By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on April 1, 2020.
Parks are not an unnecessary luxury
The Alberta government plan to divest, downgrade or deconsecrate 184 of the province’s parks and recreation areas is bold, imperious and ill-considered. This scheme targets “small, underutilized” parks and their facilities for the ostensible rationale this decision will save money. It is an ironic twist, given the desire to increase tourism (and tourism dollars) to bolster an otherwise failing economy. If tourism is a new provincial pot of gold what sense does it make to divest ourselves of the “pots,” the provincial parks and recreation areas that add to the destinations of interest? Wouldn’t a more prudent strategy be to extoll the diversity of choices available for recreational users?
We have been here before with this perverse ideological bent that recreation, based on parks facilities, is an unnecessary luxury to be dumped in economic downturns. During the infamous Klein cuts many parks facilities were privatized. The net impact of that short-sighted decision was the erosion of services, widespread user dissatisfaction, declines in use, failure to maintain parks infrastructure and, a huge public rebuilding cost to bring facilities back to acceptable standards. How that decision saved us money remains unanswered. One might think even a casual review of history might provide pause to the current thinking.
Parks on the list of the damned touch people in every part of Alberta. They form an interconnected network to experience all that is Alberta, and are envied by many other jurisdictions. Yes, some of these parks and recreation areas are small and uncrowded – those are two of their virtues, not a reason to denigrate them. They are viable alternatives to those popular (and overused) parks that fill up immediately when the reservation line is opened.
Others are extremely popular, contradicting the stated assertion all are underutilized. The metric for decision making is either flawed, suspect, or both.
One of the most important virtues of this matrix of small parks facilities is the standards that apply to all. You know the road to them will be passable, the sites clean, the toilets maintained, the garbage picked up and water will be available. The cost of camping will be affordable regardless of your family’s financial realities. There may be interpretive materials, hiking trails, firewood and picnic tables. Yes, it’s basic, but of a known quality. There is also a consistent set of rules for users – quiet times, restrictions on pets, where fires can occur – all designed to enhance recreational experience and safety as well as protect the site facilities, wildlife and vegetation. Often, patrols by parks staff with enforcement capability occurs.
Changes to park status, divestment, privatization or abandonment will have some consequences, all of which are predictable. Clearly the standards will change, rules will be watered down, or disappear and these will cause many to reconsider whether these places are safe destinations, especially for family use. Those sites that are turned over to “partnership” agreements will be subject to different business models and become unaffordable to the average Albertan as hotels, cabins, and other facilities are opened for business.
A very real concern is that many sites will revert to party spots, subject to bad behaviour, indiscriminate shooting, random camping, no toilet facilities, unregulated off highway vehicle use, vandalism and rampant disregard for any rules. This will lead to increased conflict with wildlife and among user groups. That will require more management presence after the fact to clean up the mess. The cost of clean-up will undoubtedly fall on the Alberta taxpayer. In fact, several of the parks facilities on the list were examples of this, until local authorities asked for parks status to be applied to deal with the issues.
The cost savings of this scheme are illusionary at best, especially arrayed against the values Albertans get from parks. Parks not only satisfy our recreational needs, but also nature appreciation, improved physical and mental health, a better understanding of the diversity of Alberta and, for local businesses, sales of gas, groceries and beer. It seems evident that the proposed clearance sale on provincial parks and recreation areas indicates the architects of this purport to know the cost of everything, but the value of nothing.
It’s hard to conceive of a more tone-deaf scheme by the Alberta government, but I remain open to further surprises.
Lorne Fitch is a professional biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist and a user of provincial parks.