Big Hills Springs Provincial Park – one of Rocky View County’s most popular tourist sites – is once again welcoming visitors to witness its series of springs, waterfalls, and rocky terrain covered with flora and fauna.
The park, located northeast of Cochrane, has been shuttered since August 2020 for the Big Hill Springs Provincial Park Refurbishment Project – a $1.2 million plan aiming to improve the visitor experience through a series of construction projects. Components of the project included a reconfigured and repaved parking lot, the installation of additional picnic sites, trail remediation, expansion, and revamped site signage.
According to Michael Roycroft, regional director for the Kananaskis Region of Alberta Environment and Parks, existing trails were re-routed to lay within park boundaries, and a new north loop trail was added that includes a bird’s eye view to the south end of the Bighill Creek valley.
“We’ve had a lot of visitation [to the park] over the years and that visitation has had an impact on the trails and the overall site as a whole,” Roycroft said. “[The project has] added additional amenities and improved the overall experience.”
While the park is fully opened as of Sept. 10, guests are encouraged to come and enjoy the natural area in a respectful manner, especially on some of the older heavily trodden routes guests may already be familiar with.
Roycroft brought up the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact the crisis has had on the popularity of outdoor recreational areas.
“We’ve seen over the past 18 months, Albertans have flocked to nearby provincial parks, and that visitation has broken records across the boards,” Roycroft said. “We know these places are special – Albertans value them and we’re doing our best to make sure these parks remain enjoyable for future generations.
“That means we have to continue to invest in these parks and we will continue to do so.”
Gravel pit worries
While the public celebrates the park's reopening, Gerry Bietz, president of the Bighill Creek Preservation Society, said the threat of a nearby gravel pit project could jeopardize the park’s 70 acres of fragile ecology and visitor experience.
On March 2, during a special council meeting, Rocky View County approved a motion seeing to the development of a gravel pit nearby the park, despite vocal opposition from community members.
The approved application, submitted by Mountain Ash LP, plans for the development of a 320-acre gravel pit from a quarry located approximately 300 metres from Big Hill Spring’s creek underground headwaters and 1,200 metres from the park’s boundary.
Bietz said nearly 1,300 acres of lands surrounding the park are owned by gravel operators, and approximately 20 per cent of these lands have already been approved for mining by Rocky View County.
“Our studies tell us these mines will risk contaminating the water in the park and the creek with some of the same chemicals released from open pit coal mines,” he said. “Common logic would anticipate that gravel operations in close proximity to the park will produce dust and noise, which will harm the park experience.”
The preservation society’s mandate is to ensure the preservation of the natural and historical value of Bighill Creek Watershed for future generations. According to Bietz, the group aims to promote the use of simple reserves in a way that respects the environment and gives people an opportunity to experience nature in its “primitive” form.
The group has submitted scientific research underpinning the long-term protection of the Bighill Creek drainage, half of the water originating from the park.
“For the last year we have battled to protect the park and creek from damage by gravel mining,” Bietz said, adding the society continues to press Alberta Environment and Parks to require a gravel development exclusion zone in a 1.6-kilometre radius from the park boundary.
According to Roycroft, Alberta Environment and Parks is currently in the regulatory process and is completing an initial administrative review of a gravel pit application before an additional technical review is completed.
Now that the park has reopened to the public, Bietz said he hopes visitors will join the fight against a gravel pit development near Big Hill Springs Provincial Park.
“Our hope is the long-term preservation of the drainage, but we recognize that if people get out in nature and experience it, they’ll be more inclined to protect it,” Bietz said
“We encourage [community members] to contact their local MLA and the minister of the environment to encourage them to ensure there’s a setback.”