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Dire straits for Alberta Parks

The public should be deeply concerned about the fate of its outdoor recreation, especially in the hard-hit and ecologically sensitive Eastern Slopes region.

The Alberta government announced this week the planned closure of twenty provincial parks and associated facilities, along with the removal from the provincial park system of 164 further park sites.

This was announced under the label of “optimizing” Alberta’s parks in the name of saving $5 million, a small fraction of Alberta’s $56 billion budget for 2020, all with little or no public consultation.

This plan, if fully implemented, would impact nearly 40 per cent of the total provincial park facilities in Alberta and cause incalculable damage to our province’s opportunities for public recreation in the outdoors, to say nothing of its reputation as a desirable destination for travelers.

Despite the claims of the government and some columnists, this plan represents a tremendous loss of outdoor recreation opportunities for Albertans. Sure, the public may still be allowed access to these de-listed or unsupported areas, but anyone who has encountered the scattered garbage, human waste, and other impacts of uncontrolled camping and recreation on Crown lands may not view this as a positive result.

Regardless of the claim that losing these parks “would not impact protected areas managed for conservation”, increased risks of pollution, accidental wildfires, and negative human-wildlife encounters will surely follow. Furthermore, people who are new to camping and the outdoors, or who suffer from health or mobility issues, lean heavily on publicly-maintained and managed facilities to experience the outdoors.

The surviving Alberta Parks locations will likely face increased crowding, especially at managed campgrounds and day-use facilities, further stressing those sites as well as their visitors and wildlife.

Sites leased or sold to private operators or cash-strapped municipalities face an uncertain future and a host of unanswered questions. What, exactly, will these “uses that were previously not possible under government regulation” be? How will they be squared with the ministry’s conservation mission? Will prices for camping and other activities remain affordable to the general public? Will the public be required to pay a fee just to access their own land, whether they are camping, or even for day use? What about access rights for anglers, hunters, backpackers, and other low-impact users? And if an operator decides their lease is unprofitable, what becomes of that site? Does it become just another closed husk with overflowing garbage bins?

The public should be deeply concerned about the fate of its outdoor recreation, especially in the hard-hit and ecologically sensitive Eastern Slopes region.

This proposal will invariably result in further pressure on the remaining stock of public lands and fewer opportunities to engage newcomers with hunting and fishing in Alberta’s wild places. Our long tradition of publicly owned, publicly accessible, and responsibly managed lands and recreation are at risk.

Before any public facilities are closed or privatized, the government must clarify how it decided on this course of action, what data were considered, and what the future criteria will be, beyond mere return on investment, for the existence of public lands and parks.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that a cynic is a man who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. We are not cynics about the importance of public access to the outdoors. We hope the government will join us.

- Neil Keown, chair and the board of directors, Alberta Backcountry Hunters and Anglers