Put parks protection first

Conservationists have good reason to be nervous about the province’s planned announcement next week of its long-awaited parks plan.

Conservationists have good reason to be nervous about the province’s planned announcement next week of its long-awaited parks plan.

The government’s recent budget plans seem aimed at developing a playground for the rich with motel-sized RVs, and to open the floodgates for the monster toys called ATVs to rip up the outdoors.

In a recent report on the plans, conservations say they fear Alberta lawmakers can’t see the forest for the RVs when it comes to protecting more wilderness and public lands.

They claim the province isn’t paying attention to public surveys that suggest creating new parks and protected areas should be a top priority.

But, traditionally the Tory government, and Premier Ed Stelmach is apparently no exception, could give a hang about public opinion.

While the parks plan won’t be announced until next week, George Newton of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is a bit jumpy when he reads the latest budget proposals.

“The budget mentions accommodating larger trailers and more trails for all-terrain vehicles, yet gives no mention of Alberta’s top priority for parks — setting aside more land,” said Newton. “We fear this top priority will be absent from the Plan for Parks.”

Budget documents for Alberta Tourism and Parks released last week show an intention to use the outdoors to bolster tourism and the economy. It hints at accommodating more boats, ATVs and motorhomes.

The danger is obvious. Every new development that draws vehicles and boats puts wilderness areas and water bodies in jeopardy.

Years ago, at an annual convention of the Alberta Fish and Game Association in Red Deer, a speaker warned that Alberta’s outdoor playgrounds will soon be available only to the rich. It was fair warning.

Large recreation subdivisions, like those proposed around Sylvan, Gull and Buffalo Lakes, threaten to choke off public access to public waters.

At least two public surveys, including a government-commissioned poll, suggest the majority of Albertans want more undisturbed public lands and water bodies designated as protected.

“Albertans feel the top priority . . . should be to set aside more land and leaving it an undisturbed state,” one report concluded. An Ipsos-Reid survey in 2007 reached the same conclusion.

But Alberta Tourism’s new business plan seems to be to cash in on the current economic uncertainty, claiming tourism spending in Alberta will make close-to-home travel more appealing.

The plan also says Alberta’s growing and changing population wants to use parks in different ways.

“In addition to an increase in population, the kinds of park experiences that people seek are changing,” says the business plan.

“Albertans want more campgrounds that accommodate larger trailers, and designated trails for the rapidly increasing number of all-terrain vehicles.”

The province is cooking up a potential environmental disaster, based on a shaky economic premise and a refusal to heed public opinion.

It’s time Stelmach’s government listened to the people and made concrete moves to protect wilderness.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

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