Annalise Klingbeil is co-founder of Champion Communications & PR. She previously worked as a press secretary for Rachel Notley’s government, and before that she was a journalist at the Calgary Herald.
My twin sister and I were just two months old when our parents took us and our two-year-old brother on our first hiking trip to Heart Creek. It’s an easy trail about a one-hour drive from downtown Calgary that repeatedly criss-crosses its way over a stream, offering up stunning views of Heart Mountain before leading to a rushing waterfall at the end of a canyon.
Of course, I fell in love.
Our outdoor-loving parents nurtured that affection among all of their four children. And since they couldn’t afford to put us in hockey or take us downhill skiing, we took full advantage of our affordable, accessible parks system. Why wouldn’t we, when there is a park or protected area within an hour’s drive of every single community in Alberta, spanning nearly 2.8 million hectares in environments as diverse as the Rocky Mountains, desert badlands, dense forests, and native grasslands?
So when Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government announced plans to chop $5-million from Alberta’s Parks budget – by fully or partially closing 20 provincial parks, putting more than 160 additional parks up for “partnership,” closing two visitor centres, shortening the camping season, and stopping cross-country ski track setting at three locations in the Kananaskis Region – I was deeply disappointed.
I know I have not been alone. These proposed changes have prompted petitions, letters to MLAs and protests, and not just from people whom Mr. Kenney has dismissed as the “green left,” either: In my own circles, conservatives who haven’t said a peep about cuts to postsecondary education or affordable housing were livid about what the UCP is branding as “optimizing Alberta Parks.” Indeed, one of the parks affected – Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, where ski trails will no longer be groomed – honours the popular Progressive Conservative premier who had the foresight to protect more than 300 square kilometres in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains for generations to come. “I think Dad believed that if people experience natural areas, they become more connected and more determined to protect it,” his son Joe previously told the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).
This simple sentiment gets to the core of why so many people across the political spectrum are outraged. Whether it’s a family vacation, a junior high school field trip or a first date, we have fond and formative memories in our parks – and so these cuts hit at the heart of who we are as Albertans and Canadians.
We are deeply proud and protective of our world-renowned natural spaces, these threads that tie us together. A 2015 CPAWS survey of Albertans’ attitudes toward nature found that nearly 90 per cent of respondents felt it was important to set aside land for protection of wilderness; 83 per cent said they supported protecting wilderness areas, even if no one were to ever visit or benefit from them. A 2012 government survey found that Albertans hiked, climbed, rode horses, picnicked, camped, and relaxed in nature at a higher rate than the national average.
Government spokespeople have defended the changes by noting that the shuttered areas are “underutilized”, that there are other trails, and that the changes affect just 0.3 per cent of the total land area in provincial parks. That, however, is a strange number to highlight: the closures and proposed partnerships represent 164 of 473 sites in the Alberta Parks system, or more than 30 per cent of our campsite inventory. As organizations like the Bow River Chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada have pointed out, “the fact that 30 per cent of campground inventory only makes up 0.3 per cent of the Alberta Parks land area is a good thing.”
The cuts are expected to save $5-million in dire economic times, defenders say. But that’s a relative pittance in the broader provincial budget, and they ignore the potential cost savings that come from a strong and supported parks system. There are long-term benefits to having a physically active population, so an investment into parks could be an investment into our health-care system. And while the recently released UCP budget outlines a 10-year strategy to double tourism spending to $20-billion by 2030, it sends quite the opposite message to potential visitors when tourists can’t get information on local trails or bear safety because visitor centres are closed. In fact, Alberta’s National Parks are already bursting at the seams – more than four million annual visitors have come to Banff National Park in recent years.
Perhaps the bigger cut is the psychic slash to the time-honoured idea within Albertan politics that there is inherent value in protecting public spaces for the public good – that nature is part and parcel of a uniquely Albertan life. Indeed, it was the province’s fifth premier John Brownlee who argued for the creation of our parks nearly a century ago, in a call to “inspire our people with a sense of beauty in their surroundings that they may leave a more splendid heritage to coming generations.” And now, with no public consultation, Mr. Kenney’s government has turned that decades-old notion on its head.
Albertans are united by the experience of breathing in fresh forest air, of sleeping under the stars, of dipping our toes into cool mountain water, and that’s all because past politicians could look beyond the horizon in protecting these areas. As our current Premier moves to shutter and privatize our parks, I fear future generations will not have the same formative opportunities – and that Alberta will risk losing part of itself, as a result.
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