New Alberta ministry merging parks with forestry raises red flags for environmental groups
Premier Danielle Smith said Friday forestry helps open up parks for camping and ATV recreation
A decision to move land previously managed as "protected areas" to a new ministry with an added focus on forestry is raising alarms among environmental groups in the province.
Last week, the provincial government announced it would separate the former Environment and Parks ministry in two: into the Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas and the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism.
A large majority of the land mass that had been managed as protected areas — more than 90 per cent — now falls under control of the latter of the two new ministries, said Chris Smith, a conservation analyst with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).
"It shows a concerning trend to where the government's priorities might lie with protected areas," said Smith, who compiled data from the Canadian Protected and Conserved Areas Database, updated in December 2021, to map out what had changed.
The moves have concerned environmental advocates like those at CPAWS, especially in light of recent comments by Premier Danielle Smith on a recent live stream.
"Forestry, parks and tourism, the reason I put those together…it seems like forestry, which is another major economic driver for us, a lot of it in northern Alberta seems to always be stuffed into another ministry," the premier told The Western Standard on Friday.
"Remember as well, forestry is also the way that we open up our parks. That's where you've got ATVs, [they use] some of those forestry backroads, that's where you've got camping."
Smith said that, in her view, attitudes need to shift to recognize that parks are for use. She said she believed the province needed to get started on building more parking lots, campgrounds and boat launches.
"I think that by making sure that we assert that there are certain areas where you're concerned about endangered species and habitat protection, you're absolutely want to have a different attitude toward those than the areas that you want to encourage tourism," she said.
CPAWS said they were "deeply alarmed" about an order in council passed Oct. 24, which states that the Provincial Parks Act and Willmore Wilderness Park Act — the acts that manage and protect the province's wildland provincial parks, provincial parks, provincial recreation areas and the Willmore Wilderness Park — now fall under the Forestry, Parks and Tourism Ministry.
Ecological reserves, heritage rangelands, natural areas and wilderness areas will fall under the ministry of Environment and Protected Areas.
"But that really only covers about 6.5 per cent of our protected areas, which means that the other 93.5 per cent of our protected areas were moved out of the protected areas ministry into the Forestry, Parks and Tourism Ministry," said Smith, the conservation analyst with CPAWS.
"Ultimately, all we can do is wait for additional information from the government on how they plan to proceed with managing these two new ministries. We hope that we are just being overcautious. But I do think that it's something that anybody who's passionate about parks will want to keep an eye on in the near future."
CBC News requested more information on whether there might be a chance for increased forestry in northern wildland provincial parks, and for more detail on concerns around the delineation of protected areas, but the province was not able to provide comment by publication time.
Cameron Jefferies, a professor of law at the University of Alberta, said the move brought to mind temporary plans the government had in 2020 to close or delist dozens of provincial parks. After a public backlash, the province backed off those plans.
"This isn't a proposed de-listing. But this is something that maybe moves it toward the same direction, right, where we're saying, 'OK, we're going to put parks with forestry and tourism,'" he said.
"We're going to say that the purpose of these parks, the overriding purpose of these parks is a use justification. And that's what it seems to hint at … to me that's fundamentally disconnected from what I think a provincial park, if we're using that category, ought to achieve."