Alberta abruptly cancels request for drone surveillance to watch campers on public land

·3 min read
Parks across Alberta are seeing an influx of users, leaving more garbage and concerns about trespassing. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC - image credit)
Parks across Alberta are seeing an influx of users, leaving more garbage and concerns about trespassing. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC - image credit)

The Alberta government on Tuesday abruptly cancelled a request for proposals seeking a contractor to provide long-range drones to help with enforcement of camping on public lands this summer.

Posted on Friday, the RFP suggested Alberta Environment and Parks planned to use drones to take photos and video of "designated areas" of public lands over four weekends this summer and fall.

"ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) collection will take place within designated areas in Alberta between July 1–4, 2021, July 31- August 3, 2021, September 4-7, 2021 and October 9-12, 2021 ... to include detection of campfires, off-highway vehicles operating in restricted areas, gatherings of ten (10) or more individuals, and officer safety support," the bid document stated.

But Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said Tuesday the request was not reviewed or approved by anyone in his office before it was posted. He cancelled the RFP after learning about it for the first time on Tuesday through negative social media posts

"I"m not sure why that RFP was written that way. It's not acceptable," Nixon said in an interview.

The department is allowed to use drones for wildfire monitoring, flood surveillance and search and rescue, he said.

"But not to monitor families who are out camping and recreating on our public lands."

The government cancelled the RFP and removed the bid documents from the Alberta Purchasing Connection website by 11 a.m. Tuesday. Media had started making inquiries and at least one outlet had published a story by that time.

Under the RFP, images and video collected by the drones would have been provided in real-time, and the information would have gone to Alberta Environment and Parks at the end of each holiday weekend.

The RFP said the government had planned to use long-range drones to monitor for wildfires and flooding, and to assist in search and rescue.

Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Marlin Schmidt, the NDP critic for environment and parks, said the RFP was another failure under Nixon's watch as minister. He doesn't believe Nixon's claim he didn't know about his department's plans for drone surveillance.

"Now that it was public and he got caught, he's in the position of having to backtrack," Schmidt said. " And we've seen the minister in that position a number of times over the last couple of years. "

Camping on public lands in Alberta has traditionally been free but the government is introducing a $30 annual fee to help pay for additional enforcement.

Last summer, Alberta saw an upswing in the popularity of camping on both public land and traditional campsites due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More campers placed increased demands on public lands, which generally lack amenities such as pit toilets, waste collection and fire pits offered at traditional campsites.

Areas in the Bighorn area of the eastern slopes, which were proposed to become provincial parks under the previous NDP government, have been hit particularly hard.

A report by the Alberta Environment Bighorn Backcountry Standing Committee from June 2020 found the areas were overrun with users. Some campers cut live trees for firewood, overran areas with new ATV trails and left garbage and human waste behind.

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