Alberta Parks Fact Check: 13 Truths and a Lie About the Announced Changes to Alberta Parks  

March 23, 2020
By: admin

Alberta Parks Fact Check

13 Truths and a Lie About the Announced Changes to Alberta Parks

Published [post_published]
Chris Smith 

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NEW: A printable version of this post is now available here!
(*Printable version is a condensed version of the text below)

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1. Parks will have their protected area status removed

A total of 175 parks are slated to be closed and/or removed from Alberta Parks system and revert to public land (including the 20 slated for full or partial closure some of which overlap with the 164 for future “partnership”). Public lands management and vacant public land-use do not adequately protect fish and wildlife or recreation values. The Public Lands Act, which is the legislation that regulates the 60% of Alberta’s land that is publicly owned, does not have the same strength and conservation intent as the Provincial Parks Act. Under the Public Lands Act, many activities such as coal mining, forestry, and oil and gas extraction are allowed which would be prohibited in areas governed by the Provincial Parks Act. Removing park sites from the Provincial Parks Act and moving them under the Public Lands Act strips them of their protections.

Sites that revert to public land without a partner organization as well as closed sites would also no longer be serviced or maintained by Alberta Parks. This includes facilities such as fire pits, garbage disposal and outhouses. Elimination of these services at these parks sites would lead to greater impact on lands and waters and lead to diminished user safety and experience, including garbage, wildlife conflicts, unmanaged human waste, erosion and risk of wildfires.

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2. Sites removed from the parks system would have their legal park designations removed, and could be open for alternate management approaches.

Removal of parks from the system opens the door for uses that are not currently permitted or which are more heavily regulated within our parks. Stripping sites of their protections under the Provincial Parks Act and divesting them to private entities leaves these sites vulnerable to alternative land uses that may not be compatible with the purpose parks are established for. For example, the following activities could be permitted on vacant public lands under the Public Lands Act:

  • Mining
  • Surface mineral extraction (e.g. gravel)
  • Commercial forestry activities
  • New oil and gas development 
  • New or unrestricted off-highway vehicle access
  • Random camping
  • New resource roads
  • Cultivation
  • Commercial facilities; such as
    • Resorts
    • Hotels
    • Golf Courses
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3. 37% of parks in Alberta will be impacted

These changes will impact, through closure, partial closure or removal from the parks system, 175 of the 473 provincial parks and recreation areas, or 37% of all parks in Alberta.  This includes 74% of all provincial recreation areas. While this may be a relatively small land base, they are the most accessible areas for Albertans across the province to access parks and experience our public protected areas. These areas could represent a loss of more than 4,000 campsites, nearly one third of all provincial campsites. Many of these parks also have important conservation values such as protections for rare plants, locally important habitats or breeding areas for wildlife.

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4. The majority of Albertans do not support this announcement

A  public opinion survey conducted in March shortly after the Government’s parks announcement shows that almost 7 in 10 Albertans oppose the closure or removal of these parks from the parks system.

The majority opposition to parks closures and removal of parks from the system was consistent across Alberta: in urban, suburban and rural areas, and across age groups and income levels. More than half of Albertans also oppose the announcement to transfer facilities and management of parks removed from the system to third parties and reduce government services such as the closure of two popular visitors’ centers in Kananaskis and ending cross-country ski grooming and track setting in three areas in Kananaskis. 

The poll was conducted as part of an omnibus survey by the market and social research firm Leger March 12 to March 16, 2020 and included a sample size of 1,002 randomly selected respondents from across the province. Quotas and weighting were employed to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the Alberta population according to census parameters. The poll was conducted using Leger’s online panel, which includes over 450,000 Canadians. For comparative purposes, a probability sample of 1,000 Albertans is accurate within ± 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Internal government documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request warned the Minister that the public, stakeholders and Indigenous groups would likely be concerned about the loss of parks, potential impacts to traditional land uses and lack of involvement in the decision making process. Concerns that the public will not support the decision is not justification for making a decision without public consultation.

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5. Ten sites will be closed to public access

The announcement includes the full or partial closure of 20 sites. Ten sites are slated for full closure where the “entire site will be closed to public access”, and 10 for partial closure where “remaining park areas will be open to public access, but un-serviced.” It is inappropriate to be barring Albertans from using park lands, and in direct contradiction to the promises made by the Minister of Environment and Parks to provide access to Alberta’s wilderness. Additionally, while these 10 sites have been identified, there has been no indication on whether full closure could apply to any of the other 164 parks on the list for removal from the park system. 

After significant public pushback and as part of their COVID-19 response,  the Government temporarily reopened 17 of the 20 originally closed sites for the summer of 2020, but indicated that this is only a temporary measure for this camping season.

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6. Parks facilities and assets will be sold and management authority transferred to third parties

While the Alberta Parks news release has been amended to remove the mention of sale of parks and the Minister has clarified that the land itself will not be sold, park facilities and assets will be sold and management authority for the area transferred to private partners through leases or other mechanisms.

Potential partners such as volunteer organizations and municipalities already struggle to find funding and do not have the resources to properly manage and protect these important places. Private operators are not accountable to Albertans or are required to maintain conservation values and quality outdoor experience for the public. Alberta’s parks should not be managed for profit. Commercial uses not currently permitted or promoted in parks could be developed in these areas once they become public land. 

Changes to the Public Lands Administration Regulation (PLAR) in November 2019 have also made it easier for private partners to apply for and receive dispositions for commercial developments on public lands, including hotels, lodges, shops, mini-golf, motocross tracks among others (see pages 5 and 43-48). It is also specified that this new disposition type is explicitly to provide services, in exchange for payment, to members of the public, and is intended to produce an economic benefit (see TCL description page 64). Private management and the resulting push for areas to be profitable could result in decreased service quality, increased costs and the commodification or loss of access to some areas.

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7. Transferring to third party partnerships is different than existing Facility Operating Agreements already in place in some provincial campgrounds

The proposed “partnerships” are different from contracting maintenance and operation of some park facilities through Facility Operating Agreements or service agreements. Alberta Parks currently uses Facility Operating Agreements (FOA) to contract daily operation and maintenance of campgrounds, concessions and day-use areas within provincial parks and provincial recreation areas. In other cases, service agreements are used for private contractors to provide specific maintenance tasks in parks like grass cutting or building cleaning. Under these arrangements, park areas remain in the Alberta Parks system and the overall direction and management is maintained by the government, accountable to the Alberta public.

In contrast to this existing process, the recent announcement indicates that facilities would be sold and long-term leases put in place for private management, removing areas from the parks system and greatly increasing the management authority of private operators.

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8. This will not save us money 

It has been reported that these changes will amount to a savings of $5 million. The Alberta budget for 2020 is $56 billion in spending. $5 million is only 0.0089% of the total budget expenditures.  

As a comparison, imagine a household budget of approximately $80,000/year.  In this case, 0.0089% of $80,000 is about $7/year. Cutting $7 a year for something that brings you value in health, relaxation and recreation would not make sense.  

Internal documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request have also shown that the government has insufficient financial data to determine the budget impacts of these changes. In fact, the documents suggest that it is likely that private partnerships would need to be subsidized, which could end up costing the government money.

Parks contribute to local and regional economies through recreation and tourism. Studies by the Canadian Parks Council have found that for every dollar governments invest in parks in Canada, $6 is generated back into the GDP. This far outweighs the minor ‘savings’ that are being reported. 

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9. Parks are not for profit

The value of parks and recreation areas is much greater than direct government revenue alone. These areas hold much greater value than an economic bottom line. Parks have immeasurable value, including:

  • Contributing to our health and quality of life by providing the opportunity to experience the outdoors
  • Providing key ecosystem services such as clean water
  • Protecting our fish and wildlife species and habitats

Our parks are our natural heritage and should be kept in trust for all Albertans and future Albertans to enjoy through a properly managed public parks system.

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10. The announcement is contrary to the intent of Travel Alberta’s 10-Year Tourism Strategy

The cuts to parks funding and removal of parks and recreation areas from the parks system is hard to reconcile with the Alberta government’s goals to more than double tourism revenue by 2030 and the intent to diversify the areas that Albertans and tourists are visiting. Our parks are emblematic of our tourism industry, and the reason so many people visit and fall in love with our province. The removal of protected area designations within the parks system threatens the future of our tourism and outdoor industries.  

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11. These areas are not all under-used and no usage data has been released

There has been no information provided on the actual use of these areas or how “under-used” is defined.  Alberta Parks does not monitor or report on day use of our parks system, or strictly monitor registration for overnight camping in more remote sights. Additionally, no comprehensive visitation data was provided in the internal decision documents to justify the claims that these particular parks are underutilized.  

These are the areas that Albertans go to experience parks and outdoors. They may not have as much use as the big sites near Calgary or Edmonton but they provide opportunities for rural Albertans and smaller centres to camp, hike and fish with their families close to home.

However, we do know that areas like the Barrier Lake Visitor Centre receives over 80,000 visitors/year and cross-country ski trails in Kananaskis are some of the most used winter recreation areas in southern Alberta.

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12. The announcement was made without any public consultation

These changes were introduced without transparent decision making or consultation, contrary to commitments made by this government to increase transparency and consultation on land-use decisions.  

Until February 2020, the Alberta Parks Consultation Framework listed the conditions or changes to the parks system that require consultation, including “Significant change in size or shape, significant change to public use of park” and “Change in legal classification or the management intent of a park.” On February 18, 2020 this framework was updated to the Alberta Parks Engagement Framework which removes the requirement for consultation and states only that “the public may be engaged or notified.” 

Making changes to these requirements shortly before making such a drastic announcement is clearly an underhanded attempt by the government to justify the lack of consultation. Alberta Environment and Parks staff also internally advised the Minister to conduct both a general and site specific public consultations on the proposed changes, but the Minister’s Office and communications department decided not to pursue consultation of any kind. 

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13. The Government of Alberta does sell public lands

While the minister has stated that these lands will not be sold, the government is moving forward with sale of public lands in other areas of the province.  Recently a parcel of  public native grasslands in southeast Alberta was put up for auction for a private sale. The election platform also included commitments on sale of Crown land for agricultural use, including 100,000 acres in MacKenzie County.  These statements and actions cause great concern that parks lands removed from the parks system could be sold in the future.

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14. THE LIE: The changes are a done deal and your actions won’t make a difference. 

If these parks are removed from the system, they will lose the environmental protections and quality recreation infrastructure that are affordably provided to all Albertans. These changes will be incredibly difficult to reverse once in place. 

Your actions can make a difference and force the government to rethink this decision. We know that tens of thousands of other Albertans have already signed petitions, called and written letters to the government about these changes. It is crucial that we keep pressure up and let the government know that we will not stand for the decimation and privatization of our parks system. 

Let the Minister of Environment and Parks and your MLA know that you do not support the announced changes to the parks system! We have a number of useful resources to help you engage with your MLA but start here by writing a letter now! bit.ly/DefendABParks

After you’ve already sent a letter, order a lawn sign, spread the word, get 5 friends who care about parks to take an action.

*Disclaimer*
Since we initially published the Alberta Parks Fact Check, the Government of Alberta has removed information from their website that is linked to and referenced here. In such cases, we have provided cached copies of those pages for reference and transparency purposes until such time as the government has publicly indicated that this information is no longer up to date. 

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