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Red Deer naturalists fear over-development of Alberta parks with ministerial change

Parks shouldn’t be separated from environmental protection, says RDRN
Abraham Lake is a popular tourist destination in Central Alberta. It is well known for the amount of methane bubbles seen under the service during the winter months. (Photo by Red Deer Advocate Staff)

Red Deer environmentalists are worried about the future of Alberta’s wilderness areas after the provincial government separated parks from environmental protection.

Previously there was one Alberta Environment and Parks department, but this ministry has now been split in two as part of the Alberta government’s latest restructuring of cabinet.

Alberta Parks is now part of the new Forestry, Parks and Tourism Ministry — which is separate from the new Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas.

The optics of putting parks in with forestry and tourism, which are both development-heavy economic activities, concerns Rick Tallas, president of the Red Deer River Naturalists.

“This split seems to indicate that the government is placing more emphasis on development and high-impact recreation within our precious Alberta parks and is not concerned about ecosystem protection, conservation or wildlife,” said Tallas.

He feels the move is “out of step with the wishes of Albertans,” who, according to a recent poll, indicated they want more — not less — parks protection.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) surveyed 1,000 Albertans last month and found 59 per cent of respondents felt the amount of protected national or provincial parkland is not enough.

Nearly all of those surveyed (95 per cent) were concerned about the loss of species and global biodiversity.

Most respondents support setting aside more land in the province for wildlife habitat (77 per cent), more land left as wilderness with minimal human activities (76 per cent), and more land for provincial parks with a focus on recreation and leisure (73 per cent).

These results are at odds with the Government of Alberta’s latest restructuring of the Environment and Parks ministries, said Tara Russell, program director with CPAWS Northern Alberta, who also fears the split potentially places more emphasis on development and high-impact recreation within Alberta’s parks.

Katie Morrison, executive-director with CPAWS Southern Alberta, said, “This (change) has left many concerned that the focus of parks will shift away from what Albertans really want – lands dedicated to the conservation of nature and wildlife.”

Red Deer-area naturalist Judy Boyd believes the responsibility for Alberta parks has to fall under the environmental protection ministry, otherwise these green spaces could become compromised by high-use activities or development.

“Having a park, but not protecting it, you don’t have much,” she summarized.

Another local naturalist, Rod Trentham, is very concerned about lumping parks in with forestry and tourism. “I think it’s an oxymoron. It’s the wrong mix,” he added.

Trentham believes a lot of people have already rediscovered Alberta Parks during the pandemic, resulting in some trail degradation through excessive all-terrain vehicle use. He wouldn’t like to see more high-impact developments in parks.

While he sees nothing wrong with adding some amenities, such as more washrooms near popular hiking trails, Trentham believes in leaving some pristine park areas inaccessible to humans so they can continue to be sustainable for wildlife and biodiversity.

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