Put new Parks Act on hold

Is the sun about to set on the protection of Alberta’s sensitive wildlands? High-profile conservation groups fear that may be the case if the provincial government enacts Bill 29, the Alberta Parks Act. It’s a law that could open up precious, undisturbed flora and fauna, admired by many for decades, to industrial and tourist intrusion at the whim of the minister of Tourism, Parks and Recreation.

Is the sun about to set on the protection of Alberta’s sensitive wildlands?

High-profile conservation groups fear that may be the case if the provincial government enacts Bill 29, the Alberta Parks Act. It’s a law that could open up precious, undisturbed flora and fauna, admired by many for decades, to industrial and tourist intrusion at the whim of the minister of Tourism, Parks and Recreation.

The Environmental Law Centre calls the proposed act “inadequate . . . a significant step backwards” that does not ensure the ecological integrity of Alberta’s protected areas are preserved for future generations.

The government wants to lump public lands, which comprise about 60 per cent of Alberta, into two categories — provincial parks and heritage rangelands. The provincial parks category will include natural areas, wilderness areas, wildland parks, and ecological reserves — all currently protected under specific laws protecting unique characteristics.

Under one roof, new rules would apply to these priceless regions, perhaps industrial and tourist intrusions at the discretion of the government. There will be no public consultation or public hearings.

The Alberta Liberal caucus calls the exclusion of the public process an erosion of democracy.

A coalition fighting the bill, including the Alberta Wilderness Association, Provincial Parks Stewards Association, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Federation of Alberta Naturalists and the Sierra Club, insists Alberta’s natural integrity is at stake and must take precedence over developments.

“It’s clearly been an in-house agenda . . . to pull the teeth from the current parks acts and dismantle the types of parks,” said Dianne Pachal of the Sierra Club Canada.

A letter to Tourism, Parks and Recreation Minister Cindy Ady, from the Alberta Wilderness Association, stated the proposed legislation would “substantially weaken the existing levels of protection afforded to parks and protected areas in Alberta.”

Dorothy Dickson of the Red Deer River Naturalists said in an interview: “This is really frightening because all the legal protection we had (for natural areas) will be gone.”

Liberal critics warn that the act will open up formerly protected wilderness areas to tourism and development — to ATVs, clear-cutting and strip mining, for example — at the government’s whim. The government is “declaring open season on protected wilderness areas” and will have the power behind closed doors to open up protected areas to developers “regardless of the environmental consequences,” said Liberal parks critic Harry Chase.

Sarah Elmeligi, of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Southern Alberta, adds: “Protection only through the discretion of the (government) instead of assurances in the act is what it’s looking like.”

The government has failed to communicate the law to the public.

“The ELC (Environmental Law Centre) views the current bill as inadequate to ensure that the ecological integrity of Alberta is preserved for future generations,” it said in a report. It added: Bill 29 “removes substantive provisions related to protected areas and this reflects a significant step backwards in ensuring the preservation of Alberta’s natural heritage.”

When the lawyers say the law is inadequate and backwards, it “is going to be really bad for provincial parks and the wildlife that depend on that habitat,” said the Sierra Club’s Sam Gunsch.

Advocate outdoor columnist Bob Scammell said Bill 29 “continues the trend of this government to weaken the few environmental protections that are in place and ignore the wishes of the people in favour of corporations and development.”

The act needs to be put on hold until there has been public consultation.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.