EDMONTON — The Alberta government says its new parks announcement is a clear victory, not a climbdown.
"Government’s latest call for partners has been a resounding success, meaning all areas currently considered Provincial Parks or Public Recreation Areas will remain as such," said a statement Wednesday from Alberta Environment spokeswoman Jennifer Dagsvik.
"Alberta’s parks are not, and never have been, for sale and it was never the plan to 'delist' parks."
But Tuesday's announcement by the United Conservative government, which said no parks will be closed whether a partner is found or not and that all parks will keep current legal protections, was seen differently by others.
"This may be the only time I've seen them (retreat) since they've come into office," said Duane Bratt, a political scientist from Calgary's Mount Royal University.
"It was a bizarre announcement. It claimed that all of their goals were met and this was not a climbdown. Yet it reads and looks and acts and sounds like a major policy reversal."
Last March, Environment Minister Jason Nixon said the government would fully or partially close 20 provincial parks and hand off another 164 to third-party managers. Sites for which no managers could be found would lose park status and revert to general Crown land.
The plan provoked widespread protest, including more than 20,000 letters to politicians and a popular lawn sign campaign.
One of the groups that fought against the plan to close, delist or hand off management of the parks said the successful opposition shows the government needs to consult with Albertans before any further changes to the use of Crown land.
"We've seen this government hasn't put a lot of stock in (that)," said Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. "I think that was a mistake and any changes to parks legislation should undergo a full public consultation."
Tuesday's announcement said 170 partnership agreements have been reached. But it didn't explain how many are new and how many are long-standing. Nor did it offer any details about the partnerships.
"Who are these partners? What sort of activities are going to be allowed? How are they going to be maintained?" asked Bratt.
Dagsvik did not say how many of the partnerships are new.
Examples of five different types of contracts the government signs with parks operators show they vary widely. Some commit operators to goals of conservation, while others rely on them to follow Alberta Environment guidelines.
Morrison said most current partnerships involve operations, not management. It's crucial any deal keeps management decisions with accountable public bodies, she said.
"If there is something different — that is, transferring management authority or downloading responsibility for park management to groups — then we'll be more concerned."
The government has promised legislation to modernize Alberta's Parks Act. The overall direction is in its Crown Lands Vision, a five-page document with few specifics.
Morrison said she expects there to be substantial opportunity for public input.
"We want to make sure any legislative update adds strength of conservation. And if they are rejigging designations, we (want to ensure) we don't just lose all these parks we fought so hard to keep."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2020.
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