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Alberta parks mandate letter orders 900 new campsites but advocates question conservation

Alberta’s premier wants the forestry and parks minister to expand the number of campsites and campgrounds, but advocacy groups are concerned about how conservation plays into the government’s plans.

Adding 900 new campsites over 10 years is one of a slew of proposals put forward last week in the mandate letter for Minister Todd Loewen. 

The UCP MLA for Central Peace-Notley headed the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism under Premier Danielle Smith prior to the election — the newest ministry designation loses tourism, although the sector still plays into his plans.

“We needed to increase the number of campgrounds in Alberta,” Loewen said in an interview earlier this week. 

“We want to focus on creating these opportunities and these places for people to go when they want to get out. And also to help us with tourism with people that are visiting Alberta.”

According to the ministry, there are more than 250 campgrounds with nearly 14,000 campsites in provincial parks across the province. Random camping outside designated campgrounds on public land requires a camping pass.

Loewen said there is heavy use of public lands and parks in certain areas, which can be harmful to the environment if it isn’t managed properly.

“And that’s why we want to make sure that there’s places to go for people when they want to enjoy our public lands and our parks.”

The letter also includes investing $5 million in trail upgrades for Kananaskis Country and building new trails and campgrounds across Alberta. 

Conservation questions

Advocacy groups question where conservation fits in.

“It’s really marked by what it’s lacking,” Tara Russell, program director for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s northern Alberta chapter, said of the mandate letter.

“We’ve got really high demand for parks and protected areas, both for recreation opportunities and nature conservation. 

“And this letter makes absolutely no mention of increasing the number of parks in Alberta, despite parks being in the title,” Russell said.

Todd Loewen shakes hands with Alberta Premier Danielle Smith after Loewen was sworn into cabinet as Minister of Forestry, Parks and Tourism in Edmonton in 2022.
Todd Loewen is the minister of forestry and parks in Premier Danielle Smith’s latest cabinet. He says there has been a demand for more camping spaces within the province. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Loewen said there are currently no plans to develop or expand any parks, although he referenced the spring announcement to establish Big Island Provincial Park in southwest Edmonton over the next three years.

He also points to the mandate task of bringing stakeholders together to develop a Crown lands recreation and conservation strategy as addressing environmental concerns.

“There’s already plans in place that we have to abide by and regulations and everything,” he said. 

“We’ll be following those rules, land stewardship plans that we have existing right now.”

Trail stewardship

Devon Earl, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, said she was also disappointed by the lack of emphasis on environmental values.

“The emphasis in this mandate letter was really about expansion of recreation and an expansion of trails and campgrounds, which isn’t inherently a bad thing. But we’re really missing a step here, which is land use planning,” Earl said.

She said the government should be considering scaling back in some areas with heavy use that could be putting species at risk. Off-highway vehicle trail networks are one example of a use that is degrading both the environment and the character that attracts recreational use, according to Earl.

The letter also mentions enabling expansion of trails, campsites and other public land use opportunities by Alberta entrepreneurs and other organizations. It follows the passing of the Trails Act in 2021, which allows the government to appoint partner organizations to act as trail managers.

Loewen said many organizations like Friends of the Eastern Slopes are working on campsites and those would be the kinds of partnerships they would look to expand.

“Because those organizations are there on the ground, they have good volunteer structure, and then they can help us develop and develop where and what’s needed,” he said, adding that they can improve trails and make them more environmentally-friendly.

But Earl said there’s ongoing concern those partner organizations could include groups who do not have conservation as a top priority. 

In February, the government announced $8 million would go to the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association and the Alberta Snowmobile Association to maintain and grow trail networks they manage.

“We’re still waiting to see how … that plays out on the ground,” Earl said.

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