Funding for motorized vehicle trails in Alberta is worrying some outdoor enthusiasts
Alberta’s four-year commitment to funding the maintenance of motorized recreational trails has pleased off-road enthusiasts but angered some people concerned about the environment.
On Friday, Minister of Forestry, Parks and Tourism Todd Loewen rumbled in an all-terrain vehicle (OHV) to a news conference at Sherwood Park to announce $8 million in public funding through 2026 to two organizations to maintain forests walking trails.
“Our government understands that investing in a designated trail system will help protect our wild landscapes while boosting tourism and supporting the local economy,” Loewen said.
The Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association (AOHVA) and Alberta Snowmobile Association will use the funds to maintain and expand their trail networks.
AOHVA President Garett Schmidt said in an interview Monday that the organization’s 24 member clubs have supported the network with volunteer time, equipment and donations through this year.
The United Conservative Party government’s Trails Act, which the legislature passed in 2021, allowed the minister to designate organizations responsible for maintaining trails.
AOHVA and the Snowmobile Association are the province’s test cases, Loewen said last week. The government could sign more deals in the future.
AOHVA, which receives $1 million a year for four years, will award the money to its clubs for improvements to hiking trails, signs and educational efforts such as information kiosks, Schmidt said.
Building bridges over streams should also improve the vehicles’ environmental impact by keeping them out of the water, he said.
“If it’s managed and mitigated, that’s also part of sustainability — the balance between social, economic and environmental values,” Schmidt said.
Proponents frustrated with growing influence of OHVs
Biologist Lorne Fitch says the balance of values is currently out of whack, threatening species native to Alberta.
“The improvement and expansion of pathways for off-highway vehicles is in direct contrast to the preservation of biodiversity and water quality on virtually every public lands where this activity occurs,” said Fitch, retired fish and wildlife biologist and former associate Professor at the University of Calgary.
Peer-reviewed scientific studies have found that wildlife areas can only sustain a certain concentration of “linear disturbances” such as roads, trails or utility corridors before wildlife is adversely affected, Fitch said.
Alberta has already exceeded that path density on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and northern foothills, he said.
Building more trails would put grizzly bears, moose, caribou, bull trout, arctic grayling and songbirds at further risk, he said.
He said there was no evidence that building bridges over streams resulted in improved water quality around OHV trails.
Fitch said motorized trail users make up a small portion of outdoor enthusiasts but attract outsized government investment.
Also frustrated is Shaun Peter, who lives in Canmore and owns Bragg Creek and Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation.
While hikers, cyclists, paddlers, and climbers pay $90 per vehicle each year to use Kananaskis trails, OHV users pay $54 per year to register their vehicles.
Peter said the contrast is stark in the McLean Creek area of Kananaskis, where OHVs and road vehicles often get stuck on muddy trails and have to be towed.
He says pedestrians pay higher tolls and cause less damage to the environment.
“You’ve got to get your house in order somehow before you start spending more and creating a bigger trail network,” said Peter.
He wants the province to spend more money on trails and facilities that are accessible to a wider variety of people.
The province is exploring ways to coexist with wildlife habitats, Forestry, Parks and Tourism spokesman Patrick Malkin said in an email Monday. Hiking trails should be developed to minimize their ecological impact, he said.
The funding was not a result of favoritism, he said.
“The intent is to preserve Alberta’s natural habitat within a framework that allows Alberta residents to enjoy all that Alberta has to offer,” said Malkin.