Original Published on Nov 17, 2022 at 06:00
By Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Conservation groups have expressed concerns about the Alberta government’s decision to reorganize Alberta Environment and Parks into two distinct entities: Environment and Protected Areas, and Forestry, Parks and Tourism.
The change would place the Provincial Parks Act and the Willmore Wilderness Act under control of the Forestry, Parks and Tourism Ministry. Those two acts are important for the conservation of Alberta’s important wilderness spaces, say representatives from the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).
The change in ministries essentially transfers management of approximately 94 per cent of the total landmass previously managed as protected areas – including all provincial parks, provincial recreation areas, and the wildland provincial parks – into the new Forestry, Parks and Tourism Ministry.
“This was a concern because it raised just the potential issue where there could be reduction or loss of protection in these ecologically-important areas because of the intention of why they’re being split up,” said Chris Smith, parks co-ordinator and conservation analyst with CPAWS.
Ecological reserves, heritage rangelands, natural areas and wilderness areas will fall under the Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas.
What first prompted his greater concern was an interview that Premier Danielle Smith held with the Western Standard on Oct. 21.
“Forestry, parks and tourism – the reason I put those together – it seems like forestry, which is another major economic driver for us, a lot of it in northern Alberta seems to always be stuffed into another ministry,” the premier said during the livestreamed interview.
“Remember as well, forestry is also the way that we open up our parks. That’s where you’ve got ATVs, [they use] some of those forestry backroads, that’s where you’ve got camping.”
The premier said that the public’s attitudes need to shift in order to view parks as spaces for use. She also said that she thought the province needed to start building more parking lots, campgrounds and boat launches.
“I think that by making sure that we assert that there are certain areas where you’re concerned about endangered species and habitat protection, you’re absolutely want to have a different attitude toward those than the areas that you want to encourage tourism,” Premier Smith said, specifying that we can do more with parks which are separate from protected lands.
“This raises a number of concerns because a majority of our parks are also protected areas,” said Chris Smith.
“By separating the two, we’re worried that the recreation aspect could basically have a greater focus now that it’s in its own ministry, and separated from the protected areas and more conservation aspect, despite the fact that they’ve historically been entwined in legislation and managed within the same ministry on the land base for good reason: because it’s a lot of the same bureaucratic staff in the government that are managing these parcels of land.”
He compiled data from the Canadian Protected and Conserved Areas Database, previously updated last December, to plot out the specific changes. That shows that approximately 93.5 per cent of protected areas were moved into the Forestry, Parks and Tourism Ministry.
“Comments by Premier Danielle Smith have not been reassuring,” said Ruiping Luo, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA).
“Her insistence that forestry is the way that we open up our parks for ATV use and camping is distressing, showing a distinct prioritization of industry and recreation over protection and conservation.”
AWA stated that environmental protection must be a priority, because parks lose their value when ecological values are degraded.
Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Sonya Savage was not available for an interview by press time.