SSRP in Review: the Castle region’s new conservation areas

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This is part one in a series about the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan and how its implementation will address the feedback we heard from Albertans. You can view the full list of posts here.

Alberta’s Castle area, nestled in the Rocky Mountains where Alberta, British Columbia and Montana meet, contains some of the most beautiful – and sensitive – ecosystems in all of Alberta. These landscapes are favourite recreation spots for many outdoor enthusiasts, but they also need to be protected. The new South Sask Regional Plan (SSRP) strikes a balance between these goals – and one of the ways it does so is by establishing conservation areas.

Photo of part of the Castle area in Alberta.

What’s a conservation area?

A conservation area is a clearly defined space that has special rules to protect its ecosystem and biological diversity. Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Wildland Provincial Parks, Natural Areas, Heritage Rangelands, and Public Land Use Zones for Conservation are all examples of different kinds of conservation areas. Each of these has different goals and different rules associated with it. These rules dictate what kinds of activities – including recreation, development, and industry – are prohibited in the area, and which ones are allowed. (You can check out pages 188-189 of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan to see the full list.)

Conservation areas are managed to minimize new land disturbance. In general, land disturbances from oil and gas operations, mining, commercial agriculture and forestry are not allowed in conservation areas, although we may need to make exceptions if freehold mineral rights have already been sold in an area. The government works with companies that hold existing oil and gas leases to ensure damage to the landscape is minimized.

Commercial forestry is not permitted in conservation areas designated as wildland provincial parks. However, activities that involve wildfire management, disease and insect control are allowed. In areas designated as heritage rangeland, carefully managed grazing and traditional ranching practices are used to maintain the health of the ecosystem.

Conservation areas are often popular destinations for outdoor enthusiasts, and rules allow a certain amount of recreation to take place while ensuring the landscape is protected. Low-impact recreation is typically allowed, while off-highway vehicle use is typically permitted in certain areas, on existing trails (management plans must be drafted for these trails, if they don’t exist already). No new trails or routes or access may be developed without a management plan.

The SSRP establishes four new conservation areas, and two of these – the Castle Wildland Provincial Park and the Pekisko Heritage Rangeland – are great illustrations of how this land management tool works in practice.

The Castle Wildland Provincial Park Map of Castle Wildland Provincial Park

This is a new 54,588 hectare conservation area established to protect key parts of the Castle area. The new park includes lands identified in the Eastern Slopes Policy’s prime protection zone and will also extend into neighboring valleys. This includes both areas that are very ecologically sensitive, and those that have lots of environmental and aesthetic value.  The Castle park will be managed to protect opportunities for low-impact backcountry recreation – like hiking and mountain biking – as well as eco-tourism opportunities.

The Castle park will help to protect the headwaters in the area, while also providing an important connection between the Alberta provincial parks system (to the north), the British Columbia parks system (to the west) and the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (to the south). This type of connection is important for wildlife habitat connectivity, which we’ll talk about in more detail in a later post.

(This area overlaps with the Castle Special Management Area, which was established in 1998 to better manage motorized recreation in the backcountry. Off-highway vehicle use is allowed in this area on designated trails.)

The Pekisko Heritage Rangeland

This conservation area will protect a representative part of Alberta’s native grasslands. This designation will help protect Alberta’s species at risk, the majority of which have grasslands habitats. Carefully managed grazing and traditional ranching will be used to maintain the health of the grassland ecosystem, and managed hunting, fishing and trapping in the area will continue.

What we look for in a conservation area

  • Little to no industrial activity (Conservation areas are designed to protect areas that are relatively undisturbed)
  • Support for traditional Aboriginal uses such as hunting, fishing and trapping
  • Representative of the area’s biological diversity
  • Sufficient size. When it comes to conservation areas, it’s generally better to have a smaller number of large ones than a bunch of small ones. This helps establish uninterrupted habitat for wildlife.

What happens now

The SSRP came into effect on September 1st. Areas identified in the plan as conservation areas are now governed by the appropriate rules. You can check out a full list of permitted activities for each new and expanded area on page 188 of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan.

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