Will Building More Campgrounds Ease Issues in Our Crowded Parks?
A $211 million investment in Alberta's parks has us thinking about the future of our natural spaces
“The time has come to build more campsites.” That’s what Alberta Parks Minister Todd Loewen said last week, at a news conference at an Edmonton Cabela’s store, as he announced the UCP government’s plan to invest $211.3 million in Alberta’s parks and public lands, including $500,000 for new campgrounds.
The announcement is a major reversal from just three years ago. It was in late February 2020, in an effort to save $5 million a year, that the UCP government announced plans to “optimize” Alberta Parks by closing 20 parks and removing 164 other sites from the Alberta Parks system. (This is also when the government announced they would stop grooming three main cross-country skiing areas in Kananaskis; annual user fees for this region came later, in 2021.)
Strong public outrage over the parks closures followed, including a massive “Defend Alberta Parks” campaign. Launched on a shoestring budget, the campaign saw some 1,500 volunteers deliver more than 17,000 signs to addresses across the province.
This all coincided with the early days of the pandemic, when people couldn’t travel and a record number of Albertans went outside closer to home.
After nearly a year of protests about the cuts to Alberta Parks, the government reversed course. In December 2020, three days before Christmas, a government press release went out after 4 p.m., stating that no parks would be “delisted” or closed.
Fast forward to now, with Todd Loewen, Minister of Forestry, Parks and Tourism, announcing millions of dollars of investment into Alberta Parks over the next three years and a goal of building more than 900 new campsites over the next decade.
It’s certainly a stark contrast to what the same government (under a different premier and different oil revenue situation) was doing two years ago.
The new investment in parks is good news. Right?! More campgrounds are good. Right?!
It’s certainly got us thinking.
Adding more campsites and trails to our parks system gives Albertans more opportunities to access nature and enjoy outdoor recreation. No doubt, this is a good thing.
But we wonder about the effects of expanded infrastructure on the environment, including on the plants and animals that live on these lands. The government may indeed be considering this, but it’s unclear, as their announcement was focused on outdoor recreation opportunities not conservation considerations and land-use planning.
Alberta has a world-class network of outdoor spaces because politicians who came before us saw the value in protecting public spaces for the public good — politicians like Progressive Conservative premier Peter Lougheed.
"I think Dad believed that if people experience natural areas, they become more connected and more determined to protect it," Lougheed's son Joe has said.
Protecting vast natural areas for future generations, like the more than 300 square kilometres in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains now named after Peter Lougheed, is one thing. Expanding campgrounds and trails is quite another.
As CPAWS has said about last week’s announcement, “Improperly placed recreation infrastructure, including trails and campgrounds, can exceed science-based thresholds and carry numerous risks — including increasing human-wildlife conflict, fragmenting wildlife movement, and jeopardizing biodiversity and ecological integrity.”
Anyone who has spent time on crown land in Alberta has seen first hand what jeopardizing biodiversity and ecological integrity looks like. In rugged areas, such as the Ghost Public Land Use Zone (pictured above), where no reservations are needed, people camp anywhere, ride their motorized vehicles anywhere, and go to the bathroom anywhere they like.
Or, look at the Bighorn Backcountry area in west-central Alberta, vast and scenic public lands on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies. An influx of people in the area in 2020 led to environmental damage and overcrowding, and Alberta’s environment minister at the time went on to say parks across the province were facing the same damage.
The balance between encouraging people to go outside and enjoy the great outdoors, while also ensuring our natural landscapes are around for future generations is a difficult one.
How do you protect a place while also encouraging people to visit it?
It’s a balance Parks Canada has tried to juggle for decades and it’s something we believe is more pertinent than ever before in Alberta as we face increasing demand for the outdoors at the same time that climate change is transforming cherished places before our eyes.
Just look at the recent wildfires, or consider Abbot Pass Hut, pictured below. The second highest permanent structure in Canada, this truly incredible place we’ve hiked to was recently dismantled and removed because of slope instability caused by climate change.
Alberta Parks, Parks Canada, and elected leaders must make informed decisions with future generations in mind. Those decisions aren’t easy — and they certainly won’t please everyone — as we saw earlier this year, with the Moraine Lake Road closure.
But those decisions are necessary. Recreation needs to be sustainable, and that requires forethought from our leaders that extends beyond an election cycle.
And each of us, as individuals, has a role here too. We all need to understand those leaders’ decisions may impact how and where we go outside, and the way we once did things could change. We can’t afford to wait. Our actions — and inaction — now will determine how future generations experience the outdoors.
We’ll be taking next week off for Easter. See you again on April 18!
I agree...fragmentation is not sustainable to the other life that we share the planet with...this must be done in a manner that places conservation first.... are you aware of any campaigns to ensure this?
There does not appear to be a long term plan for managing recreational use on crown lands.
In K country, trails and back country campgrounds were built in the 80s and never maintained and very few new trails built, despite huge increases in use. The result is eroded, crumbling trails, unsustainable user built trails, run down campgrounds, over crowded parking lots in weird places, and chaos every weekend.
The random camping scene is a disaster, obviously campground facilities with toilets and garbage disposal are needed, but where and how many do you build and how do you take away random camping privileges that are regarded as a right?
The national parks have decided to restrict use, limiting access and parking, decommissioning trails and bridges. Obviously something had to be done to manage visitor numbers and I don't envy those planners who are forced to make difficult and unpopular decisions. We end up paying more for even less access.
I am afraid that instead of building facilities to distribute use, we are going to see the opposite tactic,
restricting access and parking, and trying to push people into manicured roadside visitor centres and picnic areas, and keep us out of the back country, where we just cause problems anyway.