The Cheviot-Prospect Valleys will need protection

2012-09-04


Current active coal mining in the Cheviot and Prospect valleys south of Cadomin east of Jasper National Park will be coming to an end in the next three-four years, and already there is talk of how soon access for some motorized recreation will be allowed. Rather than looking at such an activity in isolation, such decisions should not be made in a hurry but as part of the regional planning and to align eventually with the Upper Athabasca Land Use Plan, to be developed shortly.

The Cardinal River Coals (CRC) mine permit area for the Cheviot and Prospect valleys is bounded on three sides by the mountain ridges of the Whitehorse Wildland Park (WWP) which forms a buffer zone for Jasper National Park, and on the fourth side by the Grave Flats public road which provides a natural boundary for this area. On a regional basis, east of the road lies the bulk of this mine, now under development, and several other coal mines in the area, along with extensive forestry and oil and gas leases. The west side, after the Cheviot-Prospect pits reclamation, would provide a suitable ‘Conservation Zone’, as recommended for the Land Use Plans.

Background
The Prospect Creek area was recognized as worthy of protection in 1974 as there was increasing recognition of its very extensive and diverse alpine ecology. It was later given legal status in 1995 as the Cardinal Divide Natural Area (CDNA), which now included the Cardinal Divide ridge itself. Because there were pre-existing coal leases, a large part of the prime alpine and subalpine vegetated habitat of defined importance in the Prospect Creek Cheviot and Thornton areas were not included in the Protected Area as they should have been.

Prior to the Cheviot Mine development, the Cheviot area in particular had become very popular with Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs) because of the numerous old mining and exploration roads. Their unofficial trails often extended well into the alpine and subalpine areas, creating permanent ruts.

Because of the increasing impact of OHVs, an Access Management Plan was passed in 1994 to allow more compatible non-motorized and motorized recreation. Motorized vehicles were allowed on designated routes from Mountain Park to the upper Prospect Creek, and also allowed to, but not along, Drummond Ridge. This motorized access did not extend to the north side of Prospect Creek or the lower Prospect valley. These directions were to be implemented by a Forest Land Use Zone (FLUZ), but as this was not established until 1999, there was virtually unrestricted OHV use.

It should be noted that these discussions took place before there was any talk of developing the Cheviot Mine. As all these old roads have now been obliterated by the recent mining activities and the whole geography totally altered, the use of OHVs in this highly sensitive area needs to be re-evaluated.

Subsequently, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the proposed Cheviot Coal Mine was extensively reviewed at public hearings by a combined federal and provincial panel. The CDNA was recognized in the panel’s recommendations in 1997 for its importance as a protected buffer zone around the mine disturbance area.

There was increasing concern about the mine’s effect on the wildlife, in particular on the grizzly bears and their travel corridors between Jasper National Park and the Eastern Slopes. As a result, some lands under Protective Notation in upper Prospect Creek were take out of the mine permit area.

The panel also noted that displacement of current recreational users, primarily OHVs from the Mountain Park area could have a significant effect on the ecological values of the CDNA and CRC’s mitigation programmes for wildlife. They reinforced the need for some form of regulatory control such as a FLUZ.

The Whitehorse Wildland Park was created in 1998 as a result of the panel’s recommendations, enlarging the CDNA to include the whole of the Whitehorse Creek valley, although the Cardinal Headwaters were left out, despite being directed to do so.

The Whitehorse Management Plan, developed in 1999, again with extensive stakeholder input, confirmed the OHV access as described in the earlier Access Management Plan. But this did not consider the post-mining scene.

A second hearing for Cumulative Effects Assessment was held in 2000 to re-examine all the other developments in the area, many of which had been underestimated and looked at only for their individual contributions. Attention was also focused on the increasing use of OHVs, which would not only be affected by their displacement from their previous playground on the old mine roads in the Mountain Park area, but would contribute to even more cumulative disturbance if they were displaced to more sensitive area. As more access has been shown to result in more grizzly bear and wildlife mortality, which was one of the major concerns, it was all the more important to protect some areas, such as the Cardinal headwaters.

Regional Land Use Plan
The panel’s report in August 2000 again recommended that the Cardinal headwaters be included in the WWP. It also recommended, amongst other things, a Regional Integrated Resources Management Plan and the implementation of the Grizzly Bear Strategic Framework.

The whole WWP and Prospect-Cheviot area has, therefore, been recognized as a very sensitive environment, not only for its wildlife values, particularly grizzly bears, but also for the extent of its diverse and unusual ecological diversity. Both these are very sensitive to recreational disturbance, increased poaching and habitat alienation in the first place, and potentially permanent destruction of fragile soil characteristics in the second place.

Under a Regional Integrated Resources Management Plan, or as part of a Regional Land Use Plan, Access Management is a major consideration for sustaining the viability of the area. Control and enforcement of indiscriminate OHV use has been, and still is, a major problem. A clearly defined and more enforceable boundary for OHV users such as the Grave Flats Road, rather than undefined lines on a map, would be far more manageable. Signs and notices have a very short life due to persistent vandalism. Non-motorized recreation, mainly hiking, horse use and hunting could continue on the west side of the road and motorized recreation on the east side, where there is already an extensive network of trails.

Designated routes for OHVs are not sustainable in sensitive area. Photographs show the extension of a designated OHV trail from a small three-four foot old seismic line over alpine tundra, to a 15-foot heavily eroded double track over a period of nearly 20 years. This, even though vehicles are ostensibly ‘staying on the trail’. In the alpine zones in particular, the fragile vegetation is rapidly destroyed and may take a long time, if ever, to recover.

Alternatively, wet boggy areas very quickly become a sea of mud the size of a football field, which may have to be saved only by expensive trail hardening. These impacts are becoming very common in many other parts of the Eastern Slopes.

One of the problems is that the use of more powerful off-road vehicles and demands for more access has increased markedly. For example, on the Cardinal headwaters’ designated OHV trail, numbers went from 15 in 1997 (EIA hearings) to over 400 per week in 2008 (Sustainable Resource Development). Imagine the destruction to the small alpine plants, some quite rare, on the narrow Drummond Ridge where there are still three-foot deep ruts from illegal use several years ago.

The OHV users are very insistent that their ‘traditional use’ of the trail up to Drummond Ridge remains. This access was only allowed, including the WWP Management Plan, prior to examining the effects of mine development. There is an opportunity to re-evaluate the situation particularly as the Cheviot and Prospect pit reclamation will take a long time to establish because of the very harsh growing conditions at this elevation. There should be minimum disturbance for several years to allow the wildlife to become re-established in the changed environment. Even one designated OHV trail is intrusive and becomes an open invitation to riders to explore further. Plus, it would only alienate hikers and other non-motorized users. With careful planning, this area could become an extension of the Luscar-Gregg Land Use Plan, providing opportunities for minimal low impact non-motorized recreation; hikers, for example, generally do not go very far into the back country.

The Future
The future of the WWP will lie in its relation to the reclaimed Cheviot-Prospect mines and their place in the region. An enlarged Protected Area, with its eastern boundary being the well-defined and easily monitored Grave Flats Road, would give a different segment of the population the chance to enjoy some of Alberta’s finest public lands. It would also ensure less disturbance to the wildlife. However, if the Grave Flats Road becomes an OHV destination with a few designated trails that would likely result in the spread of unauthorized trails as happened previously, it would have a significant impact on the fragile vegetation, not to mention disturbance and alienation of wildlife. It is hoped that Parks personnel will work with the Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) to make the former scenario a reality. Wildlife does not recognize bureaucratic boundaries.

There is little consideration given to other legitimate users who also wish to enjoy the wildlands of Alberta in a more peaceful, low-impact, non-polluting, and dare one say, a healthier way. And if their numbers seem small, it is because they have already been ‘shut out’ of many of their traditional habitats. And because they are low impact users, their activities are far less noticeable and more sustainable for the future. These Wildlands are irreplaceable!

Connections
I have been involved with this area under the Tourism, Parks and Recreation (TPR) Volunteer Steward programme for nearly 20 years, and have appreciated the chance to learn more about alpine ecology as well as enjoy the pleasures of hiking the many trails. We need your support to maintain this important area for the future, particularly by:

I suggest that you write to your MLA; Andy Van Imschoot, Regional Director, West Central Region for TPR; and Sharad Karmacharya, Land Manager Planner for ESRD. I need to be able to show that there are many people, such as hikers, waiting in the background for this conservation area to continue to provide more sustainable recreation in the future, so please send me a copy to me, Alison Dinwoodie, at adinwoodie@shaw.ca .

For more information on the Whitehorse Wildland Park go to: http://albertaparks.ca/whitehorse.aspx

More information on public access across the Teck mining sites

Back to the list of news