The disappointing weakening of a strong management plan for Elk Island National Park 

February 2, 2024
By: CPAWS Northern Alberta

The disappointing weakening of a strong management plan for Elk Island National Park 

In early 2023, a draft version of the Elk Island National Park Management Plan was released for public feedback. We were very supportive of the plan, and in particular we applauded reference to the need for the small, but ecologically important National Park to expand and the development of a land acquisition plan. We also celebrated improving relationships with Indigenous Peoples, adapting to climate change, improving conditions for species at risk, managing visitation for the ecological integrity of the park, and the changes to zonation. CPAWS put out a call to action to our supporters and over 2,200 of you sent a letter in support of the draft plan as it was written. Thank you for showing your support for this gem of a National Park! 

 In December 2023, the final version of the plan was released 

Wild wood Bison seen in Canada

The Good

Some of the things that we all celebrated have remained in the plan. For example, the sections on improving relationships with Indigenous peoples remain intact, as do the objectives and targets relating to climate change adaptation, species at risk, managing invasive species, and the section on zonation. A couple of positive changes have been made. In Key Strategy 4: Creating Connections and Inspiring People, the plan now includes exploring alternate modes of transportation to the park.

For several years CPAWS Northern Alberta has partnered with ParkBus to provide free transportation from Edmonton to Elk Island National Park on some summer weekends. We strongly support a more consistent form of low cost, public transit to the park, particularly on summer weekends. In this same section, the reference to the former golf course has been strengthened to state that the area will be repurposed to a use that aligns with the Plan and Park priorities. The Plan also commits to consultation on the new use of the former golf course area.
 

ParkBus_Elk_Island_Taylor_2019_7

The Bad

Unfortunately, several very important pieces of the draft Plan have been removed altogether or have been significantly weakened. Even the Vision did not escape unscathed. These sentences were deleted from the Vision: “More areas are protected in a natural or near-natural state. Many of these areas are linked to form ecological corridors, which increases the resiliency of ecosystems.” There was no alternative wording on these points added to the Vision. 



Key Strategy 3,
Working with Others in Support of Ecological Sustainability on the Broader Landscape, has been significantly weakened. The draft Plan included specific reference to developing and implementing a land acquisition strategy to increase the park’s land base and to increasing protected areas in the Beaver Hills region.

The final version now says Parks Canada will “leverage a variety of conservation mechanisms to help safeguard the rich biodiversity and increase the protection of natural features of the region.”

 Within Key Strategy 3, Objective 3.2, which used to be “Elk Island National Park expansion has increased overall landscape connectivity, conservation, and ecological stewardship of the Beaver Hills Biosphere”, has been changed to “Together with the Government of Alberta, surrounding counties, Indigenous partners, Beaver Hills Biosphere, and conservation partners, overall landscape connectivity, conservation, and ecological stewardship of the Beaver Hills Biosphere has increased.”

Targets for that Objective that used to specifically reference increases in protected areas and expansion of the park above 2022 levels have been removed completely and have been replaced by the vague wording of a target of collaboration “toward mutual goals for protected areas in the biosphere region”. 



Targets:

  • Continued collaboration with the Government of Alberta, surrounding counties, Indigenous partners, Beaver Hills Biosphere, and conservation partners toward mutual goals for protected areas in the biosphere region.  
  • Protected area in the biosphere region has increased from 2022 levels
  • The amount of Elk Island’s land base has expanded from 2022 levels.  

There are also concerning omissions from Key Strategy 4, Creating Connections and Inspiring People. Despite referencing the large increases in visitation that the park has experienced, Objective 4.2 “Quality visitor experiences are enhanced through effective visitor use management strategies to ensure protection of the park’s ecosystems.”, now only has targets for visitor satisfaction and learning.

The target of “Measures of ecological integrity are showing that visitation is not impairing the park’s ecosystem” was deleted. CPAWS is keenly aware of the importance of people enjoying our National Parks and connecting with nature. However, the huge increases in visitation that Elk Island has experienced need to be managed carefully. In August 2023, another bison was killed by a speeding motorist in the Park – the 6th bison to be killed in this manner since 2020. The first priority of Parks Canada is to protect the ecological integrity of National Parks. Impacts of visitation on the nature that the park protects must be monitored and adjustments must be made when negative impacts are observed. It is very disappointing that a Target as directly connected to the top priority of the Agency as “Measures of ecological integrity are showing that visitation is not impairing the park’s ecosystem” would be included in a draft plan but someone with authority in Parks Canada would feel the need to remove that target. 

IMG_6613

The Ugly

In November 2023, CPAWS Northern Alberta submitted a Freedom of Information request (FOIP) to the Government of Alberta for communications between the Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada on the Draft Management Plan for the Park.

Our FOIP revealed a letter from Alberta’s Minister of Forestry and Parks to Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change demanding that reference to expansion of the park and increasing protected areas outside the park be removed from the plan. Here is an excerpt from the letter:
 

 The Government of Alberta does not agree to any expansion of Elk Island National Park, as required by Article 5.1 of the Canada National Parks Act. 

 In recognition of Alberta’s concerns and given our jurisdiction over land management beyond the borders of Elk Island National Park, I request these statements be removed from the draft management plan for Elk Island National Park.” 

Oddly, the land surrounding the Park that could potentially be acquired by Parks Canada to allow for park expansion is private land. This means that the Government of Alberta is attempting to prevent Alberta landowners from selling land to the Government of Canada for the purpose of park expansion. A family that owns land next to Elk Island National Park might consider selling land to the park to be a family legacy contribution to conservation, but the Government of Alberta would oppose this family decision, and maybe even prevent it from becoming reality. 

It is not very often that we get to celebrate conservation wins. The strength of the draft Management Plan (available to view here) for Elk Island National Park was something to celebrate. The weakening of the Plan despite the huge outpouring of public support for the Plan as it was drafted is disappointing. We encourage you to let Parks Canada know your thoughts on the final version of the Management Plan. You can send an email to  [email protected] and CC us at [email protected]. 

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