Changes to public lands management proposed under a new red tape reduction bill will create a patchwork of rules and weaken environmental protections, critics say.
Bill 21 proposes amendments to the Provincial Parks and Public Lands Act that would allow the province to develop site-specific rules for recreational activities on Crown land.
Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said changes in the bill will make it easier for regional park and land managers to make seasonal trail closures or change signage without having to go through senior ministry officials.
"I would not want to see our officials have to go all the way to Edmonton to get permission to put up a sign to be able to protect that habitat," Nixon said last week. "So this speeds up their process to do simple decisions like that in the field. It does not change the Parks Act at all,"
The northern and southern Alberta chapters of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) are concerned about the changes and want the province to put them out to public consultation before adopting them into law.
Chris Smith, conservation analyst with CPAWS Northern Alberta, said his organization is concerned by how broad the proposed provisions are.
"If the government's main goal with this was to, say, provide local park management with the authority to change signs for trail usage, then this is a very broad way to achieve that goal," he said.
"It raises some questions to us as to why it needs to be so broad to accomplish that goal."
The advocacy group suggested a patchwork of rules could allow inappropriate recreational uses and create confusion for people who want to use public lands.
'Chaos' on public lands
Those concerns are shared by Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Marlin Schmidt, the NDP critic for Environment and Parks.
Schmidt said he doesn't believe Nixon's rationale for the Bill 21 changes.
"There's something else going on here," Schmidt said in an in interview with CBC News. "And I suspect that it's to allow uses of the parks and public lands that are currently prohibited."
Schmidt said the bill would create chaos on public lands by adopting an inconsistent set of rules and regulations.
"So we're going to have one set of rules for one park over here and then possibly an entirely different set of rules for another park anywhere else," he said.
"How is the public going to understand what the rules are from day to day if there's no process for consulting with them before they change or even notifying them when when they're changed?"
The proposals in Bill 21, which changes 15 pieces of legislation affecting nine different ministries, come two years after the Alberta government released its ill-fated and controversial parks optimization plan.
The strategy announced in February 2020 to remove 164 sites from the parks system and partially or fully close 20 more was finally killed in December 2020.
The distrust created by that controversy creates a shadow over any changes proposed to parks legislation today, Smith said.