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Three years ago, Alberta’s United Conservative government under Jason Kenney announced it was going to close 10 provincial parks and recreation areas, and look to privatize some services in 164 others.
There were cuts to services, including cross-country trail grooming and the introduction of more fees.
The reaction was swift and deafening.
It took almost a year for the UCP government to officially disavow its plans in the wake of the public upheaval. Some considered it the first defeat for the Kenney government.
Since then, parks have undergone more subtle changes, from the reorganization of ministries, funding for off-road enthusiasts and a focus on tourism and trail building.
In the recent budget, the government increased spending on public lands for access and recreation, including trails and structures, but there was no mention of increased spending for environmental sustainability.
Katie Morrison, director of the southern Alberta chapter of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, dubs it: “death by a 1,000 cuts.”
Here’s what we know about what has happened so far — and what’s to come — in Alberta’s parks.
Shortly before the government officially backed down from its parks plan in 2020, it introduced another change.
In November of that year, the Crown Lands Vision was unveiled with the promise of clarifying rules on public lands — including parks.
“Together, parks and public lands are really one thing — Crown lands managed by government for all Albertans and Indigenous peoples, now and for generations to come,” the vision read.
The government said various rules and regulations for use of public land were confusing and ought to be streamlined. It wanted clarity, a focus on partnerships and recreation and, as always, a reduction in red tape.
“I think what it really does is blur the lines between parks that are protected and public lands that are not,” Morrison said.
She’s worried that could lead to a watering down of environmental protection in parks.
Morrison thinks the vision will achieve the opposite of its stated intent — confusing the public and decreasing understanding about what is protected and why in Alberta.
Two years later, in April 2022, the UCP government announced Bill 21, its Red Tape Statutes Amendment Act 2022, which amended 15 different pieces of legislation across what was then nine different ministries.
Tucked into that bill were changes that could further blur the lines between parks and Crown land.
More specifically, it allowed for individual changes in different parks to be recommended by government agencies or other groups, which could include organizations of snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle, hiking or other trail enthusiasts. Those changes could then be implemented without legislative intervention — they would be bureaucratic, rather than political.
It also means different parks could have vastly different rules in place, counter to the stated objectives of the Crown Lands Vision.
“There’s no longer a standard of, you know, in wildland parks here’s what you can and can’t do. In provincial parks, here’s what you can and can’t do. There could be new regulations coming in for a very specific area and not others,” Morrison said.
When the Crown Lands Vision was unveiled, it promised a Trails Act to help manage the proliferation of hiking, biking and off-highway vehicle routes in the province.
In Feb. 2022, the act came into effect. It allows the government to appoint outside groups as trail managers and to designate certain areas for trail building and improvement. The government has said the act would improve management and planning.
It could see an increase in official trails throughout the province, alongside greater access.
Devon Earl, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, said there are groups that would do a good job as trail managers, but there can be an inherent conflict.
“There’s no guarantee that the main priority of these groups is going to be preservation of the environment,” she said.
“They have a membership base that really wants to get more access to wild spaces and expand trails and things like that. And there’s no guarantee that’s going to be within sustainable limits.”
Earl said the missing piece is a lack of regional land use plans across most of the province. Those plans are supposed to consider the cumulative impacts of all uses on the land and establish thresholds for sustainability.
Despite seven designated regions requiring such plans, only two land use plans have been developed since 2009.
“There’s so many areas where there are already way too many trails, and particularly off-highway vehicle trails, which have a relatively large impact on the environment,” she said.
“The trails need to be below thresholds where wildlife and species at risk are impacted.”
Concerns about motorized trails came to fore in the wake of the recent budget, when the government announced it was giving $8 million over four years to the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association and the Alberta Snowmobile Association for maintenance of existing trails and building new ones across the province.
Previously, the organizations maintained trails through volunteers and donations, but the Trails Act allowed the groups to be designated by the government for public funding.
They are the first organizations to receive designations, acting as a sort of test case, according to the minister.
Critics have pointed to the big impact off-highway vehicles can have on animals and the environment and point to the state of areas like McLean Creek in Kananaskis Country as examples of the destruction.
That area, which has been chewed up by vehicles, is exempt from the newly introduced fee for accessing Kananaskis.
Beyond the legislative, regulatory and funding changes, the government also announced it was splitting parks from the environment ministry when Danielle Smith became premier.
Alberta Environment and Parks was no more. Now there are two ministries: Forestry, Parks and Tourism and Environment and Protected Areas.
The move put the vast majority of land considered “protected areas” under the umbrella of Forestry, Parks and Tourism, with Smith saying it was time to recognize parks were there to be used.
“Remember as well, forestry is also the way that we open up our parks. That’s where you’ve got [all-terrain vehicles], [they use] some of those forestry backroads, that’s where you’ve got camping,” she reportedly told the Western Standard in October 2022.
Earl said the Alberta Wilderness Association has been assured operations within the parks division continues as before and conservation won’t be impacted.
“It doesn’t give us a lot of confidence, just because it’s not in a ministry that has a mandated priority towards conservation,” she said.
In the recent budget, there was plenty of talk about trails and recreation in the parks system, but no mention of environmental protection. Funding increases were largely for capital spending on recreation, with $14 million allocated over three years for trails, parking, staging areas, wayfinding and “associated waste management.”
The majority of that work will take place on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, according to the budget.
In response to questions from The Narwhal, Leanne Niblock, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism, highlighted the government’s investment in trails, $12 million for campgrounds and the establishment of Big Island Provincial Park, under review since 2021 and officially announced on Feb. 16.
Big Island will be managed by the province, the City of Edmonton and the Enoch Cree First Nation.
“All development in parks is already subject to strict environmental and cultural reviews,” Niblock said by email. “This environmentally responsible framework will set a renewed vision for Alberta Parks — keeping parks for people, sustaining the environment and supporting tourism and recreation outcomes.”
Morrison said tourism and recreation are important factors when it comes to parks, but impacts also have to be considered. Those two things have to work in tandem.
“We may see that drift, and it’s much harder for managers to make those connections because they’re now in two separate departments,” she said.
Beyond the organizational shuffle that could signal big changes for parks in the province, the government also announced this year that it would be splitting up the people responsible for wildlife management.
The government said Fish and Wildlife, recently housed under the new Environment and Protected Areas ministry, is being separated.
Oversight for fish hatcheries will go to Alberta Irrigation and Agriculture, while a new department will be created in Forestry, Parks and Tourism that will “increase focus and capacity on supporting hunting and fishing as an activity on Crown lands,” according to a memo obtained by the Canadian Press.
Things like species at risk and habitat and land use planning will fall under the authority of Environment and Protected Areas.
“I think, for example, the allocation of hunting and fishing, which is now in the Ministry of Forestry, Parks, and Tourism — it really shouldn’t be a separate entity, because wildlife has value beyond hunting and fishing,” Earl said.
“And it really needs to be based on conservation science, it needs to be based on land use of what’s going on in the habitat of these wildlife species. So we’re concerned that there might not be great communication between all of these different pieces now that they’re in separate ministries.”
The budget was focused on bringing more people to parks and public lands across Alberta, to build more facilities and bring in tourist dollars.
But it was part of a larger move to muddy the waters around significant changes to the way parks are regulated and operated within the province.
“I think if all of these pieces, if they had bundled [them] into one there probably would have been a big backlash, but it’s really hard for people to keep up with all these seemingly minor changes, and to understand the impact of each minor change individually,” Morrison said.
The Crown Lands Vision leads to red tape reductions and the Trails Act, which leads to a focus on tourism and access over ecology. The ministries are reorganized to separate the economic from the environmental. Monitoring and enforcement is cut up and spread.
“All of those put together, you paint this pretty bleak picture of where we’re going as a province in parks management, in environment management, especially in contrast to the ambitious conservation goals the rest of Canada in the world are taking on,” Morrison said.
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