Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon is seen during a news conference to announce $43 million in repairs and improvements to provincial parks at a news conference in Calgary on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon is seen during a news conference to announce $43 million in repairs and improvements to provincial parks at a news conference in Calgary on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol

United Conservatives back down on Alberta parks, declare victory: professor

The government has promised legislation to modernize Alberta’s Parks Act

Changes to Alberta’s parks policy mark the United Conservative government’s first major policy defeat, a political scientist said Wednesday.

One of the groups that fought against the plan to close, delist or hand off management of 184 parks said the successful opposition shows the government needs to consult with Albertans before any further changes to the use of Crown land.

“We’ve seen this government hasn’t put a lot of stock in (that),” said Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “I think that was a mistake and any changes to parks legislation should undergo a full public consultation.”

Last March, Environment Minister Jason Nixon said the government would fully or partially close 20 provincial parks and hand off another 164 to third-party managers. Sites for which no managers could be found would lose park status and revert to general Crown land.

The plan provoked widespread protest, including more than 20,000 letters to politicians and a popular lawn sign campaign.

Late Tuesday, Alberta Environment released a statement saying that no parks will be closed — whether it can find someone to run them or not — and all parks will continue to have the same legal protections they currently have.

“This may be the only time I’ve seen them (retreat) since they’ve come into office,” said Duane Bratt, a political scientist from Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

“It was a bizarre announcement. It claimed that all of their goals were met and this was not a climbdown. Yet it reads and looks and acts and sounds like a major policy reversal.”

The release said 170 partnership agreements have been reached. But it didn’t explain how many are new and how many are long-standing. Nor did it offer any details about the partnerships.

“Who are these partners? What sort of activities are going to be allowed? How are they going to be maintained?” asked Bratt.

Morrison said most current partnerships involve operations, not management. It’s crucial any deal keeps management decisions with accountable public bodies, she said.

“If there is something different — that is, transferring management authority or downloading responsibility for park management to groups — then we’ll be more concerned.”

The government has promised legislation to modernize Alberta’s Parks Act. The overall direction is in its Crown Lands Vision, a five-page document with few specifics.

Morrison said she expects there to be substantial opportunity for public input.

“We want to make sure any legislative update adds strength of conservation. And if they are rejigging designations, we (want to ensure) we don’t just lose all these parks we fought so hard to keep.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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