions a report (by MTB Consultants Ltd.) on the feasibility of developing the tourism potential of the Grande Cache area. The report calls for the creation of tourist facilities including roads and a downhill ski operation within the park.

    The suggested development sparks public outrage and inspires Norman Willmore’s widow to write to AWA expressing her views on the necessity of preserving the wilderness area. AWA, in concert with the Alberta Fish and Game Association (AFGA), collects 40,000 signatures for the “Save the Willmore” petition. The petition, urging a ban on future development in Willmore and seeking assurance that the park cannot be altered without full debate in the legislature, is delivered to Bud Miller, Minister of Public Lands and Wildlife. Ultimately, the development proposal is abandoned, due in large part to the forceful AWA-AFGA campaign.

    1976

    Motorized vehicle operation is prohibited within Willmore Wilderness Park.

    The Alberta Department of Energy and Natural Resources, with the agreement of the Energy Resources Conservation Board, produces A Coal Development Policy for Alberta, which sets Willmore aside from coal exploration.

    1973

    AWA writes its highly successful book Willmore Wilderness Park dedicating the book to the late Honourable Norman Willmore who championed the protection of this wilderness.  Norman Willmore died in an automobile accident en route to deliver a speech at Robb, Alberta on February 3, 1965. Throughout the years AWA sells more than 10,000 copies of the 50 page book.

    The book describes the Willmore as a “wilderness in trouble” and asserts that public support is imperative if the Willmore is to be protected against continued demands for inappropriate resource development. AWA acknowledges Anne Bronson, Ric Careless, Len Jeck, Grant McNabb, Tom Oliver and Dick Pharis for writing the book.

    1972

    A moratorium is placed on exploration that involves surface disturbance in Willmore Wilderness Park.

    1969 – 1970

    Grande Cache town was built to provide Jasper Park Indians (First Nations) a new location. The McIntyre-Porcupine Mine at Grande Cache and the town of Grande Cache are situated on what used to be Wilderness Provincial Park. These lands were once the overwintering range of bighorn sheep and elk form the Smoky River, Toddy, and Malcolm Creek Vicinity. The one-industry town is built at great expense to the Alberta government but meets financial difficulties when the coal market slows.

    1968

    The Alberta Forest Service ceases to maintain trails or administer the Willmore Wilderness Park area.

    1965

    The Alberta Legislature gave approval to Bill 102 to amend the Wilderness Provincial Park Act.  In doing so, the now 4,597 km2 (1,775 mi2) Park near Grand Cache was renamed in memory of the late Norman Willmore, Minster of Lands and Forests. It is now known as Willmore Wilderness Park. The name of the Wilderness Provincial Park Act is changed to the Willmore Wilderness Park Act. Willmore is reduced in size a second time: Grande Mountain and Mount Stearn in the north and Rock Lake in the east of the park are removed from protection to allow for coal extraction.

    1963

    The original 2,149 mi2 park underwent its first reduction in size.

    1959

    Willmore is established under the name “Wilderness Provincial Park,” and the Wilderness Provincial Park Act is enacted to govern the new park. The size of the park is 5,565 km2(2,149 mi2). Because this area was part of the Athabasca Forest Reserve prior to its establishment as a provincial park, it remains under the jurisdiction of the Alberta Forest Service rather than the Provincial Parks Division.

    1945

    Guided hunting becomes popular in the Rocky Mountains. More than 20 outfitters make use of lands later to be recognized as Willmore Wilderness Park.

    1930s

    Widespread forest fires reduce spruce-fir climax forest in the park and result in numerous stands of lodgepole pine.

    1921

    Pierre Grey, a very successful business man and entrepreneur, took over 100 pack horses loaded with furs (26 of which carried only valuable marten pelts) from Willmore trappers.

    1912

    In the years following 1912, Fred Brewster, a well-known Alberta guide form Jasper Park; and F. Prescott Fay, an explorer and naturalist; rode the trails and valleys of the Smoky River and Sheep Creek both for personal adventure and scientific discovery. The record of remote sheep herds, primitive trails, spectacular waterfalls and a good collection of birds, and mammals for the American National Museum were a few of their rewards and accomplishments.

    James Shand-Harvey is hired as district ranger to patrol the Rock Lake and Grande Cache districts. Shand-Harvey supervises this area alone until 1940 and has a series of cabins and 104 km (65 mi) of telephone line erected during his years as supervisor.

    1910 – 1911

    Professor J. N. Colie and Mr. A. L. Mumm, (after whom two creeks in the eastern Willmore are named,) along with two members of the Alpine Club of London, make lengthy expeditions into the Continental Divide west of the Smoky, for the purpose of pioneering, mountaineering and adventure.

    1910 – 1959

    The area that is later to become Willmore Wilderness Park is incorporated into the Athabasca Forest Reserve.

    1800s

    Journals of fur traders working for the Hudson’s Bay Company record that the area later known as Willmore is a prolific hunting ground.

    10,000 BC

    Human occupation in Willmore begins.

    Willmore Wilderness was formerly under the administration of Energy and Natural Resources and the Alberta Forest Service, but is currently managed in a joint arrangement by the Departments of Sustainable Resource Development and Alberta Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

    Willmore is not a wilderness area under the Wilderness Act (1971). Instead, it is protected, under the Willmore Wilderness Park Act (1959, amended 1965, 1970, 1977, 1980).

    • Willmore Wilderness Park “is dedicated to the use of the people of Alberta for their benefit, education, and enjoyment…and shall, by the management, conservation and protection of its natural resources and the preservation of its natural beauty, be maintained for the enjoyment of future generations.”
    • No development is allowed within the boundaries of Willmore, however, the Act allows the park boundaries to be increased or decreased to allow for development at the discretion of the Lieutenant Governor in Council.

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    IRP map:  JPG | PDF

    The Eastern Slopes Zoning Policy (1977) classifies Willmore as a prime protection area.

    • Mineral exploration and development, petroleum and natural gas exploration and development, commercial timber operations, domestic grazing, cultivation, industrial development, residential development and off high way vehicle activities are prohibited in the Prime Protection Area under this policy. Hunting, fishing, outfitting by horse, primitive camping, horseback riding and hiking are permitted uses. The area contains registered trap lines that allow cabins and that may be serviced using off-road vehicles.

    The Forests Act (1976) limits motorized vehicle access and restricts the building of structures other than tents. The only exceptions to this are government patrol cabins and cabins associated with registered trap lines.

    Federal Order No. SOR/66-406 prohibits the taking off or landing of aircraft at any time within the Park without permission.

    The Canada shipping Act, through an order in 1978, amended the Boating restrictions to eliminate all motorized boat use on the Smoky and Berland Rivers within the Willmore Wilderness Park. (Order in Council P.C. 1978-3636)

    The Wildlife Management Plan (1980) focuses on preserving the integrity of Willmore Wilderness through habitat and wildlife inventory, and maintenance of wildlife populations.

    We are still waiting for a management plan for the Willmore. The Willmore Wilderness Park Management Plan (Draft, 1980) which was never acted on or completed made a number of recommendations, including specifications that:

    • the park be closed from all motorized forms of transportation including air, boat and vehicle (certain exceptions apply);
    • a permit system for all equestrian users, guides and hunting outfitters be implemented to monitor horses within the park;
    • commercial recreation development beyond trail ride operators and hunting outfitters be prohibited;
    • forest management techniques be used to control disease and insect outbreak;
    • firefighting be carried out in the least damaging way possible;
    • non-renewable resource development be prohibited;
    • grazing limited to riding and pack animals;
    • timber harvesting not be permitted;
    • fishing and hunting be allowed to continue;
    • administration remain under the auspices of the Department of Energy and Natural Resources;
    • the park boundary be firmly established;
    • bridges over dangerous watercourses be built;
    • interpretive brochures be created;
    • the Forest Service maintain trails and facilities.

    The Willmore Wilderness Fire Management Plan divides the park into an “extensive zone,” where wild fires are allowed to burn under most circumstances, and an “intensive zone” where full fire suppression is practiced.

    June 1, 2017

    Walking in Willmore: Ray Rasmussen’s Martha Kostuch Annual Lecture

    June 2017 Wildlands Advocate article, by Ian Urquhart I first met Ray Rasmussen in 1988 nearly 30…

    Read more »

    November 13, 2014

    AWA News Release: Logging Threatens Caribou and Other Sensitive Species in Iconic Wilderness Park, Highlights Need for Willmore Management Plan

    Approved and proposed logging operations immediately outside the boundary of the Willmore Wilderness Provincial Park…

    Read more »

    February 16, 2013

    Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute and the Willmore Wilderness

    Wild Lands Advocate article, December 2012, by Katie Rasmussen. The ABMI is an organization tasked…

    Read more »

From a social-psychological point of view, it is the case, as regrettable as it is, that politicians are followers and only after the majority believes in something, do these followers follow.
- Herb Kariel
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