Decades-old K-Country management plans need review, says expert
Visitation to Kananaskis Country has increased about 320 per cent since some of the region’s management plans were last updated.
Last year, 4.2 million-plus people visited Kananaskis, according to Alberta Parks. An open government report shows there were roughly one million visitors to the region in 2000, around the last time plans were revised for Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park and Kananaskis – Bow Valley Protected Areas.
As the province promises more investments in trails, campgrounds, and other recreational infrastructure, some are calling for a refreshed look at the documents which are intended to provide long-term vision and day-to-day guidance for provincial parks, protected areas and public lands throughout the Kananaskis region.
“When we’re trying to figure out how to manage this new volume of visitors with a management plan that’s over 20 years old – it’s difficult,” said Sarah Elmeligi, a Canmore-based conservationist and former Alberta Parks planner. “It’s difficult for people working in parks operations, it’s difficult for people working in public lands, and it’s difficult for residents, visitors and businesses, too.”
The oldest of the plans still in use today is from 1998 for Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park. Other management plans are for Plateau Mountain Ecological Reserve, last updated in 2000; Kananaskis – Bow Valley Protected Areas, updated in 2002; Evan-Thomas Provincial Recreation Area, from 2004; Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Spray Valley Provincial Park, from 2006; and Sheep River Provincial Park and Bluerock Wildland Provincial Park, from 2008.
There are also management plans for the Canmore Nordic Centre and one for Kananaskis provincial recreation areas and Bragg Creek Provincial Park. Those plans range from eight to 14 years old.
Elmeligi was a parks planner in the Kananaskis region and said it’s not unusual for a management plan to be dated 10 years or more. Legislation is built in for national park plans to be updated at least that often, but there is no legislated timeline for provincial parks.
“Even 10 years can sometimes feel like a long time, given some of the new activities and new technologies that are continually evolving,” said Elmeligi. “A 2002 management plan doesn’t address what is happening in the park right now.”
With the recent separation of ministries in Environment and Parks, and Forestry, Parks and Tourism, some of the older plans are even less applicable to today, she added.
“We have management plans created for a parks and protected areas system that no longer exists on the landscape. It’s very difficult for a document like this to strategically guide any kind of decision-making,” said Elmeligi, reiterating that the most crucial changes need to focus on improving visitor management.
“Kananaskis has seen a humungous increase in visitation that’s kind of really unparalleled. I’m actually hard-pressed to think of any other parks or protected area in western Canada that have seen this kind of increase in visitation and not an equal increase in parks operations capacity and in management plans being updated.”
Alberta Parks has also been hit by budget cuts in recent years. From 2021 to 2022, the budget was cut to $76 million from $81 million. In 2019, it had a budget of $86 million.
The 2023 provincial budget does include an eight per cent increase in Alberta Parks' conservation budget for 2023-24, amounting to $500,000. Most, if not all of the increase, is reportedly for K-Country, as previously stated by Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin in an interview with the Outlook.
Elmeligi, the NDP candidate for Banff-Kananaskis in the upcoming provincial election, said she believes that plans aren’t being updated in a timely manner due to a lack of resources on the part of Alberta Parks.
“Unfortunately, with cuts to Alberta Parks, the capacity is just not there,” she said. “What happens when you cut the capacity of the parks operations division, is you basically end up in a situation where staff are just putting out fires – there’s not an opportunity for staff to think ahead and think strategically about planning for the future.”
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative environmental advocates have also called on the province for better land use planning in parks amid recent announcements to build new campgrounds and build recreation infrastructure in parks.
“We have been pushing for land use planning across this region that would identify where and how much of this type of infrastructure is appropriate in certain areas to ensure that we are continuing to protect the values for which parks were created,” said Katie Morrison, executive director of CPAWS Southern Alberta, in an interview with the Outlook last month.
The province was unable to accommodate an interview in time for the Outlook’s publication deadline but provided a statement in response to questions about when and how management plans are updated in Kananaskis in support of better land use planning.
“When deciding which sites require management plans, we consider the complexity of their needs like visitation, unique cultural features, and if there are multiple or conflicting land uses. It is not feasible for every site to have a management plan,” said Bridget Burgess-Ferrari, communications advisor with Forestry Parks and Tourism.
“Management plans older than their stated term continue to provide guidance, until and unless they are replaced. They are regularly reviewed for suitability and continue to be consulted for guidance in decision-making.”
Burgess-Ferrari added when a management plan does not exist or is outdated, legislation, classification, regulations and policies provide a foundation for decision-making.
“This foundation also includes higher-order plans like land-use framework regional plans and sub-regional plans, and detailed site evaluation tools like environmental reviews and historic resources impact assessments,” she said.
K-Country is a large integrated land base made up of various designations and park classifications including provincial parks, wildland provincial parks, provincial recreation areas, public land use zones and an ecological reserve.
The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan directs the management of the entire region to adapt to changing needs, minimize environmental impacts, and reduce wildfire risks. Departments and ministries, including Alberta Parks and the public lands division, collaborate on plans for these areas.
Burgess-Ferrari said Alberta Parks acknowledges that K-Country continues to be a popular destination for visitors seeking to enjoy outdoor recreation opportunities.
Recognizing this, she said the province is “studying visitation patterns to inform future visitor management strategies.”
“These future strategies would seek to address existing issues and support positive visitor experiences while maintaining ecological values,” she said.
In a recently appealed development in Kananaskis that was denied by the Land and Property Rights Tribunal over wildlife habitat and Indigenous cultural concerns, it was stated the Kananaskis Sub Regional Integrated Resource Plan (1986), the Kananaskis Country Recreation Policy (1999), the Evan Thomas PRA Management Plan (2004), and the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan 2014-2024 guided the decision.
The proposed development is for a 20-unit glamping experience in the Kananaskis Public Land Use Zone, off Highway 40.
Elmeligi said the development’s approval based on plans that are 20 years old or more is a good case for why they should be reviewed.
“It’s an excellent example of why these management plans need to be updated, actually, because they were written and created at a time when visitation in Kananaskis was a small percentage of what it is now,” she said. “That increasing visitation puts different pressures on the landscape and different pressures on the parks.”
Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook