CPAWS Northern Alberta chapter program director Tara Russell speaks to JJ Collett Natural Area Foundation members Oct. 19. (Emily Jaycox/Ponoka News)

CPAWS Northern Alberta chapter program director Tara Russell speaks to JJ Collett Natural Area Foundation members Oct. 19. (Emily Jaycox/Ponoka News)

De-listing Alberta parks creates ‘risk’ for coal mining: CPAWS

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society speaks at JJ Collett AGM

The pending closure and de-listing of Alberta parks and natural areas and the potential impact was the main topic of conversation at the JJ Collett Natural Area Foundation’s annual general meeting, held at the Ponoka Legion on Oct. 19.

Guest speaker Tara Russell, the program director of the Northern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) outlined the organization’s concerns about the proposed changes.

“This is really upsetting to us because these areas were identified for their recreation value, their conservation value — they’re protected under provincial parks legislation, or natural area legislation, to preserve those conservation values or those recreation values,” said Russell.

CPAWS is dedicated to public/crown land conservation for public use.

The United Conservative Party (UCP) announced in March, 2020, that it planned to close 20 parks and remove 164 parks or natural areas from the Alberta Parks System, with a promise to given an update in May.

Sites could have assets sold or parks could be transferred to third party partners to be managed. Areas without a third-party partner will revert to unprotected and un-serviced public land, without a protected area designation.

Russell says that current legislation protects the areas from inappropriate or industrial development or other uses, and removing them from the parks status removes that protection.

“This was a very shocking announcement to us.”

READ MORE: JJ Collett Natural Area on the axe list of provincial park spaces

Russell gave a presentation on an excerpt from an article produced by CPAWS called, “13 truths and lies about the decision to de-list Alberta’s parks.”

CPAWS is concerned about the de-listing because it makes “alternate management approaches,” possible for the sites. Public Lands Act, which these lands would now fall under, does not afford the same protections and contains provisions for all kinds of different uses, says Russell.

CPAWS received documents through an access-to-information request, including a report to the Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon.

In the documents, civil servants in Nixon’s department identified that the changes “didn’t make sense or align with the broad intention of Alberta’s protected area system,” says Russell.

READ MORE: Minister Nixon on ‘modernization’ of Alberta parks system

Russell went on to say that some of the arguments they’ve heard in favour of the changes is that there needs to be better management of the parks.

However, third parties can already manage a park under the current system, without the need to remove them from the parks system, she says.

“That is entirely possible under the facility operating agreements … there is no reason why they have to lose protected area status to have different types of management in these areas.”

An example of where third-party management is already in place is Friends of Fish Creek Park, she says, and another is the JJ Collett foundation.

“The partnership details were supposed to be released in May, and understandably, there were some delays around COVID, however, it’s now the middle of October and we’ve still seen no details on these types of partnerships and that just raises some concerns and questions.”

Their other objections include the potential loss of camping sites, that the decision was made without public consultation or information given about how the selected parks were chosen for removal, and no evidence of cost savings has been given.

CPAWS asserts that in some cases, it will cost money to transfer the sites to third-party managers.

Although the land itself is just 0.03 per cent of the total land area of Alberta, the 175 sites represent 37 per cent of parks in Alberta.

Another concern is the potential for opening the door to open-pit coal mining in previously protected areas.

The Government of Alberta rescinded the 1976 policy that banned open-pit coal mining in the Rockies and the Foothills, effective as of June 1, 2020.

Russell says there is an overlap of areas where there is interest in coal mining with sites to be de-listed.

“There’s no evidence that these things are tied but … the majority of the sites that are along the eastern slopes are also on top of coal seams,” said Russell.

“I don’t know if there is any intention … however, I do think [coal mining] is a risk of losing the protected area status for those spaces because there is a lot of coal interest in those regions.”

Russell says the closure of the 20 sites was halted for the summer, which she says is a hopeful sign that the government is listening to Albertan’s concerns, but the government could make an announcement at any time.

CPAWS urges Albertans to write a letter to their MLA, request a lawn sign, or make a donation or volunteer.

For more information, visit defendABparks.ca and cpaws.nab.org.

Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr was unable to attend the AGM, as he was in Edmonton preparing for the beginning of the legislative session the next morning, but sent a letter that included a statement from Environment and Parks.

“The JJ Collett Natural Area is a treasure to be cared for,” said Orr.

“My personal commitment is to see it continue and to be under the control of local people who care about it and best understand what the needs are,” he said, adding he’s walked there may times over the last 18 years.

“The claim that JJ Collett Provincial Natural Area is for sale is completely baseless and an example of the misinformation campaign that is being spread by anti-access environmental organizations,” reads the statement from Environment and Parks.

“No parks lands across our province have been, or will be, available for sale to any non-profit group, municipality, private company, or any other entity. The partnerships entered into with groups like Friends of the Eastern Slopes Association and the Friends of Fish Creek Provincial Park Association allow for important services to be provided to Albertans and visitors who use these sites.

“Over 120 sites across the provinces are already managed through the partnerships system, which has operated in our province for decades. The sites identified for potential partnerships are primarily day-use areas and campgrounds that account for 0.3 per cent of the Alberta Parks land base. All identified sites will remain protected under the full ownership and jurisdiction of Alberta Environment and Parks, as well as all provincial parks, recreation areas, and all other designations of parks and public lands. Our government has and will continue to support conservation and responsible recreation in our provincial parks and public lands.

The statement then points to the $75.9 million the government allocated as an operational budget for provincial parks, as well as $43 million for capital upgrades and $9.7 million for conservation projects through the Land Stewardship Fund.

It concludes with, “Our government will be announcing further information on this initiative in the coming days, which will clarify the false accusations made by anti-access environmental groups.”

READ MORE: Letter: FOIP documents and Alberta Parks

A 65-hectare plot of unprotected, prairie crown land east of Taber in southern Alberta was auctioned off on March 31, 2020. The land was home to at least three sensitive species: the Sprague’s pipit, the common nighthawk and the plains spadefoot toad, according to government data (CBC).

A letter submitted by Dr. Charles Durham Bird of Erskine, Alta., who has conducted studies of JJ Collett, was read at the meeting.

‘The area certainly needs to be maintained in its present state, as well as being a show piece for those walking the trails,” said Dr. Bird in the letter.

Dr. Bird says the 95 per cent of native habitats in the Aspen Parkland of Alberta have been lost and more habitat loss will occur unless steps are taken to prevent it.

“It is important to remember that various rare, or even endangered species, occur in these habitats and their existence is threatened if further habitat loss occurs.”

He goes on to explain that the flora and fauna found in protected natural areas is typical of what was found in Alberta before “widespread agricultural, petroleum and logging activities, as well as urban expansion, replaced them with ‘weedy’ species and those associated with cultivated grains and hay crops. As a result, many of Alberta’s ‘rare and endangered’ species are now found only, or mainly, in such protected areas.”

A list of species found at JJ Collett is posted on www.jjcollett.com.

In several studies, dating from 2012 to 2019, Bird documented “a wealth of insects and fungi,” consisting of 308 species of moths and 29 butterflies, 19 other insect species, seven species of odonata (dragon flies and damsel flies), five slime molds and 214 fungi variations present in JJ Collett.

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