Science offers counterpoint to the OHV controversy

By Dori Modney (@Dori_Modney on Twitter)
February 12, 2017 - 6:56pm Updated: November 1, 2017 - 12:28pm

LETHBRIDGE -  In the world of journalism, every story has its counterpoint, or contrasting but parallel element.  In other words - the other side of the story. There is always another side to a story.

In the case of this past week's rallies by members of the off-highway vehicle (OHV) community, attention was drawn to the sheer numbers of angry people who showed up.  There were more than 600 at the rally in Bellevue on Tuesday (Feb 7) night and more than 1000 emotionally charge individuals converged on Galt Gardens in Lethbridge on Saturday.

However, there was another gathering.  This one took place at Helen Schuler Nature Centre Saturday morning, just before the rally in Galt Gardens.  It wasn't as big - about 35 people - but, it was just as emotion packed.  It was also backed by scientific facts which cannot be disputed. 

The photos, graphs and years of statistics were there in bold view for everyone to see.  Some of them were as frightening as looking at police evidence from a crime scene.

There were the stories from people and ranchers who live in the Castle area - all who are watching the destruction of the region and support the NDP move to close the region to OHV use.

They maintain that some of the moves being acted on by the current government, were initiated by the previous Conservatives.

The most powerful presentations came from the scientists. One of those was Lorne Fitch, a retired Alberta provincial fisheries biologist, and an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary.

He addressed claims that all parties were not consulted before the NDP government moved to initiate the closure of the Castle parks to OHVs.  He says it's a matter of perception.

"They have been consulted through their member organizations for a minimum of the last year and a parks proposal for the Castle region has actually been floating around for 20-years, so no one can say this came as a surprise."

Fitch says one of the issues is that many people who operate off-highway vehicles for recreation aren't part of any affiliated group, and don't feel represented by those groups that did come to the consultation sessions.

When asked if it was a case of irresponsible riders ruining it for the rest, Fitch says the issue is bigger than that.

"The problem we have isn't about the bad apples, it's about the sheer volume of traffic - whether that traffic is the good guys or the bad guys - we just simply have too many roads and trails operated-on by too many people."

To underscore that comment, Fitch noted the change in activity over a 50-year time span in the upper Oldman, or everything upstream of the gap in the Livingstone range.

"In 1950, there was 177 stream crossings, by 2001, that had ballooned to 2803 stream crossings (this doesn't include the uncounted stream crossings created since 2001) - and every stream crossing is an opportunity for bank erosion to occur and for water that's collected by the roads and trails that cross those streams, to intercept water and deliver it, with sediment, into the streams and rivers every time it rains."

Fitch explains that erosion is a natural event, and can happen within the range of natural variation.

"But, what we have done with all our land use, not just off-highway vehicle traffic but logging, and to a limited extent grazing, and everything else we do, including ski hills and campgrounds and so forth, is we have ratcheted-up the amount of erosion far beyond the natural variability in the watershed."

What that means, is that sediment is being delivered on a more regular basis throughout most of the year, instead of just part of the year, and that impacts downstream water drinkers.

"Just to give you an example," said Fitch, "there was a time when our watersheds were less impacted and even though it rained, streams ran clear - now, every time it rains, they turn muddy, and we now take it as normal that when it rains, they turn muddy - it is not normal - this is a shifting benchmark."

"Experts in the field, tell us that the Castle watershed, for example, provides about two-thirds of your cup of drinking water in Lethbridge."

Many of the conservationists believe that should be enough to shock people into taking notice of what is transpiring in the Castle.

In terms of trying to find a balance between protecting the environment and respecting the rights of parks users, Fitch says it is not likely at this point.

" We are well beyond a linear threshold density that can be acceptable, from a science standpoint, to protect biodiversity, water quality and water quantity, in the eastern slopes."

Fitch believes the conversation has to centre not around particular 'rights' but, about the bigger picture.

"It isn't about the rights of off-highway vehicle users to use every trail, every time, everywhere, all the time - it's about where those trails are that would be acceptable for off-highway vehicle use, that wouldn't influence water quality and impact fish and wildlife populations - and right now, I can tell you, within the entire Oldman watershed, there is not one off-highway vehicle trail that was designed and built, or is maintained, in such a way as to prevent damage to the landscape."

So, is there no way to accommodate nature and human use?

"Well, the current government has put much more resources into enforcement but, some of the things they are hamstrung by, is the inability to have land use zones in place now, that give those enforcement officers the opportunity to create tickets that are handed out - right now, many of those offences have to be dealt with through the courts, and that's a long, laborious process."

Fitch noted that there have been several groups in the Oldman Watershed that have been busy trying to restore stream banks by planting willows along the stream banks, to get the vegetative root mass back, to thwart erosion. 

"However, in virtually every case that I have seen, off-highway vehicle operators have driven over and destroyed all, or part, of that planting effort."

The destruction doesn't end there. Bridges have been built over streams and rivers, to keep OHV riders from crossing directly through the water.  However, during the group's presentation, it was shown that the bridges were frequently unused, as OHV riders would tear through the streams within feet of function bridges.  When boulders were placed in the path to keep OHVers out of the river, they would go to great lengths to remove the boulders from the path - again, right beside a bridge.

Fitch also explains that each one of the OHV roads or trails is bare soil waiting for some invasive plant species to become established and those invasive species complete with native plants and reduce biodiversity.

"I don't want to make this into some culture war between the off-highway vehicle community and the environmental community but I think the off-highway community has to get over their perceptual blindness about the damage that occurs with their recreational activity - I think they have to display a stewardship ethic and one of the ways of developing the stewardship ethic would be to accept restrictions on their use, to acknowledge that they shouldn't drive on trails that are wet, to avoid streams and rivers, and to be self-policing, as the hunting community has done for years, very successfully."

He points to the "Report a Poacher" line, which has been a very successful venue for hunters and fishers to report bad actions.

University of Lethbridge biologist, Dr. Andy Hurly pointed out, “Society has to ask itself how much damage is acceptable, and at this point, research and science indicates that what is happening is unacceptable.”

The question that has to be answered now is, at what point do the rights of one group supervene upon those of another?  Does the good of the many (downstream water users) supplant the rights of OHVers to use public land?

The debate will likely continue.


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