20 Alberta parks to be fully or partially closed, while dozens opened up for 'partnerships'

Alberta's decision to close 20 provincial parks partially or in full and offer up more than 160 additional parks for "partnerships" to save — according to the government — $5 million isn't going smoothly among park users and interested observers.

Critics say move could lead to the provincial parks running as for-profits

The Alberta government has slashed funding for provincial parks to the tune of $5 million, including cross-country track setting. (David Gray/CBC)

Alberta's decision to close 20 provincial parks partially or in full and offer up more than 160 additional parks for "partnerships" to save — according to the government — $5 million isn't going smoothly among park users and interested observers.

Critics are lining up to slam the cuts, which they say could lead to the provincial parks running as for-profits, ripe for commercial development.

"This is a drastic change to our parks system," Katie Morrison of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society told the Calgary Eyeopener.

The province announced program changes on Saturday, adding more detail this week: Cuts to cross-country ski trail grooming, closures to 20 parks, fully or partially, visitor centre closures, fee increases and 164 parks now available for "partnerships."

Morrison said calling these cuts "optimizing," as the province has, is a cruel joke.

"I may need to send them a dictionary," she said.

"This is the farthest thing from optimization."

The province says the 164 sites are "mainly small, under-utilized."

"These are in more rural communities and smaller centres. They may not be right next to Calgary or Edmonton, but they are providing places for Albertans to go out and camp with their families," Morrison said.

"That's one of the scariest pieces of this. They are our public parks. There has been no public consultation. They have not asked, how do we value these areas? Do we want them privatized?"

Facing complete closures later this year are the Barrier Lake and Elbow Valley visitor centres, along with recreation areas at Kehiwin, Running Lake, Stoney Lake, Sulphur Lake, Little Fish Lake, Crow Lake, Bleriot Ferry, Greene Valley, Twin Lakes and Sheep Creek.

Comfort camping won't continue at Dinosaur Provincial Park, while Gooseberry, Engstrom Lake, Chain Lakes, Lawrence Lake, Dry Island Buffalo Jump, Tolman Bridge, Notikewin, Smoky River are slated for partial closures.

The Calgary Eyeopener listeners were quick to respond on Twitter.

"Optimizing our parks is not what @UCPCaucus is doing. They are decimating our parks," Elma Schryvers wrote.

"This is insane. And disgusting. It cannot be allowed to happen. Our parks are sacred. What a bunch of jerks," Laura Colpitts said.

A ski club says cutting trail grooming could have economic disadvantages for tourism.

Foothills Nordic Ski Club put on the Cookie Race ski marathon this past weekend, with 120 of 600 skiers coming from outside the area.

"I support parks for their own sake," said president Colin Norman.

"But if it must come to economics, I dare say that a lack of our event next year will be felt by the local businesses."

Health benefits harder to measure

An Alberta-based ski instructor and former club president is urging the province to look at more than money.

Michelle Deacon says the health benefits of cross-country are well established.

"It is unfortunate that there are no metrics to show the financial value of these outcomes," Deacon said.

"It is only through increased health-care costs, some of which may be long-term, will we see the actual cost of cutting the ski trail grooming program."

More going on?

The cuts took one regular trail user by surprise.

Mike Wingham says he's concerned there is more going on here than meets the eye.

"For years we've been expecting that user fees would be imposed, but never imagined that the grooming would be terminated altogether," Wingham said.

"Instead of diversifying the economy by promoting winter tourism to these parks, the government plan seems to be to cut parks services, thereby discouraging people from visiting, at which point the parks can be 'optimized' by shutting them down altogether due to lack of use."

Provincewide cuts

The changes are throughout the province — from shutting campsites at Dinosaur Provincial Park in the south to the complete closure of the Kehiwin Provincial Recreation Area in the northeast.

The total amount of land involved is about 16,000 hectares. The government says that's less than one per cent of the province's parks system, but it isn't clear if that includes the national parks.

The United Conservative government says the changes, which it calls optimizing Alberta's parks, will save $5 million in the 2020-21 budget.

No to comfort camping, says minister

The environment and parks minister defended the cuts Tuesday afternoon.

"My constituents and many Albertans across this province are struggling to be able to pay their mortgages and the luxury of comfort camping is not something that they want us to focus on," Jason Nixon told reporters.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener, The Canadian Press


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