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LETTER: On Riverlot 56, why fix what's not broken?

"Since there has been no provincial contribution to the operation of Riverlot 56, the delisting of the natural area will have no savings impact on the provincial budget."
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In early March, Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon announced plans for full or partial closure of 20 provincial parks and the delisting of 164 natural areas and recreation sites. Riverlot 56 (adjacent to Poundmaker Road) is one of the sites which will be removed from the Alberta Provincial Parks System and lose its current protected status under legislation. Minister Nixon later revealed that the land will not be sold, however management for the areas will be transferred to private partners through leases or other arrangements.  

Today, Riverlot 56 is managed by a local volunteer steward committee, Riverlot 56 Natural Area Society, whose lease agreement with Alberta Parks continues until 2024. The society’s management approach complies with the purpose and objectives as outlined in the Parks Act governing natural areas – "to maintain the land or features in a natural state for use by the public for conservation, natural appreciation, low intensity outdoor recreation or education or for any combination of those purposes."

When Nixon announced the removal of 174 parks from the provincial parks system in March, he gave two reasons for his decision. He claimed the delisting would save $5 million in the 2020-21 budget and that the selected parks were underutilized by the public. Riverlot 56 does not match either of these criteria. 

Budget Savings: Since the riverlot was established, the Alberta budget has only once included an expenditure for the natural area – the fencing of the property in 1982. In the 38 years since then, there has been some minor outlay for the erection of road signs indicating the boundary of the natural area. No provincial funding is provided to support the work of the volunteer stewards. Their small operating funds come from two sources: donations from conservation groups and donations by community-minded corporations. All area improvement work – annual trail clearing, re-establishment of native species, installing interpretative trail signage – has been accomplished through volunteer workers. Since there has been no provincial contribution to the operation of Riverlot 56, the delisting of the natural area will have no savings impact on the provincial budget.

Underutilization: There are no statistics supporting the claim that Riverlot 56 is underutilized or rarely visited by the public. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) recently obtained internal government documents through a Freedom of Information request. The released documents indicated the government did not collect user statistics on Riverlot 56, so there is no data to support the Minister's description.

Contradicting the Minister's claim of underutilization by the public, the following activities occur in the natural area: cross-country skiing, trail running, orienteering, outdoor education trips for guides and scouts, snowshoeing, casual walking and bird watching. The interpretative trail signs describe species habitats from mice to moose, as well as vegetation and natural features. Each year, hundreds of visitors have been able to enjoy and connect with a very special place. The March 2020 lockdown for COVID-19 affirmed the importance of Riverlot 56 to the mental and physical well-being of St. Albert residents. Within days, an unprecedented surge in public use occurred. As lockdown restrictions and disruption of daily routines caused anxiety and tension, citizens recognized the nearby natural area helped to improve physical conditioning and to reduce mental stress.

While closing some of the parks and natural areas on Minister Nixon’s list may be warranted on the basis of underutilization or providing significant savings to the provincial budget, Riverlot 56 does not match either benchmark. It is my view that delisting Riverlot 56 and removing it from protected status is not justified.  Alberta Parks and the Riverlot 56 Natural Area Society still have four years remaining on a lease agreement. Under the current arrangement, the area has been well managed with minimal cost to the province, and Riverlot 56 is recognized as an important public resource for many Alberta residents in and near St. Albert.  

Why fix something which is not broken?

Bas Delaney, St. Albert