A provincial plan to off-load dozens of Alberta parks and other protected areas to third-party management is just another way of shifting costs to other levels of government, says the head of Rural Municipalities Alberta.
“Yeah, it’s a download,” said Al Kemmere. “I do think that this is a passing-off of the responsibility.”
On Tuesday, the United Conservative government announced it would close or partially close 20 provincial parks.
It also plans to remove from its parks list 164 provincial recreation areas and other parks — many of which are full all summer with campers — unless third parties such as municipalities agree to run them. (Scroll down to see the full list of parks affected.)
The move was immediately denounced by parks advocates, political critics and user groups.
Kemmere said Wednesday that Environment Minister Jason Nixon’s announcement was unexpected.
“It definitely comes as a surprise. A week ago, we wouldn’t have had any knowledge of this.”
Kemmere said the surprise was compounded because the province said it hoped to double the value of tourism to Alberta’s economy.
“To hear this happen seemed almost counter to that approach.”
Nixon said the move is being made because the province can no longer pick up the $50-million difference between what the parks cost and what they bring in from user fees.
Government documents say the move would save $5 million. Nixon said it would be more, but he was unable to say how much.
Meanwhile, parks advocates wracked their brains to find examples of governments decertifying parks instead of creating them.
“Other provinces have delisted parks before, but often decades ago — and never to the scale we are seeing here in Alberta,” said Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).
On Wednesday, Nixon posted a note online, calling CPAWS and two other agencies — Leadnow and Y2Y — left-leaning organizations who are “making things up and parroting NDP talking points.”
A section of Nixon’s post reads:
Let me reiterate: Albertans will always have access to crown land, regardless of which partnerships are sought or how a location is designated. We reject the idea that it is only government that is able to provide quality services at parks day use and camping areas. This is the primary difference between us and the NDP.
We know we don’t have to designate an area a park in order to ensure good stewardship.
Unlike the NDP, we trust that most Albertans are responsible and have a deep love for our wild places.
We are looking at these changes because we want our parks system to work for the largest number of Albertans possible, but we are also responsible to Alberta taxpayers. Practises like flying in firewood to the backcountry by helicopter and having parks staff drive long distances to change trash cans at locations that saw 22 users last year are simply not sustainable. Albertans are doing more with less – we need to follow their lead.
Kemmere said there might be a handful of rural municipalities able to cover the costs of running a park. But not very many.
“For municipalities to take this on, and all the other things that have been changing … I’m not sure what the appetite would be.”
Members are already shouldering the cost of expanded rural policing, mandated by the province. The province has also reduced the municipal tax levy applied to certain types of gas wells and is expected to do the same for other types of wells.
As well, many small communities face large holes in their budgets from energy companies not paying their property taxes.
“When you put all the factors together, that’s all accumulating into some major pressure points for some of our members,” Kemmere said. “There are going to be some of these areas where parks exist, but the municipalities may not have the tools to handle them.”
That’s just going to create more problems down the road, he said. Campers aren’t going to stop and, without organized and controlled campsites, random camping will increase.
“It won’t be very well-controlled,” Kemmere said. “That’ll create a whole other problem in the environment that we don’t have right now.”
Kemmere said the issue will be prominent at a meeting of the municipalities next week.
“I’m going to make sure this conversation takes place.”
Below is a list of the parks the province is looking to close, transfer or sell, sorted alphabetically:
2020 Full Park Closure (entire site will be closed to public access)
2020 Partial Closure (remaining park areas will be open to public access, but un-serviced)
Sites to be removed from Alberta Parks system
*** The province said the deregulation of Big Elbow PRA is administrative only with no public impact, as the site designation overlaps with Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park. If deregulated, Big Elbow PRA’s backcountry campground would remain open, and be integrated and managed as part of Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park.
— With files from Karen Bartko, Global News
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