Through language such as “optimizing” and “modernization,” Alberta Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon may have thought he had a political winner when he made his announcement back in March to remove 164 sites from the Alberta Parks system — an ambition that might have been furthered by the promise to save taxpayers a bit of money. Instead, he’s had to endure an avalanche of criticism.
Much of that criticism has flowed from the passion that Albertans have for public parks and spaces where they can get out into nature. Nixon’s decision proved to be so unpopular that, instead of proudly displaying all the under-utilized areas he was targeting, the list of parks quietly disappeared from the government’s website.
Parks are much more than just places to play. Whether large or small, parks are refuges that protect valuable, often rare, landscapes. This government decision to cut parks increases the existential threat to some of Alberta’s most endangered and least protected natural regions: the Parkland, Grassland and Foothills. More than half the sites losing their protected status fall within these regions. Nearly 90 square kilometres of protection (about half the size of Elk Island National Park) will be lost.
Given Alberta’s size, some might argue this reduction is inconsequential. But these regions are already at great risk: less than two per cent of Parkland, Grassland and Foothills have been designated for protection; they aren’t in a position to afford losses.
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Take a closer look at the Grassland, which provides critical habitat for over three-quarters of Alberta’s species at-risk. As of 2018, only 1.25 per cent of its landscapes were protected through government-recognized parks and conservation areas. This new “optimization” will strip away five per cent of that existing protection.
At least three locations that are up for removal (Little Fish Lake, Gooseberry Lake and sites along Buffalo Lake) contain important habitat for piping plover, a recognized endangered species under the federal Species at Risk Act. Ghost Airstrip Provincial Recreation Area, meanwhile, contains critical habitat for westslope cutthroat trout, another at-risk species.
These sites will either be turned over to third-party partnerships or will become vacant public lands. Either way, the cost and responsibility to manage local species and ecosystems will fall into new hands. And, to date, no assurance has been provided by the provincial government on how third-party partners will respect the conservation objectives these lands had as part of the Alberta Parks system.
The damage this decision will do to protection is rooted in the likelihood these lands will no longer be governed by Alberta’s Provincial Parks Act. Under the act, sites are managed for two primary purposes: conservation and accessible recreation. A designated site is about more than just being a point on a map — it’s a form of targeted investment into infrastructure, ecosystem management and long-term planning. Other laws, such as the Public Lands Act, lack the conservation focus.
The need for sound parks management, education and enforcement is growing ever more apparent as public lands see a rise in popularity among Albertans during the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of this, we face unprecedented global declines in biodiversity, including in Canada. Now is the time to strengthen — not weaken — our networks of parks and protected areas, especially in Alberta’s most endangered natural regions.