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Waterton Lakes National Park just got a big brother.

Last week, Alberta Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips announced the designation of Castle Provincial Park and Wildland, ending a four-decade debate over the fate of mountains between Waterton Park and Crowsnest Pass, along the Continental Divide.

“We’re making a significant contribution to conservation in the Crown of the Continent,” said Stephen Legault, coordinator of the Crown Conservation Initiative, a collaborative of 14 Canadian and U.S. conservation groups. “It was a giant relief to get the ball this far down the field. Some people have been working on this since 1974. It’s the work of their lifetimes.”

Formerly known as the Castle Special Management Area, the protection covers 104,000 hectares (257,000 acres) northwest of Waterton, along Alberta’s border with British Columbia. Waterton itself is just 50.5 hectares (125,000 acres), while in Montana the adjoining Glacier National Park is 1 million acres.

The Castle landscape was originally part of Waterton Lakes National Park when it was formed in 1895, 15 years before Glacier Park was created in the United States. But in 1921, the Canadian federal government carved the Castle area off and gave it to the Alberta provincial government as a game preserve.

The mountains around Castle Peak hold the headwaters of the Saskatchewan River drainage, which provides about 30 percent of Alberta’s and Saskatchewan’s fresh water.

They also provide a significant wildlife corridor for animals that move between the prairie and the peaks. The Castle provides homes for grizzly bears, lynx, wolverines, and at least 240 species of birds. Many of them move constantly between there and the headwaters of the Flathead River, across the provincial border in British Columbia.

That area was recently protected from energy development by the North Fork Protection Act, which received bipartisan support from Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke. The act mirrors British Columbian legislation to safeguard the water quality of the transboundary Flathead River, although it doesn’t provide any park status to the B.C. lands.

Some of the Castle has become an Alberta provincial park, while about 60 percent of it is a wildland provincial park. Gordon Petersen of the Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition said the two categories describe how much development can happen.

“The wildland park is oriented toward a backcountry experience and limited development,” Petersen said. “The provincial park encompasses the provincial recreation areas that are already there, and it’s oriented toward front-country activities, picnic areas and cross-country ski trails.”

The Castle’s new park designation ends commercial timber development there. Minister Phillips said there’s also a prohibition on new surface access for petroleum or natural gas leaseholders, although existing leases will still be valid. Existing leases for metals, minerals or coal development have been canceled. Grazing permits are still allowed.

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“It’s a critical area for the wildlife connectivity of Rocky Mountain parks in Banff and Jasper, all the way down to Waterton Lakes and Glacier,” said University of Montana environmental studies professor Len Broberg, who studies transboundary policy planning and management. “And it’s a really important place for water storage, because it retains snowpack very well.”

The Castle’s biodiversity could make it a major attraction for wildlife watchers and eco-tourists, according to Rick Graetz, of UM’s Institute on Ecosystems.

“To me, the true definition of a natural system and its boundaries is its connectivity for wildlife,” Graetz said. “The animals have no idea what the 49th parallel means, or where provincial and state boundaries are. The more wildlife can roam freely, the better natural system we have.”

Broberg said a Canadian provincial park falls somewhere between an American wilderness area and a national forest.

The Castle Mountain Resort ski area has been there since 1965, and several roads lead to the park borders from Crowsnest Pass and Pincher Creek. Hikers can walk across its southern boundary from Waterton’s Bauerman Creek trail network. Several developed provincial recreation areas are in place, along with numerous off-highway vehicle tracks. Those could become a major debate issue for the Castle Park’s future.

“It’s a more heavily used landscape than what you see in Waterton,” Petersen said. “It’s not an experience where you’re backpacking and don’t see much indication of people other than the trail you’re on. It’s more of a hunting and fishing place than a backpacking and hiking place. It’s had a lot of motorized activity, and that sort of use puts a lot of pressure on other uses. We’re hoping for a more balanced approach to management.”

Last year’s draft of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan noted that the number of off-highway vehicles in Alberta grew from 37,042 in 1987 to 138,177 in 2010.

Existing maps of the Castle area list many routes as designated motorized summer or winter trails. The Alberta government plans to continue off-highway vehicle use, but has pledged to be more vigilant about trail management.

“The focus in the provincial park will be services, facilities and infrastructure to support the current use and future demand for recreation opportunities and tourism development, and could support more intense development,” a government fact sheet stated about the Highway 774 corridor leading to the Castle Mountain Ski Resort. “Beyond the Highway 774 corridor, the remainder of the provincial park could continue to support low-impact motorized and non-motorized recreation in a mid-country/backcountry setting and provide access to the more remote wildland provincial park.”

Public debate over expansion of the ski area blossomed in the 1990s, followed by protests over proposed timber harvest. While voter surveys showed strong support for a provincial park declaration, successive Progressive Conservative Party administrations supported more resource extraction there.

That changed radically when the New Democratic Party scored a massive majority in May elections, ending the PCP’s 45-year rule. NDP party leader Rachel Notley replaced PC party leader Jim Prentice – a man widely considered a future leader of all Canada.

“This is a complete change in direction by the new government of Alberta,” Legault said. “Five years ago, the Progressive Conservative government issued timber quotas for the area and logging started. People were blockading the logging in minus 30- and minus 40-degree weather, and that really sparked the effort to protect the Castle. Even so, a year ago we felt the cause was pretty dire.

“But then with the May 5 election, the new government had the Castle in its environmental platform. There had been 40 years of toil and struggle, and here they get the job done in four months.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.