Provincial parks 'a very precarious public good' to be carefully managed: MRU professor

An ecotourism professor in Calgary says the government is the best steward when it comes to managing provincial parks, and calls the Alberta government's plans shortsighted.

Outdoor enthusiasts continue to protest government changes to Alberta provincial parks

Outdoor enthusiasts continue to speak out against government plans to change the way some of Alberta provincial parks are funded. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) (The Associated Press)

An ecotourism professor in Calgary says the government is the best steward when it comes to managing provincial parks, and calls the Alberta government's plans shortsighted.

"It certainly appears to be a move toward short-term cost savings in terms of the long-term. We really don't know where it's going because we don't have a strategy in place, "Joe Pavelka, a professor of ecotourism and outdoor leadership at Mount Royal University, told The Homestretch.

There has been a sustained public outcry since the province announced it was making changes to how it operates some parks.

The Alberta government is shutting down 20 provincial parks, either partially or in full, and has announced cuts to cross-country ski trail grooming, visitor centre closures and fee increases.

Pavelka, who studies park management, said there's a reason governments should manage public parks.

"I think it's probably the best form of governance, because we're dealing with a very precarious public good," Pavelka said.

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 and more.

Comfort camping won't continue at Dinosaur Provincial Park, while Gooseberry, Engstrom Lake, Chain Lakes and others are slated for partial closures.

"There's a lot of different types of cuts and we really don't know too much about what they're actually doing," Pavelka said. "So we have the 10 parks that have been delisted. That's a certain type of cut there where it's simply going straight back to Crown land.

"We have other parks that are receiving less services, including [Kananaskis Country]. And then of course we have the 164 parks which are going up for partnerships in various types of privatization."

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Alberta's environment minister Jason Nixon defended the changes in a Facebook post this week, saying he wanted to clear up misinformation.

He wrote that the Alberta government is not selling Crown land — it's looking at setting up partnerships with organizations including municipalities, First Nations and nonprofit organizations to run under-utilized infrastructure.

Pavelka said that's not likely to be as profitable as the government may think.

"It's true that they're not selling anything, but in terms of privatization — and privatization takes on a whole bunch of different forms, from actually leasing out the space through to minor contract services," he said. "But it takes a lot of money and it takes a lot of work to actually run 164 of these contracts.

"So the idea of saving money quickly is probably not that realistic now."

Nixon also wrote that some practices are not sustainable, such as flying firewood to the backcountry by helicopter or having park staff drive long distances to change trash cans at locations that saw 22 users last year.

Pavelka said it's this point that leaves him wondering if there is any kind of strategy beyond cost savings.

Parks don't make money

"A typical park does not make money," Pavelka said. "A typical park is a public good, and to turn it into a profit centre is a very challenging proposition."

Pavelka said that when some park services were contracted out in the 1990s and some campgrounds were privatized, it worked — in some cases.

"What I recall is that park services were not so much privatized as they were contracted out," he said. "So security services and campground services, and in high traffic areas, it tended to work out well. In lower-traffic areas, in many cases, they were returned."

Pavelka said a public-private partnership can work under the right circumstances.

"It does work. I think it completely depends on the contract that is put in place," he said. "Finding the right group to work with, it can certainly work. But it's a very challenging process."

What is the intent?

There is a petition circulating amongst Albertans who oppose the changes.

Pavelka said he thinks the outcry has to do with the apparent lack of a long-term plan from the government.

"We really don't know what the intent is — is the intent to build a better park system, or is the intent to gain short-term cost savings?" he said. "And then we also run the risk of eroding the assets, so eroding the park, and I think that a lot of the public is kind of concerned about that.

"If we had better information as to what the overall strategy was, that may allay some of the fears, it may not. But we don't have that."

With files from The Homestretch.