Riverlot 56 could be stripped of its environmental protections under a provincial plan to remove it from the parks system.
Alberta Parks released new details last week on plans to remove up to 164 parks from the provincial parks system, including Riverlot 56 by St. Albert.
On Feb. 29, the province announced it would close or partially close 20 provincial parks this year in an attempt to save some $5 million. It also proposed some 164 additional sites, including Riverlot 56 Natural Area, which would be removed from the parks system and made available for “partnership opportunities” or “alternative management approaches.”
In a media release, the province said these changes would “allow government to focus its energy on renowned signature destinations and examine opportunities for other groups to operate smaller parks and day-use areas.”
The 164 sites were mainly small and under-utilized recreation areas “that would become vacant public land” and have their provincial parks status removed. The province said these sites could also be sold or transferred to First Nations, municipalities or non-profits to “continue to provide important economic and recreational benefits to local communities.”
In an email, Jess Sinclair, press secretary to Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, said details on these potential partnerships would come out in May. One example of a partnership was the Friends of the Eastern Slopes Association, which serves as the steward of the Bighorn Campground on Ya Ha Tinda Ranch. These 164 sites would at minimum remain under provincial management as crown land, but might no longer see the province pay for groundskeeping, garbage collection, or other services.
Riverlot 56 is currently a protected natural area under the provincial parks system. Natural areas are zones meant to preserve and protect sites of local significance while providing opportunities for low-impact recreation and nature appreciation.
Georges Binette said he and the other members of the Riverlot 56 Natural Area Society have been stewarding this area for the province since the 1980s and didn’t learn of these plans until the Gazette contacted them Wednesday.
“The government has had no contact with us at all.”
Chris Smith of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s northern Alberta chapter questioned how the province’s proposal would save money, as natural areas are typically volunteer-run with next to no facilities or costs to the province.
Binette said the province had basically not invested any money into Riverlot 56 apart from some fencing back in 1985. The society had no plans to add more trails or facilities to it, but was attempting to reforest it.
“We’d like to keep it as a natural area as opposed to tying it into the Red Willow Park with paved roads,” he said, as they were concerned too much development would deter wildlife.
Mayor Cathy Heron said this area was supposed to be added to St. Albert as part of the city’s annexation talks with Sturgeon County. While she personally is interested in seeing it become part of the city’s park system, she said she wants to see what it would cost the city to get this land first.
“My preference is that it remains as it is,” she said, and remains a place where all residents can enjoy nature.
Heron said this proposal is another case of the province downloading costs onto municipalities.
Laurie Hunt, president of the St. Albert Nordic Ski Club, said in an email the river lot is used by hundreds of skiers every year and has critical importance as a historic site and riparian zone.
“The club is concerned about the future management of this area,” she said, and looked forward to future talks with the province and the City of St. Albert on how it could remain protected.
Smith noted many of the parks under this proposal were the only campsites for miles in their region, and questioned where people would go if they were all removed from the parks system. It could also result in more traffic to the province’s major campsites, many of which are already overloaded.
“I don’t see how that’s a good thing, and I don’t see how that’s going to help the government achieve its goal of doubling tourism revenue by 2030,” he said, referring to a goal in the 2020 budget.
While his sources in the parks department suggested it was unlikely, Binette said he would be very upset if Riverlot 56 was to be sold off as public land.
“We’d be losing this gem we have right on our border,” he said.
“Once it’s gone, it can never be replaced.”
Smith suggested anyone concerned about this plan write to their local MLA about it. Details can be found at albertaparks.ca/news-events.