Proposed plans for Bighorn Country prompt rally in Drayton Valley

WATCH: Controversy continues over the proposal for Bighorn Country in western Alberta. Upcoming information sessions have been cancelled amid allegations of bullying and harassment. As Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports, a rally is planned for Monday by those who say the public engagement process is flawed.

Bighorn Country stretches between Banff and Jasper National Parks.

In November, the province proposed four provincial parks, four provincial recreation areas and a new public land use zone for the Bighorn area.

The province plans to spend $40 million over the next five years creating campgrounds, hiking trails and trails for off-highway vehicle use.

The plan is supported by 37 former top provincial biologists in a letter sent to the premier last week.

“We have to start dialing back on some of the land uses if we want to maintain some of those vital resources like water,” said Lorne Fitch, a retired Alberta Fish and Wildlife biologist, on Sunday.

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He and his colleagues penned the letter because he said there has been misinformation that has lead to inflamed dialogue on the issue. Fitch is calling for a less politically-motivated discussion.

“There is a tendency to think change is bad,” Fitch said.

“People who have been using the Bighorn — particularly for things like motorized recreation — maybe can’t see or won’t see some of the damage that has been created and the need that we have to take some of that back and protect the landscape for some of its inherent qualities like watershed protection.”

“We need to have a less-partisan discussion about natural resource management for areas like the Bighorn, rather than getting into a political storm over what the Bighorn is and should be.”

Bighorn Country information sessions cancelled over allegations of intimidation, bullying

On Saturday, environment minister Shannon Phillips announced that upcoming public information sessions in Drayton Valley, Edmonton, Red Deer and Sundre were cancelled.

“I have heard stories of Albertans afraid to attend community events, Albertans berated in public, Albertans followed home and Albertans feeling intimidated to not speak their mind or participate in this important discussion,” her statement read.

“These reports are not only deeply concerning, this behaviour is not reflective of the values we all share. I call on all of my elected colleagues to denounce the bullying and harassment being faced by Bighorn supporters.”

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Tom Hinderks is part of a group organizing a rally in Drayton Valley on Monday for people to express their concerns about the proposed parks.

He’s disappointed the government chose to shut down the in-person information sessions.

“To imply through stories that the region is full of rednecks and hooligans, that’s very insulting and it has upset a lot of people,” said Hinderks with Rally Canada.

He believes there has been misinformation on both sides and said the problem for some residents revolves around public land use zones.

“You are doing a consultation based on a predominance of poor information and expecting to get a good result,” Hinderks said. “This process needs to be shut down and started over properly.”

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The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) pointed out the public land use zones will still be open to off-highway vehicles.

“In the public land use zones, it’s essentially a free-for-all,” said Joanna Skrajny, conservation specialist with the AWA. “You can ride anywhere on a off-highway vehicle so it’s switching from that system to a system of designated trails.”

She said there has been plenty of opportunity for public input but the in-person sessions grew intimidating for people who supported the plan.

“The truth of the matter is if you’re not feeling safe to speak up and you’re just being swamped by one opinion, that’s not a democratic process and that’s not consultation,” Skrajny said.

LISTEN: MLA Jason Nixon and Sundre Mayor Terry Leslie join Danielle Smith to discuss the cancellation of public consultation sessions and issues affecting citizens in the region

UCP MLA Jason Nixon tweeted on Saturday: “The NDP is trying to ram through a fake consultation on an issue of major consequence in just 70 days before an election… It is completely unacceptable for the NDP to arbitrarily cancel in-person consultation.”

Two telephone town hall sessions are planned for area residents to ask government officials questions. Public engagement has been extended two weeks to Feb. 15.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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