Intense wildfire smoke has blanketed Calgary, where we are writing this from. Looking out the window feels like a scene out of an exceedingly eerie apocalyptic movie. The smoke is blowing in from dozens of wildfires burning north of our city that have already displaced tens of thousands of Albertans.
Opening a door and being choked by smoke that stings your eyes and nose is becoming an all too common experience for Albertans, as climate change causes forest fires to become both more frequent and more intense. The smoke we’re currently experiencing has pushed air quality readings in Calgary to 10+ (the highest danger to health) and forced schools to issue shelter-in-place protocols.
But smoky skies are the smallest of inconveniences compared to what those who live closer to the fires are experiencing. In recent years, disastrous wildfires have destroyed large swaths of Alberta towns and cities, and forced thousands from their homes for weeks on end.
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This year’s wildfire season comes as Alberta is in the midst of a nail-biter of a provincial election and it serves as a stark reminder that the decisions our elected officials make on a daily basis —from meeting emission reductions targets, to allowing open-pit coal mining, to cutting parks or programs — have very real consequences.
As just one example, a crew of 63 firefighters stationed across the province and trained to rappel from helicopters in order to reach wildfires in their infancy was disbanded by the government in 2019 to save $1.4 million.
All this is to say, this week, instead of going into the smoky outdoors, we’ve compiled:
A Concise Timeline of What's Happened to Alberta's Environment and Parks Over the Last Four Years
Who has been in charge:
April 2019: Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) wins the election. Kenney is sworn in as Premier. Jason Nixon is named the Minister of Environment and Parks.
June 2022: Kenney moves Calgary MLA Whitney Issik into the Environment and Parks post.
October 2022: Danielle Smith wins the UCP Leadership race and is sworn in as Premier. She reconfigures some ministries and separates Environment and Parks into two: the Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas (Minister Sonya Savage) and the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism (Minister Todd Loewen). (The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society raises concerns about these changes, which see previously protected areas of land now falling under Forestry, Parks and Tourism.)
What has happened:
November 2019: The government cuts the 36-year-old Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program, also known as the Helitack-Rappel or RAP program.
November 2019: Alberta sheriffs, fish and wildlife officers and commercial vehicle enforcement officers are given additional responsibilities to combat rural crime.
March 2020: The government announces 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 (Annalise’s thoughts on these changes.) This announcement spurs months of protest including a “Defend Alberta Parks” initiative (with signs remaining on lawns to this day, more than three years later.)
March 2020: The government auctions off a 65-hectare swath of native prairie near Taber, despite promises not to.
April 2020: Several environmental-reporting requirements are suspended, through a ministerial order signed by Minister Nixon, citing the COVID-19 outbreak
May 2020: On the Friday afternoon before the May long weekend, the government announces that effective June 1, it is changing its coal policy and abolishing protections that had been in place for more than 40 years. (Many more details in this thorough CBC feature.)
December 2020: Three days before Christmas, reporters receive a government press release backtracking on the government’s March 2020 cuts to parks and stating that all parks will maintain their designations (Lots more details in this feature by Annalise.)
March 2021: The government announces a five-person committee to consult the public about the future of coal mining in Alberta. It is later reported that the committee “won’t be allowed to hear what people want to say about water and land use.”
June 2021: The government introduces the Kananaskis Conservation Pass ($15 per day, $90 per the year) and begins charging people to access an area that was previously free and saw record visitation in 2020. (Our thoughts on this barrier to going outside here.)
June 2021: The government ends subsidies and changes a program that helped municipalities with the cost of disposal of household hazardous waste products like bleach and antifreeze.
October 2021: Corb Lund and several notable Alberta country artists release a song against proposed coal development in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. In recent months, Lund had become a key figure in the opposition to open-pit coal mining along Alberta’s southern slopes.
March 2022: The government says it will keep the 1976 coal policy in place, almost two years after it cancelled the policy.
February 2023: The government announces $8 million in funding for two off-highway vehicle (OHV) groups to expand and maintain their trail networks, as well it announced the appointment of the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association (AOHVA) and the Alberta Snowmobile Association as trail managers under the Trails Act.
March 2023: The government announces a more than $200 million investment over three years in Alberta’s parks and public lands. The funds will upgrade and expand parks and infrastructure across the province.
May 2023: A provincial election is scheduled for May 29.
We’ll be taking the long weekend off and will be back in your inbox with new outdoor adventures on May 30.
⛰️🥾️ Go Outside is written by Annalise & Cailynn — writers, outdoor enthusiasts and sisters who’ve been hiking, biking and skiing near Calgary since childhood and continue to be happiest outside.
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I do feel there's a "let some burn" going on. Revitalizing the forest and reducing forest floor fuel. The quick to put out fires seems to have been reduced, in return, there's more fires that scare the bejesus outta us. I'm not a denier of anything, just my own impression that's all.
The Kananaskis fee is funding trail rehabilitation through groups like Friends of Kananaskis, Bragg Creek Trails, Moose Mountain Bike Trails, Calgary Mountain Bike Society, so its not all bad.
Part of the problem is that trails built in the 80s have never been maintained,they are over grown and eroded. The current crop of land managers, don't want to see new trails, don't want to maintain old ones and think people should just go elsewhere.
CPAWS is not a friend to the trail community, they would keep us all out, they don't want new facilities be they trails, parking lots, bathrooms or campgrounds.
Alberta public lands policy is a mess, a mere change of government is not going to fix it by itself.
Although it would likely help.