09/04/2015 03:39 EDT | Updated 09/04/2016 05:59 EDT

Castle Wilderness Area To Become 2 New Alberta Provincial Parks

Logging and energy development in the area will stop.

EDMONTON — The announcement of two new parks in Alberta has delighted environmental groups that have been fighting decades for their creation.

But the news that it will be shut out of more than 1,000 square kilometres of the Castle wilderness region in the province's southwest corner has angered the forestry industry.

"It feels to us a bit like we're being vilified,'' Brock Mulligan of the Alberta Forest Products Association said Friday.

The parks created by the NDP government are almost twice as big as those proposed by the previous Conservative government for the same region. They will also cover valleys and wetlands, while the previous proposal focused on high alpine areas.

"It's almost night and day,'' said Sean Nichols of the Alberta Wilderness Association. "This one goes so much further.''

The Castle — an area of mountains, foothills, wetlands and prairie — is to be divided into a provincial park with full camping facilities and a wildland park with only limited backcountry camping. Both have the same level of protection.

Logging is to be prohibited in both. Existing oil and gas leases will be honoured, but no new ones will be issued.

Under the previous plan, both industries would have continued to operate.

"All eyes are on Alberta's international reputation right now, especially on the environment," said Environment Minister Shannon Phillips, who was in the town of Blairmore for the announcement.

"Albertans also expect their new government to deliver high-quality outdoor experiences right here at home. With today's announcement, we are achieving both these goals."

Phillips promised to work with the local communities to develop tourism. She also said the government would nearby aboriginal bands.

Mulligan said the forestry industry was "profoundly disappointed'' with the move.

"It seems like this decision was taken unilaterally.''

He pointed out that the previous park proposal was the result of many hearings and consultations among government, industry, local people and environmental groups. He said that approach, agreed to by all sides, has now been repudiated.

The one affected company, Spray Lake Sawmills, is only five years into a 20-year lease agreement with the province, Mulligan added.

"As an industry, this is very discouraging. Our industry relies on secure access to the land base."

Ed Kulcsar, Spray Lake's woodland manager, said the timber rights that will be lost represent about 25 per cent of the company's total. While Spray Lakes will be able to make up for the loss over the short term, the future is murkier, he said.

``We need time to now assess this decision. We will be in discussions with the government to look at what our options are."

Those talks will include a request for financial compensation, said Kulcsar.

Nichols said Friday's announcement is a successful end to a cause environmentalists have been supporting for generations. He said the wilderness association was formed 50 years ago in part over concerns about the Castle.

"This is a nice 50th birthday gift."

The Castle area is unique in its geography and biodiversity, Nichols said. Mountains spring precipitously straight up from the prairie. Snow-fed streams form the headwaters of major rivers such as the Oldman.

More than 200 threatened species — from grizzlies and wolverines to bull and cutthroat trout to rare trees — call the Castle home

"It's a hot spot for biodiversity for the country and even the continent," Nichols said. "It's great to see that is truly protected."

Conservationists have long pointed out that foothills and mountain transition zones are underrepresented in Alberta's network of protected areas.

The government's next step is to develop a plan to manage services for recreation and tourism in both parks. A public comment period has begun and will last for 30 days.

The park management planning process is likely to begin in 2016.


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