David Marsden: Cutting Alberta’s parks budget is petty

Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government hasn’t shied away from butting heads, including tangling with physicians, as it takes action aimed at slowly balancing the budget.

Its policies have exposed the government to criticism from all manner of public employees who depend upon taxpayers for their paycheques.

That’s why it’s surprising the provincial government is irritating outdoorspeople who enjoy Alberta’s robust parks system.

Environment Minister Jason Nixon, who represents a central Alberta riding, figures his department can save $5 million by closing or reducing access to 20 of the province’s 473 park sites.

This, out of an $86-million budget that was softened by $34 million in revenue last year.

Really? With all the fronts the government is fighting in its supposed battle on restraint, it wants to upset people who enjoy escaping to our parks, or more probably, like to imagine themselves spending some quality time outdoors?

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What’s particularly interesting is the government made this decision without going through the elaborate exercise of appointing a panel beforehand.

From everything from education, to a better deal within Confederation, to safe drug consumption sites, the government has jobbed these sorts of tasks out — gathering government-friendly voices on a panel to set the stage for the changes it intends to make.

It paid the accounting firm Ernst & Young $2 million to look into what’s going on at Alberta Health Services and is about to award a contract for a review of our post-secondary institutions.

When it hasn’t opted for costly panels, it’s consulted with the public through other means, including online surveys, such as when it sought input on ending daylight saving time.

It’s possible that trimming Alberta’s park system was seen as too inconsequential a decision to require checking in with the citizenry.

Perhaps it was felt that the government, which usually feels compelled to ask for direction at every turn, had a strong sense of public sentiment when it comes to caring for our natural heritage.

If so, the government was mistaken. The public’s regard for our majestic province’s natural beauty is almost universal, so it’s no wonder the United Conservatives are feeling the heat from those who see its decision as shortsighted and mean spirited.

Premier Kenney and his government have staked their claim on prudent fiscal management. As the coronavirus knocks the feet out from under the government’s too-rosy energy revenue projections, and it fails to find steps that will measurably reduce spending, it could use a little good will.

Western Texas Intermediate crude is trading at about US$32. Alberta’s Budget 2020 forecasts prices that are $26 a barrel higher.

Every dollar short of that figure shaves about $200 million off of Alberta’s energy revenue, Kenney estimates.

The government might want to start choosing its battles. Carving off $5 million from the parks budget isn’t likely to make much of a difference to Alberta’s bottom line, or win Kenney any friends.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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