With Alberta’s iconic landscapes and incredible natural diversity, it’s no wonder people are eager to explore the great outdoors. And in many cases, that exploration can be done respectfully, through parks, agri-tourism and public land escapes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way, and we increasingly seeing conflict between land users and landowners and managers, due to infringements on property rights and land damage.
Last year, specifically, during the pandemic, parks grew crowded, and ranchers saw an increase in visitors to rural areas. While some were looking for a place to camp, others were looking for places to hunt, or explore with all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) — activities that are not permitted in parks.
ATV use skyrockets
According to some industry numbers, ATV sales were up 19.5 per cent last year, and this March saw an increase of 190 per cent when compared to March 2020. This increased traffic puts pressure on the available trail networks and landscape.
The forest reserve, a band of Crown land along the Eastern Slopes of Alberta, saw this increase, with heavy camping and ATV use in 2020 and thus far in 2021. Ranchers use this area for summer grazing as well and it is becoming increasingly difficult to steward land and livestock through this heavy recreational use.
Areas with no restrictions to ATV use have seen severe land impacts because of the demand. However, for most ranchers, the main issue with ATV users is bad actors. Producers outside the forest reserve have the legislated ability to deny motorized access, specifically with freehold land and Crown land grazing leases. The main problem for these producers is the ATV user who refuses to acknowledge a producer’s right to restrict access. However, a new problem is on the horizon.
ATV owners are starting to use undeveloped road allowances. In many cases, these narrow surveyed strips of land are within the fence line, but may not be under the direct control of the adjacent landholder. While undeveloped road allowances are owned by the province, they are under the care and control of the local municipality — leaving the access policy up to individual areas. Not only does this make it confusing for ranchers and recreational users alike, it also allows the municipality to make pro- recreation policies without acknowledgement to adjacent landholders.
Similar challenges can arise when campers seek “wild spaces,” with or without ATVs. Inappropriate land access can occur, which can damage habitat, and even put livestock or campers in danger. Additionally, campers might not remove all traces. Garbage left behind is not just an eyesore — it can endanger livestock and wildlife.
Hunting a catch-22 for beef producers
Similar to ATV use, hunting in Alberta is on the rise. Alberta saw 35,000 more hunting licenses purchased in 2019 compared to 2005. While many ranchers and hunters have developed good working relationships, there are still challenges with inappropriate access, safety concerns or damage to land or assets.
Land used for cattle production provides good wildlife habitat in the form of biodiversity, tree cover and high-quality forage. While good natural resources support sustainable cattle production, the inadvertent benefits for elk and deer can prove to be a burden for farmers and ranchers.
Things are further complicated when the habitat wildlife rely on is owned by a producer, but the wildlife is owned and managed by the Crown — resulting in producers’ property rights being named as a factor in wildlife population growth in the province. Landowners have the right to deny access but population growth is routinely blamed on lack of access.
Ranchers are stewards of the land. Properly managed, it provides ecological goods and services, such as carbon storage, and maintenance of biodiversity and wildlife habitat. To support these benefits long-term, landowners and land managers need to be able to care for the land. Poorly managed recreational use can be an insurmountable barrier to the economic and environmental sustainability of an operation.
Whether you use land for growing food, raising livestock, or as a recreational reprieve, we can all agree that land is a finite resource — this is it. If we want to offer the same or better experiences with the land to future generations, we need to know how to work with it, and with each other.