The UCP has pledged $43 million to improve Alberta’s provincial parks, but critics say the investment does little to quell worries about the government’s plans to close or “transfer ownership” of more than 175 parks across the province.
Premier Jason Kenney made the funding announcement Tuesday at Fish Creek Provincial Park alongside Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon. They said the millions in capital funding — including a $4.5-million investment in the Calgary area alone — will help to improve trails, upgrade campgrounds, and enhance day-use facilities and other infrastructure at provincial parks and public lands.
“Parks, like (Fish Creek) have drawn people to our province, bringing them in as guests and convincing them to stay as Albertans. Our natural beauty is unmatched,” said Kenney. “If this tough and difficult year has taught us anything, it’s how lucky we are to have such a beautiful natural environment to explore.”
He said the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a surge of visitors to Alberta’s parks this summer, which is why this investment is crucial to keep “our parks beautiful for years to come.”
The announcement comes as the province moves forward with its decision to “optimize” Alberta parks by fully or partially closing 20 sites and handing off another 164 to third-party managers, according to an Alberta Parks document published in March.
The plan has become a contentious issue.
Nixon stressed on Tuesday the UCP is committed to keeping all sites accessible to Albertans.
“Delisting a provincial park from the provincial park system is not closing the park. The reality is that the majority of our special places inside this province are actually protected and managed through the public lands division,” said Nixon, adding the conversation currently taking place is how to partner with agencies across the province to better manage “remote sites.”
“We are going to make sure we manage them in the most effective way so we can be able to utilize resources across the province.”
Budget documents suggest partial or full closure of the 20 sites can save the province $5 million. The remaining 164 sites, for which no managers could be found, are proposed to be removed from the parks system and revert to general Crown land.
Documents say they are “very small and underutilized” and would be available for “partnership opportunities or alternative management approaches.”
In June, the Alberta government quietly halted the closure of 17 provincial parks and recreation sites in Alberta so locals could enjoy the spaces amid the COVID-19 pandemic this summer. The “temporary measure” is now over, Nixon said Tuesday.
Marlin Schmidt, Opposition critic for environment and parks, said the UCP announcement is an attempt to “spin” their decision to close or delist parks.
“There’s nothing new here that will put the fears and concerns we’ve heard from Albertans to rest,” said Schmidt. “The UCP did announce grant funding today but providing grants is part of the routine operations of the environment and parks budget. Jason Kenney still must commit to stopping the sale and mass closure of Albertans’ provincial parks.”
He said the premier could easily reverse course and “keep these parks open.”
Alberta conservation group Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) took to social media earlier this month to fact-check the province’s parks plan .
Through a Freedom of Information request, the organization learned the proposed “divesting” of some sites could eventually lead to their sale by industry or commercial organizations, despite Alberta Environment and Parks strongly denying any parks will be sold.
In a statement to Postmedia, ministry spokesman John Muir said the government is looking at partnerships with municipalities, non-profits, Indigenous communities and others to manage these sites. He added: “Sites that don’t secure partnerships will still be accessible to the public.”
— With files from The Canadian Press and Olivia Condon