Access management has been a huge issue in Alberta for over 30 years. It has been a great challenge for the Alberta government to manage the activities in our forests and ensure there are still safe access areas for public recreational use. Sundre Forest Products has been working on the issue of access management in a much focused effort since 1992, with open house discussions and implemented projects to determine which trails could be used for recreational use and which trails are too dangerous for the public or could create environmental damage. The Clearwater Trail Initiative provides the opportunity to work directly with other stakeholders in a coordinated pursuit of environmental stewardship solutions.
It may not be noticeable, but going off-roading on ATV or jeep expeditions and finding free camping areas in beautiful Alberta has been made easier due to activities related to exploring for oil and gas reserves. Oil exploration companies will cut straight lines through the forest to allow access for drill trucks and seismic trucks to determine where oil and gas reserves might be found. This has created a motorized recreation users dream come true – a network of opportunity to access most of Alberta’s provincially-owned forest area. The problem is that these industrial trails were never built with the idea that they would be used as a recreational trail and unfortunately, this has resulted in environmental damage and major safety concerns.
These industrial lines see thousands of visitors every year. The May long weekend alone, is estimated to have between 45,000 to 60,000 people camping in the forest area west of Sundre and Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Along with those visitors come an estimated 20,000 ATV’s, dirt bikes and 4x4 trucks. These random campsites and man-made recreational areas are very close to or on top of active oil well sites and pipelines which could be easily damaged by motorized recreation vehicles.
As a result of the unmanaged access, an area west of Caroline, Alberta was identified as the site for a pilot project to develop a safe and environmentally stable trail system. The Municipal and Provincial governments along with the oil and gas and forest industry and local representatives from ATV groups defined a trail network that could provide access to the area locally known as Rig Street. Staging areas were built, trails repaired, bridges installed and maps produced in an effort to provide people with ATV access, while also keeping them out of unsafe areas or where environmental damage has occurred.
Sundre Forest Products involvement in this project has included the provision of mapping assistance, trail design and location expertise along with a significant donation of treated lumber for the construction of boardwalks, bridges and kiosks. The donations from industry and funding from provincial and federal programs allowed for over $300,000 to be spent on this project. The site has been visited by senior government officials and land-use planning groups who are keenly interested in the positive results and how this idea can be applied in more areas across the province.
At this time, Sundre Forest Products is working with the provincial government to identify industrial areas being heavily used by recreationists. There is interest to modify the popular areas to provide a safe camping and outdoor experience, such as adding gravel and fire rings to reduce the risk of open fires on free campsites. There is also a possibility that roads built for accessing timber could be used as ATV trails when they are not in use by logging trucks as these roads are consciously designed to meet environmental and safety standards. In addition, the seismic lines that go nowhere and are not holding up well to ATV activity will provide the opportunity to plant healthy, new trees to repair those areas in the forest. It is evident that the public’s appetite for using trails and camping out in the bush is not slowing down anytime soon. It is a priority for Sundre Forest Products to work with the Provincial Government and other stakeholders to ensure that these activities do not harm land or water and that users are kept safe.