EDMONTON — Albertans are expected to learn Monday how they can take up to 164 provincial parks and recreation sites off the hands of a government that no longer wants them.
The decision, announced in March, comes despite concern from thousands of people, including parks users, businesses, rural municipalities and opposition politicians.
"The lash back from Albertans on this has been unprecedented," said Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, or CPAWS. "It's quite unbelievable their concerns are being ignored."
Environment Minister Jason Nixon has said the United Conservative government plans to fully or partially close 20 provincial parks and hand off another 164 to third-party managers. Sites for which no manager can be found will lose park status and revert to general Crown land, which can be sold.
That's about 16,000 hectares — small compared with the province's total park system, but about one-third the number of sites the province manages. Budget documents suggest the move would save about $5 million.
Alberta Environment has promised to release guidelines Monday on how the parks "partnerships" would work.
Thousands have signed petitions and written letters in protest.
One online petition had more than 8,000 signatures within days of the announcement. At least 5,000 Albertans have written Nixon through the CPAWS website.
Hundreds have attended town halls and rallies, held online because of COVID-19, said Morrison. Environmentalists, hunters and anglers lined up against it.
Managers of several outdoor retailers have also protested.
"Hundreds of Alberta businesses depend on the economic benefits that access to Alberta parks and natural spaces create," they wrote in an open letter.
"We urge (the government) to reverse this decision and undertake a comprehensive good faith public consultation."
The head of Alberta Rural Municipalities said Friday some of his initial concerns have been allayed after meeting with Nixon, but he still wants assurances his members won't be out of pocket.
"Our municipalities should not end up seeing a cost," said Al Kemmere.
A Leger poll commissioned by CPAWS of 1,002 Albertans in mid-March, considered accurate within three per cent 19 times out of 20, found two-thirds opposed closing parks or removing them from the system. That result was consistent across the province.
A slight majority opposed transferring parks to third-party management.
Nixon has said the move is to save money, modernize parks and focus spending on the province's marquee natural areas.
Critics say he has refused to discuss the plans at all.
"I wouldn't characterize our relationship as collegial in any way," said Marlin Schmidt, environment critic for the Opposition New Democrats.
He said his office has received more letters about parks than any issue other than the pandemic.
"There's been no indication whatsoever the government is reconsidering its plan."
Schmidt said Albertans deserve a say in such a large change to their parks system — especially since the pandemic has trimmed so much spending capacity.
"We really don't think there's anybody else positioned to take over these parks right now."
Morrison said her group wrote Nixon expressing concerns and received what she called a "boilerplate" response.
The group noted the government changed the rules for parks consultation last February, softening previous requirements to read "the public may be engaged or notified."
Kemmere said a handful of municipalities are interested in running a park, charging enough to break even. That interest was expressed before the pandemic, he added.
"It'll all depend on the value (the government) puts on these and what they're willing to invest. But we're hoping this will not come as a mechanism of handing the costs from one level of government to another."
Partnerships in managing public parks may not be a bad thing, said Morrison. But the public should have some input into the rules and parks should not lose their status.
Nixon has said no former parks will be sold.
"In the short term, I believe that statement," Morrison said. "But this government has indicated they are willing to sell public lands."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2020
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: CORRECTS surname of CPAWS spokeswoman