Alberta’s new parks ministry aims to open new campgrounds and focus on tourism

The head of the new provincial ministry that oversees Alberta’s parks says there will be a new emphasis on putting people in them.

“We want to have parks for the people,” Forest, Parks and Tourism Minister Todd Loewen said Tuesday after receiving his mandate letter from Prime Minister Danielle Smith.

But critics warn that the letter puts the tourism cart ahead of the environmental horse.

“Environmental stewardship should be the primary purpose under which everything else falls,” said Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society.

The Alberta Provincial Parks Act lists five reasons for creating provincial parks. Four of them are related to ecological preservation and one refers to “use and enjoyment.”

Smith’s letter mentions tourism and tourism-related issues seven times on its two pages.

Mention environmental responsibility once. It doesn’t discuss species at risk, critical habitat, or wildlife management at all.

Smith’s letter directs Loewen to develop campgrounds, recreation opportunities and tourism on provincial lands. It is expected to speed up the approval of permits and licenses, establish a tourism and hospitality immigration flow, and improve tourism infrastructure in high-traffic areas.

Smith also tells the minister to develop ways to manage provincial forests and grasslands to store carbon.

Todd Loewen shakes hands with Alberta Premier Danielle Smith after Loewen was sworn into the cabinet as Minister of Forestry, Parks and Tourism in Edmonton last month. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Loewen said his department is already looking at places to expand campgrounds and other facilities.

“There are a lot of opportunities there,” Loewen said. “We will look for options that expand some of the existing ones [campgrounds] and adding some new ones.

“There’s always the opportunity to have more trails in more places, whether it’s hiking or [off-road vehicle]. We will see what is being done at the moment and we will see what could be done in the future.”

There’s plenty of space out there, he said.

“There is a very, very small part of the landscape that the camps actually use. If we want people to enjoy nature and scenery, then we have to have things for them to do and places for them to be. Other than that, it becomes in a bit of everyone against everyone”.

Camps are good, Morrison said, but not everywhere and everywhere.

“We need to [develop] in a way that does not affect conservation areas,” he said. “There are really sensitive areas that cannot withstand any pressure from human use.”

Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association agreed that there should be limits.

“We would be very concerned if there were campsites and trails above evidence-based sustainable thresholds,” he said.

Campbell also fears that more land will be opened up to forestry, as the letter mentions reducing waiting times for licenses and permits issued by Loewen’s ministry.

“In forestry, there is already very little consultation,” he said. “Things are not transparent.”

Loewen said he hasn’t given much thought to the forestry side of his portfolio yet.

Campbell said Smith’s decision to separate the parks from the environment department, where it used to be, is a warning.

“The logic of the ministry’s name seems to be more income generation from the parks, which is neither appropriate nor sustainable. Environmental responsibility comes first.”

Morrison said Albertans want to see more land protected, not less. She points to an online survey conducted for her group of 1,000 Albertans earlier this month.

It found that 59 percent of respondents felt the province’s national and provincial park system should be bigger. He suggested that around three-quarters of those surveyed felt more land should be set aside for wildlife and left as desert with minimal human impact.

About the same percentage felt that more parks should be created with a focus on recreation and leisure.

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