Alberta planning to count day-use numbers in provincial parks

The Alberta government is planning to pilot a project to accurately track the number of people and vehicles accessing day areas and trails in provincial parks and recreation areas.

Province lacks accurate data on day visits to parks and recreation areas

There have been more than 265,000 reservations at provincial campsites across Alberta so far this year. (Helen Pike/CBC)

The Alberta government is planning to pilot a project to accurately track the number of people and vehicles accessing day areas and trails in provincial parks and recreation areas.

Environment and Parks is seeking an outside contractor to install trackers in three areas: Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park in St. Albert and Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area, east of Edmonton. 

The initiative aims to address a huge gap in statistics collected by Alberta Parks.

While camping reservations provide data, the department lacks accurate numbers for first-come, first-served campsites, day-use areas and trails.

The request for proposal document states that day visits make up 75 per cent of visits to provincial parks.

"Day-use visitation is tracked using an insufficient number of traffic and trail counters, most of which are outdated," the document states. "Additionally, automatic counters are absent from many parks and protected areas."

A ministry spokesperson said better collection of data will help the province make better decisions on where to allocate staff and capital spending.

Marlin Schmidt, the NDP Opposition critic for Environment and Parks, said the move sends up red flags for him. 

Two years ago, Environment and Parks released an "optimization" plan, which removed 164 areas from the Alberta parks system and fully or partially closed 20 more.

The government claimed the sites were underused. Critics argued the province had no way of knowing since it didn't collect the data. 

After months of public backlash and government denials, Environment and Parks walked back the plan in December 2020.

Schmidt is worried the government wants to try again. He said Albertans no longer trust the government on parks issues.

"My suspicion is that now they're collecting the data to make the argument that they wanted to make all along, that these parks should be closed down or sold off," he said.

"It makes me concerned that they're going to take another run at the parks that were on the hit list in 2020."

Unreliable numbers

Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said in a written statement that provincial parks "are not for sale and have never been for sale." He said the government is investing more than $130 million in provincial parks and recreation areas.

"We are taking responsible steps to better understand day-use visitor patterns to make data-driven investments into high traffic areas that need infrastructure upgrades as part of our ongoing commitment to investment in Alberta's public lands," Nixon said.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) launched the popular Defend Alberta Parks campaign in 2020 to fight the government's plans.

Chris Smith, conservation analyst with CPAWS Northern Alberta, said the organization is pleased the government is trying to collect better data. Alberta Environment and Parks lacked the evidence to prove the sites flagged in the optimization plan were underused, he said.

"Hopefully this will increase the capacity for Alberta Parks to improve data-driven decisions if the pilot program is successful," Smith said in an email to CBC News. He said the information has been lacking since the province ended a monitoring program about 17 years ago.

According to the request for proposal, a successful proponent needs to provide equipment and software to automatically collect data under all weather conditions.

The equipment must be able to sense different type of users like hikers, cyclists and riders on horseback, in addition to types of vehicles.

The contract is expected to run 11 months until March 31, 2023. 

The RFP provides some background on why day-use data become so unreliable. The province tracked day use using traffic counters and surveys from 1997 to 2006. The statistics collection program started to fall apart, the document says, due to decentralization, a lack of resources and aging equipment. 

Although new equipment was purchased between 2006 and 2008, the program continued its decline. About 10 to 25 sites continued to send numbers but the province no longer had the staff to clean, verify and analyze the data.