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Conservationists worried about Alberta Parks' budget cuts

“This is a two-pronged attack on Parks. It’s a slow dismantling of the effectiveness of the Parks division because there’s budget cut, but then there’s this budget priority of doubling tourism in Alberta," said Sarah Elmeligi.
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Sunbeams pour over the mountains surrounding Mount Yamnuska in Kananaskis. RMO FILE PHOTO

BOW VALLEY – Alberta Parks is facing an estimated $7 million in budget cuts under the United Conservative Party’s 2019 provincial budget at the same time Travel Alberta plans to double tourism spending by 2030.

Details are scant on what that nine per cent Alberta Parks cut means for the Bow Valley and Kananaskis Country, but government officials say $4.6 million is being cut province-wide in job positions, which will come from not filling anticipated vacancies, hiring fewer seasonal positions and through attrition.

“No employees have lost their jobs; the reduction in staffing came from dissolving open positions,” said Josh Zarobiak, acting assistant director of communications for Alberta Environment and Parks in an email.

Conservationists are worried about what the budget cuts will mean for conservation and management of parks, particularly at a time that Travel Alberta plans to boost tourism and visitor expenditure from its previous goal of $10 billion in 2020 to $20 billion by 2030.

Sarah Elmeligi, a former park planner, said Alberta Parks hasn’t figured out how to manage within its existing capacity the current volume of people on the landscape in Kananaskis Country, let alone how to manage the demands of increasing tourism with less staffing.

“This is a massive concern for Kananaskis,” she said, noting there are currently about three million visitors a year to K-Country.

“This is a two-pronged attack on Parks. It’s a slow dismantling of the effectiveness of the Parks division because there’s a budget cut, but then there’s this budget priority of doubling tourism in Alberta.”

Elmeligi fears a greater focus on tourism will likely lead to more development proposals, even new and innovative development proposals that Alberta Parks has perhaps not yet considered.

“Parks will actually have reduced capacity to address those proposals, so it is like a double whammy on the provincial parks system, and especially in Kananaskis,” she said.

“It’s pretty scary for me to think about what this could mean for Kananankis because we’re already maxed out.”

The loss of job capacity within Alberta Parks could have a significant effect on the landscape, said Elmeligi.

“There’s all kinds of services that Alberta Parks employees provide, ranging from public safety to educational programming to ecology and conservation to human-wildlife conflict and all of these could be affected by cuts like this,” she said.

It’s hard to say specifically what will happen until the budget cuts roll out, but Elmeligi said she’d be concerned about potential declines in seasonal employees in Kananaskis Country, such as human-wildlife conflict staff and educational and interpretive staff.

“Cuts like this could lead to fewer boots on the ground to enforce existing regulations around human-wildlife conflict, and bears especially, but it could also reduce the visitor experience,” said Elmeligi, who is also a bear biologist.

“If those cuts are felt in education and interpretation then that can lead to people having less access to amphitheatre shows, or all these opportunities to engage visitors in learning about the parks.”

Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative shares those concerns.

Hilary Young, Y2Y’s senior Alberta program manager, said she’s worried about how budget cuts may affect recommendations that came out of the Bow Valley human-wildlife coexistence report in 2018.

The report, she said, called for more enforcement on issues such as off-leash dogs and ensuring people stay outside areas closed for wildlife, as well as the need for more education for both residents and tourists.

“If we’re expecting more tourists to come to the Bow Valley over the next 10 years and there are cuts in some of these ways to educate them and to enforce some of the rules that we have in the parks to maintain human-wildlife coexistence, that’s concerning,” said Young.

Albertans love wild places and love getting outdoors, said Young.

“The places that they go to need to be managed and that’s important to maintain the quality of these areas – and that’s hard to do with less funding,” she said.

“I do hope they’re going to find a way to address this because we know understaffing has been an issue for provincial parks in and around the Bow Valley and other parts of Alberta already.”

Meanwhile, Zarobiak said the budget cuts to Alberta Parks also include approximately $1.6-million in “low-priority parks infrastructure maintenance.”

“At this point, it’s not possible to say how these items will impact Bow Valley-Canmore,” he said. “We will update you once this information is made available.”