In Defense of Alberta’s Parks

We don’t often get into politics on this blog, but as avid parks users in Alberta, we feel that recent changes to our Provincial Parks require addressing.

Earlier this week the Alberta Government quietly released information on their plan to close several parks, reduce services and hours, cut track-setting of the cross-country ski trails in Kananaskis,  explore third-party management, and for some parks, legally remove their protected status to enable the sale or transfer of land to third parties.  Ultimately, this would see 20 parks closed and reductions in service or private operation at 164 of 473 provincial parks in Alberta in order to trim $5M annually from the province’s budget.

There has been a vocal public outcry to this plan, as the provincial park system in Alberta is one of the true gems of Alberta.  Albertans are rightly proud of their national and provincial Parks.  For many, including us, access to mountain parks is one of the reasons that we choose to live in Calgary over other cities.

Tent Ridge Kananaskis
Hiking Tent Ridge this past summer, an easy day trip from the city

Furthermore, many are upset that the government’s plan came as a surprise.  It was introduced with no consultation and no notice to any of the impacted stakeholders. This from a government that campaigned on transparency.  If it came down to it, many have suggested they would happily pay user fees or buy a provincial park pass if it was truly necessary to maintain Albertans’ access to these natural areas and maintain services but the people weren’t even given those options before these changes were announced.

Our Beautiful Backyard

We’ve said it before – while tourists flock to Banff, the locals go to Kananaskis Country.  Under hushed tones, people will say “Banff is great, but have you been to Kananaskis?” Access to nature is one of our favourite parts of living in Calgary and like so many others we get out to our beautiful natural areas as often we can. Whether it’s hiking, cycling, paddling, or skiing, you can find us in the provincial parks most weekends. Calgary is a city of weekend warriors and many agree that the mountains are what they love the most about this at times, unremarkable city.

We’ve even been to a handful of the “underutilized” sites suggested for closure, such as the Bleriot Ferry Campground and Tolman Campgrounds which are perfectly situated for a beginner canoe trip on the Red Deer River.  We’ve stopped in at the Barrier Lake and Elbow Valley Visitors Centres countless times to get information on trails, weather, or wildlife in the area.

birds, water, and paddling
Paddling the Red Deer River

Elbow Valley, Little Bow, and the Highwood area are under-appreciated gems in Kananaskis with fantastic day hikes, skiing in the winter,  and multi-day backpacking trips – all of which are easily accessible from Calgary. While they may not have Banff’s reputation, the parking lots are consistently full so we struggle to see how this government could have ever arrived at the conclusion that they were “underutilized.” Just hike the Ptarmigan Cirque during larch season if you don’t believe us.

Even during our trip around the world while hiking in Bolivia, or Patagonia we often found ourselves thinking about and appreciating nature back home and how lucky we are to have world-class natural areas that are just as beautiful, all in our own backyard. Moreover, much of Kananaskis’ charm is that it is so wild – as in seeing majestic (and scary) grizzlies while you hike, under the stars, no reception, dig your own toilet or move a “lumpy”.  This kind of wilderness could never be mistaken for glamping.

Stars in Kananaskis
Stars in Kananaskis, near Highwood Junction

Sure, Patagonia will wow you while you’re walking, but once you reach your “campsite” it’s a bunch of businesses that will sell you overpriced chocolate bars and you’ll have carried your tent on your back to sleep beside 80 other tents. If Kananaskis is opened to business like Patagonia, we will have to take our vacations in the Territories or British Columbia to experience that wilderness we’ve grown to love.

Cross Country Skiing

The track-setting for Cross Country Skiing in Kananaskis Country that’s slated for the chopping block is some of the best you’ll find anywhere in the world.  Track-setting makes the area accessible for all manner of skillsets and on weekends during the winter you’ll regularly find the parking lots in Kananaskis jam-packed with folks from Calgary and Canmore.

Cross Country Trails at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Cross Country Ski Trails at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park

Several programs also use these areas for training – whether it’s for beginners learning to ski or racers looking to perfect their technique. We were planning on writing some more posts on the best ski trails in the mountain parks, but without track-setting, these areas will not be safe or accessible to many skiers.

And before you say “who cares I’m not a skier”, think about how much government money is poured into hockey rinks, golf courses, and swimming pools every year, among others and not everyone uses those either.

Minimal Savings

The $5M in “savings” by cutting services and protections in the parks in the grand scheme of a provincial budget is hardly significant.  In fact, the province has prioritized spending on the Alberta Oil and Gas “War Room” which costs taxpayers $30M/year to troll Twitter, steal corporate logos, and attack the New York Times.  While it’s certainly entertaining (and embarrassing) to watch the War Room repeatedly faceplant, it’s not a hard argument to make that maintaining parks funding would be a better use of our tax dollars. One of these things provides value to Albertans, the other is a national embarrassment.  I mean, you know it’s bad when a conservative party is getting slammed by the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation.

Track setting for example, for the three ski areas in Kananaskis, costs a paltry $200k per year. The Rocky Mountain Outlook pointed out that for only half the pathetic War Room’s budget we could afford to track-set Kananaskis for the next 75 years.  That seems like a deal to me.

track set trail in kananaskis
Track set trail at Wedge Pond

Let’s look at it another way.  The Alberta budget for 2020 is $56 BILLION in spending.  $5M is only 0.0089% of the total budget expenditures.  It’s basically a rounding error.

But these numbers are big and hard to wrap your head around so let’s compare that to a household budget – let’s say the typical household budget is approximately $80,000/year.  In this light, 0.0089% of $80,000 is about $7/year.  Would you fret about a single $7 expense in the year if it brings you joy when you put together your household budget?  Probably not.

Anyways, the point of all of this is that whether you’re looking specifically at $200k for track-setting cross country ski trails or the total $5M savings from closing and reducing services at 30% of our provincial parks, the savings are insignificant and not worth the pain.

Kananaskis Alpenglow
Sunset in Kananaskis Country

Benefits of Parks

But parks aren’t just a cost centre, our provincial parks provide significant economic benefits through tourism, improve Albertan’s health and wellness, and of course, protect the environment and preserve a legacy for future generations.

Research has shown that parks and natural areas provide significant economic benefits.  According to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society For every dollar governments spend on our national, provincial and territorial parks in Canada, more than five dollars are generated for the Canadian economy.  In 2009, national parks in Alberta supported almost 14,000 FTE jobs in the province.

For a province that’s struggling to create jobs due to the downturn in oil and gas, and a government that campaigned on “Jobs. Economy. Pipelines”, you’d think they’d prioritize anything that creates jobs. And just for the record, $5M x 5 = $25M in economic benefit.  That means that the economic benefit from the proposed cuts to provincial parks could almost fund the War Room!

A grizzly bear in Kananaskis
Grizzly Bear in Kananaskis

Furthermore, the Alberta Government has a stated goal to double tourism revenue by 2030.  Alberta’s stunning landscapes and wildlife are a huge draw to international tourists and cutting parks is not going to help achieve the goal of increasing tourism. Perhaps if the government chose to spend more money on promoting the gems that these parks already are instead of wasting money on a misinformation machine, they could preserve the parks and achieve their goal of increasing tourism at the same time.

As for local gains, having places where people can enjoy nature is also beneficial to the health of Albertans.  For instance, in one study researchers found that simply increasing the number of trees in a city block by 11 was “comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $20,000 or being 1.4 years younger”  If 11 trees are beneficial on a city block, just imagine the benefits of Kananaskis Country.

Storm Mountain Larches in Highwood Pass
Larches at the base of Storm Mountain near Highwood Junction

Other longitudinal studies have found that small government investments in health and wellness infrastructure (ie: bike lanes, track setting, campgrounds) pay off in spades in reduced health care costs.

And how about physical activity?  Cross country skiing, for instance, is a fantastic workout and one of the best cardio activities you can do.  Cross-country skiers are actually known to have more healthy “brown fat” than other athletes. Why does this matter to you? Well in an age where we’re cutting health services left and right a healthier populace will reduce healthcare costs and strain on the services that remain.

Finally, so potent are the benefits of having access to green spaces that some doctors have taken to prescribing nature to their patients. In short, we’re all better for our parks and these benefits translate into reduced health spending for the provincial government.

Cycling at Highwood Pass
Cycling at Highwood Pass

A Legacy for Future Generations

In 1977  Kananaskis was officially designated as a provincial park by Conservative Premier Peter Lougheed.  Premier Lougheed recognized the potential of this area as a natural, protected area for Calgarians to enjoy themselves, only about an hour from the city.

At a time when much of the world is going in the opposite direction and increasing environmental protections and natural areas, this government is taking us backwards.  Even within our own country, the Federal Government has a goal to increase protected areas in Canada to 25% of land by 2025 and 30% by 2030.

These provincial parks are a shared resource of all Albertans.  Thanks to the efforts of previous politicians that recognized this, we are able to enjoy these areas today. We owe it to future generations to ensure that they can as well.

Aster Lake Northover Ridge
Aster Lake, Kananaskis

What can you do?

So if you think parks are an important investment please don’t sit idly by.  Here are some ideas for how you can help:

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5 Replies to “In Defense of Alberta’s Parks”

  1. I am not one of you who partakes in the sporting opportunities AB Parks offer to the world. I have become lazy in my senior years (my problem), BUT I have many friends and acquaintances who love AB Parks and all that they offer. I’ve lived in the Bow Valley since 79 and it still amazes me every day (except for the traffic).
    Your blog is spot on but unfortunately this, hopefully short lived government, is attempting to take us back to the 60’s, to simpler times, when oil was king and the world was rosy. The world has changed, this government has not!! I will support any endeavour to stop this small minded change to AB Parks.
    PS: I would hazard to guess the only time JK’s feet have left the pavement is when he gets into his big blue truck that never leaves the pavement.

  2. Have signed petitions, sent letters to the Premier and relevant MLA’s, donated to the official Opposition. The costs of trail setting and grooming can’t be that exorbitant. As a XCountry skier I know that these services are rendered by Volunteers (perhaps not in total). The Provincial Government may invest in machinery, I don’t know. But I do know that NORDIC CANADA collects moneys for trail maintenance from its members.

  3. Focus on the solutions, a provincial parks pass, a go fund me page to track set xc ski trails etc

    I have no issue with a user pays system. Climbers pay to set their routes, they don’t expect the province to pay for them. Why should it be any different in winter when I put my skis on?

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