No longer a hidden gem: Random campsites on Lake Abraham are getting upgrades

Need to know where to exit Hwy 11 to get to Preacher’s Point Campground at the south end of Abraham Lake.

There are no obvious signs or entrances to the random campsite.

Don Livingston carefully drives his truck into a ditch, which plunges sharply down a dirt road marked with ruts and potholes. The road winds through an aspen grove with campsites scattered on either side. The sites offer breathtaking views of the lake and the snow-capped mountains.

Livingston, the southern director of recreation and ecosystem land management for Alberta Environment and Parks, reports tire tracks diverting through the grass, likely to avoid the main road as it becomes too muddy.

Soon a blue Dodge Ram truck towing a boat heads down the trail, the trailer bumping and rocking as it hits potholes in the road.

The driver, a resident of nearby Rocky Mountain House who reportedly identifies himself only as Kyle, stops to chat with Livingston, who explains that the Alberta government plans to level the road and add Gravel on the surface to level it.

Kyle said he bought the government’s annual random camping pass after it was introduced last year. He is happy to see that money makes a difference.

“I think it’s great,” he said.

Random camping in the Abraham Slabs area along the David Thompson Corridor. Alberta Environment and Parks is installing sky-jumping toilets at popular random camping spots to end problems with accumulated human waste. (David Bajer/CBC)

That statement is likely music to the ears of Alberta’s United Conservative government and its Environment and Parks Minister, Jason Nixon, who is also the region’s MPP.

Random camping was free until June 2021 when the government introduced the $30 annual pass. Since then, more than 50,000 passes have been sold, with $1.5 million in revenue going towards David Thompson lane improvements.

Alberta Environment and Parks is spending $8.4 million over three years to install vault toilets, add bear-proof food lockers and level roads at four popular locations along Lake Abraham.

Seven heavily traveled trails along the highway will see improved parking and signage at their entrances. The department is also repairing roads, blocking illegal off-road trails and adding restrooms to the popular Bighorn Dam area.

TransAlta Threat

The growing popularity of this area, which stretches west from Nordegg to the boundaries of Banff National Park, prompted Environment and Parks to spend money there for the first time in a decade.

Visitors come to the region all year round. Winter visitors are drawn to the frozen methane bubbles in the ice of Lake Abraham. Summer visitor camp, rock climbing, hiking and off-road vehicle (ORV) driving.

Livingston, a 37-year veteran of the province’s forestry and environment ministries, said social media and pandemic-related travel restrictions drove the crowds.

“The hidden gem in the David Thompson hallway has been unearthed and is no longer hidden,” he said.

The area is considered a Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ), which has less restrictive rules than a provincial or wilderness park. Random camping, where people pitch a tent or park an RV anywhere on the lot, is allowed under PLUZ rules.

Don Livingston of Alberta Environment and Parks shows CBC reporter Michelle Bellefontaine how a road at the random Preacher’s Point South campsite became braided. The province plans to grade and gravel the main road to help campers move around the campground. (David Bajer/CBC)

The lack of amenities in traditional campgrounds and minimal enforcement of rules has spawned what has been described as a “wild west” attitude among some campers.

In July 2020, the Alberta Environment Backcountry Standing Committee discovered that the random campsite numbers had gone through the roof. The report detailed trash, piles of human waste and the cutting of living trees.

Areas had been damaged by ad hoc ORV trails, some on adjacent lands owned by the Stoney Nakota First Nation.

In December 2020, TransAlta threatened to close the area to random camping due to safety concerns, Livingston said. The company operates the Bigorn dam.

“This is an earth dam and Transalta dam safety engineers are really not happy with this type of activity here,” he said.

“They have monitors and sensors and drains in the dam and they’re monitoring how much water was leaching from the dam.”

An OHV trail that went down the side of the hill is now blocked by large rocks. TransAlta has blocked off a site along the North Saskatchewan River to carry out work related to the dam.

The Department of Environment and Parks has installed toilets and is repairing roads at the Upper and Lower Bighorn Dam sites. New fencing blocks ORV access to Stoney Nakota lands, which are culturally significant to the First Nation.

“There’s a bit of downtime right now for this area,” Livingston said. “Until we can get things up this summer, we’re going to fix some roads down there and organize camping.”

Bighorn backhand

The changes come three years after the United Conservative Party killed Bighorn’s country plan shortly after taking office. The previous NDP government wanted to spend $40 million over five years to create three provincial parks, four provincial recreation areas and a provincial wilderness park in the region.

Nixon, then an opposition MP, argued the plan would prevent Albertans from fully utilizing the area and accused the NDP of not consulting enough with stakeholders. He withdrew the plan in May 2019 shortly after becoming environment and parks minister.

The move was a setback for environmentalists who have argued for decades about the need for stricter land use rules in Bighorn Country.

NDP Environment and Parks Critic Marlin Schmidt wants the government to create a plan to manage the impact of increased recreational users on the Bighorn Country area. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

Devon Earl, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, said the government’s improvements are welcome news, but they must be accompanied by law enforcement.

She said the negative impacts seen in the region are due to a lack of people enforcing the rules.

“We really need to see an increased presence of officers on the ground,” she said.

“And without that, all the improvements in the world won’t really make a difference because users in this area tend to think they can do whatever they want.”

Marlin Schmidt, NDP MP for Edmonton-Gold Bar and opposition environment and parks critic, said while the improvements are a good start, they feel like they’re being done. occasionally.

Schmidt said the changes don’t address the larger and more significant impacts of increased recreational use on land and wildlife.

“We need to have some sort of recreation management plan for this area to make sure we protect and conserve the area for future generations and don’t lose what makes this area special for Albertans,” he said. declared.

Trash left in a ring of fire in the Bighorn Dam random camping area. (David Bajer/CBC)

The Alberta government announced in March that 19 new conservation officers had completed their training and would begin work this season.

Funding for the agents comes from sales of the controversial Kananaskis Access Pass, implemented June 1, 2021, which costs $15 per vehicle per day or $90 for an annual two-vehicle pass.

Four officers are assigned to the region but none of the new recruits is working on it.

As for the David Thompson Corridor, Livingston is happy to finally see money invested in the sector.

“A lot of people come to enjoy this area and I would hate to see it closed just because of a little bit of overuse,” he said. “So let’s fix it and everyone can still enjoy it.”

This panel at the top of the Bighorn earth dam in Transalta rests on the ground. (David Bajer/CBC)

Sally J. Minick