The head of the new provincial department that oversees Alberta’s parks says there will be a new emphasis on getting people there.
“We want to have parks for the people,” Forests, Parks and Tourism Minister Todd Loewen said after receiving his mandate letter from Premier Danielle Smith on Tuesday.
But critics warn that this letter puts the tourist cart ahead of the environmental horse.
“Environmental management should be the primary objective under which everything else falls,” said Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
Alberta’s Provincial Parks Act lists five reasons for establishing provincial parks. Four of them relate to ecological preservation and one refers to “use and enjoyment”.
Smith’s letter mentions tourism and tourism-related topics seven times on its two pages.
He mentions environmental responsibility once. It does not address species at risk, critical habitat or wildlife management at all.
Smith’s letter directs Loewen to develop campgrounds and recreational and tourism opportunities on provincial lands. It is expected to speed up the approval of permits and licenses, establish a flow of tourist and hotel immigration, and improve tourism infrastructure in high-traffic areas.
Smith also tells the minister to develop ways to manage provincial forests and grasslands to store carbon.
Loewen said his department is already looking for places to expand campgrounds and other facilities.
“There are a lot of opportunities there,” Loewen said. “We will be looking at expansion options for some of the [campgrounds] and adding new ones.
“It’s always possible to have more trails in more places, whether it’s for hiking or [off-road vehicle]. We’ll see what’s being done right now and look at what could be done in the future.”
There’s plenty of room there, he said.
“There is a very, very small part of the landscape that is actually used by campgrounds. If we want people to enjoy nature and the landscape, we have to have things for them to do and places where they can be. Other than that, it becomes a bit of a free-for-all.”
Campgrounds are good, Morrison said, but not everywhere and everywhere.
“We need to [develop] in a way that does not affect conservation areas,” she said. “There are really sensitive areas that cannot withstand any pressure from human use.
Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association agreed that there should be limits.
“We would be very concerned if there were any campgrounds and trails above the evidence-based sustainable thresholds,” she said.
Campbell is also concerned that more land will be opened up for forestry, as the letter mentions reduced wait times for licenses and permits from Loewen’s ministry.
“In forestry, there is already too little consultation,” she says. “Things are not transparent.”
Loewen said he has yet to pay much attention to the forestry side of his portfolio.
Campbell said Smith’s decision to separate the parks from the Department of the Environment – where he was previously located – is a warning.
“The logic of the ministry’s name seems to be more revenue generation from parks, which is neither appropriate nor sustainable. Environmental responsibility is first.”
Morrison said Albertans want to see more protected land, not less. She points to an online survey of her group of 1,000 Albertans earlier this month.
It revealed that 59% of respondents felt the province’s network of provincial and national parks should be bigger. He suggested that around three-quarters of respondents felt more land should be set aside for wildlife and left in the wild with minimal human impact.
About the same percentage felt that more parks should be created with an emphasis on recreation and recreation.
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