— "You don't know what you've got till it's gone, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot." - Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
Fall Creek, an important spawning water for the beleaguered bull trout — a protected native fish and Alberta’s provincial fish — is being damaged by people illegally driving their off-highway vehicles into it.
As well, the surrounding area is suffering from increased OHV traffic, enabled when logging in the area southwest of Rocky Mountain House started a few years ago.
Why should anyone care about the bull trout? After all, it’s just a fish and there are other kinds of fish. And there’s lots of wilderness for all users.
Actually, it’s about caring for native species that are part of our living heritage in this beautiful province, and it’s about the big picture — protect and respect the environment, or lose it.
Joni Mitchell recorded Big Yellow Taxi in 1970 but her song rings as true today as it did back then, considering the growing pressures on Alberta’s back country.
Will it be there for future generations or will pressures — largely from more and bigger off-highway vehicles (OHVs) travelling over upper rugged West Country trails — cause irreparable environmental damage?
Fall Creek, for the record, is colloquially known as Falls Creek because of the waterfalls on it. It has cold, clear water, which bull trout must have for spawning. The creek flows into the Ram River, which then flows into the North Saskatchewan River.
An Alberta Conservation study found that Fall Creek is a key spawning stream for bull trout, and provides habitat for young-of-the-year and juvenile fish. “Approximately 10,000 juvenile bull trout were estimated to inhabit the 7.5 km of Fall Creek below the falls. Bull trout implanted with radio-transmitters in Fall Creek were tracked to overwintering locations in the Ram, North Saskatchewan and Clearwater rivers, travelling 71.8 stream km.”
As many Central Albertans know, these rivers are important and precious systems in our West Country that provide considerable, sometimes spectacular, backdrop to wildlife, recreation and industry.
Bull trout, once known as dolly varden, have been classified as both sensitive and threatened under provincial legislation. They grow slowly, prefer cold water and spawn later than other trout. Spawning bull trout are seen as vulnerable to capture by bear, osprey and humans. If you happen to catch one, you must release it.
They were once in 60 Alberta watersheds but are in only seven now.
Wayne Crocker, based in Rocky Mountain House, a 26-year public lands staffer for the province, is backcountry co-ordinator for Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP).
He said that concern has grown for the Fall Creek area, located about 30 km south and west of Rocky and Cow Lake, out along Hwy 752.
“There are definitely some land management pressures in the area.”
There used to be just an oil road into the area but within the last few years, Sunpine Forest Products, which holds a Forest Management Agreement with the province, started logging there.
The company decided to improve the road a bit to accommodate logging trucks.
An unfortunate side effect is that the recreation motorized crowd has more access into the area, although it’s illegal and dangerous for OHVs to use the road.
Crocker said it’s a “windy, twisty, narrow mountain road” and to have OHVs on the road at the same time as logging trucks isn’t safe activity for the recreationalist. So Sunpine put up an authorized gate and signage.
“But part of the problem now is the public — even though it’s well signed, well gated — people are finding ways to beat around and go around the gate, or find different trails to lead into the area using that road.
“It’s become a real issue, and it’s not just a small number. Quite a few folks are actually finding their way in there.”
Long weekends are especially bad, with more than 100 riders going into the area, and it’s expected it will be busy again come the September long weekend. But OHV users can expect to run into increased enforcement, Crocker said.
Part of the problem is that OHV users have been going into the area since before it began to be logged. Years ago, there were fewer people and smaller OHV machines.
There’s signage now that says the road is closed to the public for their own safety.
It’s a matter of time before there are serious injuries between logging trucks and OHVs, said Crocker. The road is so narrow that it’s radio-controlled. Even half-tons have to communicate so they can get in and out safely. It’s a recipe for a collision — larger vehicles on the road have no ditch to go into if they encounter an OHV.
Even a “little bump” with a logging truck likely means the OHV user is not going to make it, Crocker said.
“I think if I had a message to the public, that if they do see signs saying that the road is closed it’s not just to inconvenience their recreational activity, it may be a safety or environmental issue.
“I think that that is sort of the frustration with us. If people feel they can just get around something then it’s OK. It isn’t OK. They’re still in harm’s way.”
Safety is one aspect of the problem. The other is the environmental side.
OHV riders are driving through and along Fall Creek. Crocker points out this can come with a $25,000 fine. Driving on a closed road is also illegal.
Among other things, driving vehicles through creeks causes silt and mud, and damages spawning areas. “No matter where you’re talking about, a motorized vehicle in a fish-bearing stream isn’t going to be acceptable.
“Because they found out that Falls Creek is such an important bull trout spawning area, the idea of having motorized vehicles in that water body, that creek, is a bad idea. Yes, there have been motorized vehicles in that creek,” Crocker said.
Over a long period, OHVs have carved out a trail about 20 km along Fall Creek. “The trail actually crosses the creek numerous times back and forth, back and forth.
“Maybe that wasn’t an issue when you had fewer OHVs but when you get hundreds of OHVs, then the impacts are up. They didn’t know back then that was an important bull trout spawning area. ... Now that we know all these things, it’s hard to condone it.”
OHVs have stripped the vegetation off the trail. Time and water and lots of OHV use have caused major erosion ditches that all lead to Fall Creek.
Crocker has been going into the Fall Creek area for some time. “I was horrified 20 years ago.
“It’s been not good for a long time. ... I see changes to legislation to help protect those sites and we are moving forward, albeit at a slow pace, but I do see we’re stepping in the right direction.
“I think public awareness about being in water bodies, the importance of watershed and environmental damage is starting to be more spoken about. People seem to get it more than in the past.”
This year has seen increased enforcement in the Fall Creek area as AEP has about 12 seasonal park rangers and full-time conservation officers enforcing the Public Lands Act and other legislation, Crocker said.
“Every weekend that goes by there’s more tickets issued and I’m sure there’ll be a lot more on the long weekend.”
The elements of education, signage and enforcement have to work together and the vast majority of people understand that some of their activities may not be a good idea. They are open to the idea of education, said Crocker.
“That will cover off most of the people who want to go out there and recreate with motorized vehicles.”
But there is a small percentage who don’t want to have any real rules. “I think that they’re willing to take their chances with legal implications of not doing the right thing.”
Crocker said there is potential for a proper trail system to some day be developed in the area.
“But just right now we’re not in any position to do that kind of planning and we don’t have, I don’t think, enough legislation to actually do all of the protection we need right now.
“We’re just not quite there yet and so we’re struggling with the present realities of that and many other areas actually.
“There’s more and more OHVs, and they’re getting bigger and bigger, so the impacts are not going away.”