Provincial park wars: UCP campaign responds to NDP criticism

·5 min read

Back in 1976, Kiki Dee and Elton John released “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” Just over two decades later, in 1997, Celion Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” accompanied the credits of the movie Titanic.

Apart from reaching No. 1 in the U.S. Billboard 100 and U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary charts, a connection between both songs is not readily apparent.

It is perhaps a testament to the sort of year 2020 has been that both songs now sit in the thick of a political debate over the future of provincial parks in Alberta.

In March, the provincial government announced plans to close 20 (17 of which have now closed) and explore third-party management options for another 164 provincial parks and recreation sites.

There are 493 designated park areas in Alberta, and the proposed changes to the 184 areas are estimated to account for 0.5 per cent of the province’s parkland.

Delisting the sites from provincial park designation, the government argued, would improve cost efficiencies that could then be reinvested back into parks in need of infrastructure updates. The 20 parks identified for closure were extremely remote and saw significantly fewer visitors than other areas.

Alarmed at the government’s decision to remove park designation from so many areas, the NDP Opposition launched a social media campaign in July titled Don’t Go Breaking My Parks.

Thousands of Albertans signed an online petition and registered to receive bumper stickers with the phrase in an attempt to pressure the government’s decision, which many feared was an excuse to sell parkland off to industrial development.

At the beginning of November, the UCP government responded with its own campaign, My Parks Will Go On, in an attempt to address the NDP’s accusation while also calming outdoor enthusiasts’ fears.

Calgary-Klein MLA Jeremy Nixon helped spearhead the caucus campaign as a way to address inaccurate public portrayals of the government’s park policy.

“There’s been a lot of rhetoric, unfortunately, saying that we’re going to sell these spaces or that we have sold these spaces, but that’s not the intent of this government,” says Mr. Nixon. “Every single campground that will be converted into public land will continue to be available and protected throughout the province.”

While Mr. Nixon acknowledges the terms “delisting” and “park sales” have caused concern, the UCP campaign set out to clarify that references to sales refer only to assets within park boundaries and not to the parks themselves.

As for delisting, the government’s intention is to simply transfer the sites’ land designation from parkland to public land to allow for a managing partnership between the province and local non-profit organizations, municipal governments and First Nations groups.

Locally, council for the MD of Pincher Creek discussed assuming responsibility for eight park and recreation areas in the MD for which the province is inviting third-party management. Areas under consideration are the Oldman Dam Boulder Run, Waterton Reservoir and Lundbreck Falls, though finalizing the 2021 budget postponed talks into the new year.

No set figures for cost savings exist, though an estimated $5 million is expected to be retained should the 164 sites find new management. Whatever money is saved, says Mr. Nixon, will be directly invested back into the province’s park system.

“These are unique opportunities to provide these great spaces for Albertans in a more financially prudent way,” he says.

Should third-party management not be secured for any of the sites, the public land designation will simply turn each area into Crown land, same as the 17 sites that have been “closed.” In any case, the public will still have access for outdoor activities like hiking, camping and fishing.

Despite the government’s reassurances, says Marlin Schmidt, NDP critic for environment, the change in legal land distinction changes the level of enforceable protection.

“The government is really stretching the definition of the word ‘protection,’ ” says Mr. Schmidt. “When a piece of land is designated as a park or provincial recreation area, there is legal protection there from any kind of industrial development, any other use other than for recreation purposes and conservation purposes. If it has that designation removed and it just becomes Crown land, the government can do whatever they like with it.”

Though still available to the public as Crown land, he continues, there is nothing preventing the government from selling or leasing the land for development in the future if it so chooses.

Utilizing third-party management, Mr. Schmidt says, has already proven to be a failed experiment.

“The government tried in the ’90s to contract out some of the park systems, and that was not nearly the kind of success the government advertised these as being and likely cost the province more money because instead of managing the parks directly you have to hire out an army of contract managers in the government,” he says. “That adds a layer of management and staffing that didn’t exist before.”

The provincial government’s financial capacity places it in a better position to manage parks than smaller third parties, he concludes, and keeping them under provincial jurisdiction will lead to increased tourism, better conservation and the indirect socioeconomic benefits of providing low-cost recreational opportunities to Albertans.

Though not disputing the public worth of parks, Mr. Nixon says the UCP government rejects the idea that local groups are not positioned to look after natural spaces.

“To say that these groups can’t deliver these services at the same quality as the provincial government is misplaced,” he says.

“I think there’s an opportunity here to utilize the passion and the drive of local people that care about these spaces.”

He also dismisses concerns that parks that become amalgamated with Crown land will eventually be sold off to industrial development.

“The minister [Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon] has committed that these lands will be set aside for protection and for public use,” he says. “The minister’s committed to ensuring that these spaces will continue to be available for public use.”

Anyone interested in entering partnerships with the government or providing feedback can do so online at www.albertaparks.ca. Each political party’s separate parks campaign can be viewed atwww.albertandp.ca/protectourparks and www.ucpcaucus.ca/myparkswillgoon.

Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze