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Alberta’s New Park: 4 Reasons to Love the Castle Wilderness

September 11, 2015

ALBERTA’S NEW PARK: 4 REASONS
TO LOVE CASTLE WILDERNESS

By Sarah Elmeligi / Photos by Stephen Legault

Forty years of campaigning by conservationists culminated to a momentous announcement by the NDP this month: the protection of the Castle region on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies. Sarah Elmeligi tells us about the Castle’s cultural, ecological, and economic significance – and why we should fall in love with Alberta’s newest park. 

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Castle Special Place. Photo by Stephen Legault

Castle Special Place. Photo by Stephen Legault

On Friday, September 4, 2015, the Stone’s Throw Cafe in Blairmore, Alberta, was beyond capacity and people spilled into the street. With electricity in the air and big smiles gleaned on every face, including mine, the excitement in the shop was palpable.

The crowd had gathered for a press conference, which began with the blessings and prayers of Margaret Plain Eagle, Piikani First Nation elder. Then, the near unimaginable happened – Shannon Phillips, the Minister of Environment and Parks, announced that the Castle would be protected as a combination provincial and wildland park. With tears of joy in the eyes of many attendees, a loud cheer erupted.

The first request to protect the Castle as a provincial park came in the early 1970s, and for the last 40 years, generations of conservationists have been campaigning for this reality. It has been a long, hard road, making the announcement even sweeter.

Alberta’s newest protected area, the Castle stretches 1040 km² along the Alberta-British Columbia border, from Highway 3 to Waterton National Park. It is massive, wild and amazing, and its biodiversity is of utmost importance. 

Castle Front Range. Photo by Stephen Legault

Castle Front Range. Photo by Stephen Legault

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The Castle’s vast wilderness and beauty is inspiring, and a diversity of adventure opportunities call to you on the winds. This new park encompasses Alberta’s second largest montane landscape and is the most biologically productive natural subregion of the Rocky Mountains, giving it both national and international significance. While there are infinite reasons this place is important, here are the top four (in no particular order):

A Natural Water Tower

The Castle receives more annual precipitation than any other area in Alberta, and supports a full suite of aquatic ecosystems with rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands. Its headwaters provide nearly a third of the annual water flow in the Oldman river basin. Intact forests in the Castle hold this water and release it slowly over the summer to a water-stressed region covering 28,000 square kilometers and 70 municipalities, including Lethbridge.

Local Economic Diversification

There’s a lot of fun to be had in the Castle, from hiking and biking to hunting and fishing, or just car camping and sitting by the Castle River. Gateway communities, such as Pincher Creek and the Crowsnest Pass, can now begin to share in the additional economic benefits that accrue from provincially legislated protected areas. This includes approximately $2.7 billion in economic activity directly generated by public use of the provincial park network. This brings much needed economic diversification to the area.

Biodiversity and Species at Risk

As a natural extension of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the Castle is Alberta’s most biologically diverse area. It is critical habitat for several species at risk, including grizzly bears and cutthroat trout. Protecting the Castle contributes directly to provincial recovery of these species. The Castle contains a unique abundance of plant and animal species, including half of the province’s vascular plants (145 of which are rare) and 135 different species of butterflies. It provides habitat for a large array of Species At Risk within Alberta, including 14 mammals, 44 birds, 145 plants, 6 plant communities, such as the Big Sagebrush site, 3 reptiles, 5 amphibians, 2 fish, 10 butterflies and a number of spiders.

Profound and Sacred Value to the Piikani First Nation

The Castle is a relatively intact remnant of the wildlands that the Piikani have occupied for more than 1,000 years. The Castle contains several archeological and spiritual sites of continental significance, including ancient trails and vision quest sites still in use today.

Castle Special Place. Photo by Stephen Legault

Castle Special Place. Photo by Stephen Legault

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For the last few decades, the Castle hasn’t been managed for these natural and important values, and it has suffered the consequences. From now on, there will be no more commercial logging permitted, or any new surface mineral rights granted. Protection will also allow Alberta Parks to better manage camping and off-road vehicle recreation to create sustainable recreational opportunities for all Albertans.

The intact forests and headwaters of the Castle provide a myriad of ecological goods and services, such as flood and erosion control, which benefit dozens of municipalities and millions of people downstream. These ecological goods and services are also integral to the health of a much larger ecosystem, the Crown of the Continent.

The Crown stretches from Highway 3 in Alberta and British Columbia through to Montana, and is internationally recognized as an area of critical importance for ensuring that human and wildlife communities successfully adapt to the impacts of climate change. Protecting the Castle helps maintain the integrity of this much larger, incredibly significant landscape. Part of the Castle’s contribution to this larger landscape is through its connection to the Flathead Valley in BC and Waterton-Glacier. As climates change, these connections become crucial for species to redistribute and move around the landscape to occupy appropriate habitats.

Castle Special Place. Photo by Stephen Legault

Castle Special Place. Photo by Stephen Legault

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The Alberta government is looking for your input regarding which activities should be permitted in the Castle as they develop the park’s management plan.

The best way to celebrate Alberta’s newest park, though, is to pack up the car with all your gear and get down there – hike, camp, bike, hunt, fish, scramble. Whether you choose to go alone or with a gaggle of friends, you’re bound to experience a wilder, more diverse Alberta than you ever have before.

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Sarah Elmeligi is a wildlife biologist based out of Canmore, Alberta. She is currently working on her PhD examining how grizzly bears and hikers coexist in the Canadian Rockies; prior to that she worked tirelessly on the campaign to protect the Castle as the Conservation Director for the Southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

Stephen Legault is the author of eleven books, is a professional photographer and a full-time conservation activist who lives in Canmore, Alberta.