The provincial government dropped a bombshell this week when it announced the full or partial closure of 20 provincial parks and recreation areas. Some of these sites will be closed to public access. They also announced other major changes, including the potential sale or privatization of 164 additional parks and recreation areas. These sites could have their legal park designations removed.
This was done without warning or consultation. It’s a profound betrayal of trust.
The affected areas are throughout the province and will affect the ability of Albertans to access parks and nature close to home.
There are approximately 30 areas identified in Kananaskis Country, where I spend a lot of my free time. These include well-known areas such as Big Elbow, Cataract Creek, Highwood Junction, Moose Mountain and Sibbald Lake. Two of the four visitor centres in Kananaskis will be closed. There will no longer be any groomed cross-country ski track setting in the Peter Lougheed, Mount Shark and Kananaskis Village areas. Camping and other fees will increase.
One of former premier Peter Lougheed’s most enduring legacies was the creation of Kananaskis Country in 1978. He recognized the importance of designating a large area of public land that would be subject to careful management and held for the use and enjoyment of all Albertans. Very few large urban areas in the world have such a spectacular adjacent outdoor area.
Every subsequent premier, until now, has respected the special status of Kananaskis Country. Many of these premiers have taken steps to enhance protection and to improve upon Lougheed’s legacy.
Former premier Ralph Klein is best remembered for his laser focus on fighting Alberta’s deficit and debt. But he also embarked on a lengthy and inclusive public consultation process in the late 1990s in order to develop the Kananaskis Country Recreation Policy in 1999. He recognized the importance of being guided by the public.
Klein’s introduction to the recreation policy states that “Alberta is committed to the wise management of our natural resources and environment for the benefit of all Albertans. We must ensure we continue this approach in Kananaskis Country, which has been a remarkable success for over 20 years.”
The policy recognizes Kananaskis Country for its clean air and water, spectrum of protected areas, and accessible opportunities for a wide range of outdoor recreation. The policy mandates that public land will not be sold in Kananaskis Country and that all decision making will require adequate public consultation and information. Klein then added to Lougheed’s legacy by creating many new provincial parks within Kananaskis Country.
Most recently, as premier, Rachel Notley announced $5.2 million of new funding for Kananaskis Country for its 40th anniversary in 2018. This funding was intended to enhance infrastructure and trails. Much of it was targeted around the Barrier Lake Visitor Centre, which the government now proposes to close.
Premier Jason Kenney and the UCP government would be wise to pay attention to the reverence prior governments have shown Kananaskis Country and our provincial parks. They propose a fundamental betrayal by their treatment of these areas. This is our land to use and enjoy. It should not be sold or privatized. Its status should not depend on partisan politics or the state of the economy.
Kenney is not the first premier to experience tough economic times. Addressing economic concerns doesn’t require a radical change to our treasured network of parks. These areas provide fresh air, clean water, spectacular vistas, and places where Albertans from all walks of life go to experience nature and recreate. This is priceless.
Now is the time for the hundreds of thousands of Albertans who regularly use our parks to speak up and tell the government that its proposal is foolish, short-sighted and contrary to the wishes of the great majority of Albertans.
Let the premier and your MLA know what you think. Our land is not theirs to sell or privatize!
Phil Nykyforuk is a Calgarian and chair of the Board of the Southern Alberta Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. He and his family are regular users of Alberta’s provincial parks.