The Calgary Herald: Opposition parties weigh in on NDP's plan to protect the Castle wilderness

Alberta’s plan to fully protect the Castle wilderness area in southwestern Alberta is being both panned and praised by opposition parties.

The Notley government announced Friday that it would create two parks along the eastern slopes of the Rockies by expanding the existing wildland provincial park and adding a new provincial park. It will shut out logging, mining, and future oil and gas development in a 1,040-square kilometre area.

The plan, now out for public consultation, was immediately praised by environmentalists and quickly angered the forestry industry.

Opposition parties are also split on the decision to protect the entire wilderness area.

“The NDP are going to have to negotiate fair market compensation for land, lease and license holders affected by this move,” Wildrose Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier, who represents the area where the Castle is located, said in a news release. “With the NDP ending new natural resources industries in the Castle, Wildrose can only hope the development of the tourism industry can offset the economic impact of these decisions.”

He could not be reached for further comment on the weekend.

Richard Starke, the former tourism minister who’s now house leader for the Progressive Conservatives, warned it won’t be as easy as it seems for the NDP to bring in full protection for the Castle.

“It’s gorgeous, it has significant importance both culturally and historically, ecologically and environmentally as the headwaters,” he said in an interview Sunday. “Those are all things that everyone can agree on, but that’s sort of where the agreement ends.”

In August 2014, the Tories had committed to protecting a 546-square kilometre conservation area known as the Castle Wildland Provincial Park. It’s been managed as a park under the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan, but has never been formally designated by the province as a protected area.

Starke said his party is supportive of enhanced protection, but they don’t believe the outstanding issues in the area can be addressed within a 30-day consultation period.

“The forestry activity in the area was negotiated with the government in good faith,” he said, noting he believes it’s an important way to maintain a healthy forest without having to start conducting prescribed burns.

Similarly, he said off-road vehicle use has long been accepted in the area so that could be a tough negotiation.

At Friday’s press conference, Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips said they expect most companies operating in the area will understand the importance of protecting it.

Decisions about off-road vehicle use and random camping, she added, will be part of the public consultation period over the coming month.

“We’ll be moving forward with a thoughtful and balanced approach,” she said at the time.

For his part, Alberta Liberal leader David Swann said he welcomes the added protection for the iconic area.

“This marks a victory of many years of work,” he said in a statement released late Friday. “The protection of the Castle area is vital to safeguarding our waterways, and I am pleased that action is being taken.

“This is a victory for Albertans.”

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