BOW VALLEY – Alberta’s 2023 budget includes deep cuts to Environment and Protected Areas (EPA), that, along with recently split ministries and policy changes, local environmental groups say spell potential to undermine park conservation efforts.
EPA’s budget, which includes a $106 million increase to $553 million in 2023-24, takes a dive in subsequent years, decreasing to $499 million in 2024-25 and $357 million in 2025-26.
“Anytime I see reductions or even a lack of increases in the budget, it’s a concern,” said Katie Morrison, executive director with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Southern Alberta.
“When we see decreases in budgets, it’s really contrary to what Albertans are telling the government, which is that they want more protected areas, and more places they can be outside and recreate – all of these things require funding.”
EPA’s 2023-26 business plan, released with the budget, aims to balance environmental, economic, and social interests through integrated policy development, effective legislation, regulation and processes while “maintaining robust environmental standards.”
To support the plan’s key objectives, initiatives include $15.5 million for land-use planning and stewardship tools, $11 million for strategic partnerships in the shared stewardship of air, water, land, and biodiversity, and $22.4 million for conservation programs, including $10 million from the Land Stewardship Fund.
Climate adaptation is also supported with $65.4 million to effectively anticipate, respond to and mitigate the impact of environmental conditions and events, including floods, droughts and invasive species.
Despite what she said is a disappointing overall lack of investment with funding beginning to drop off in 2024, Morrison was glad to see the budget allocates funding for land use planning and $35.9 million for caribou recovery planning.
“We were really looking for more investment in parks and protected areas, both creation and management, more investment in Species at Risk recovery – these things that we care about, but that Albertans have told us through various means they also care about,” she said.
A November report from polling commissioned by CPAWS in 2022 found 77 per cent of Albertans support setting aside more land in the province to protect wildlife habitat to prevent further decline of wildlife populations. Another 76 per cent said they want more land in Alberta to be left as wilderness with minimal human activity, and 73 per cent said they support more land for provincial parks with a focus on recreation and leisure.
“Seeing budget decreases shows a real lack of commitment from the government to these really important pieces that Albertans value,” said Morrison.
The report added the recent restructuring of the former Alberta Environment and Parks ministry into two: the Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas and the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism “potentially places emphasis on development and high-impact recreation within Alberta’s parks.”
Hilary Young, director of communities and conservation with Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), agreed splitting parks from environment into a ministry that includes forestry and tourism – a decision made by Premier Danielle Smith in November 2022 – is further muddying the waters around what land is and isn’t protected in Alberta.
The decision to split ministries saw most of the land mass that had been managed as protected areas – more than 90 per cent – move to the control of forestry, parks and tourism. This includes provincial parks, wildland provincial parks and provincial recreation areas, where EPA is responsible for ecological reserves, heritage rangelands, natural and wilderness areas.
Capital projects for EPA in 2023-26 include $48.6 million for a Raven Creek brood trout station, $10.5 million for watershed resiliency and restoration and $6.6 million for a Cold Lake fish hatchery.
Though it is responsible for the vast majority of the province’s protected areas, the 2023-26 budget for Alberta Parks mainly emphasizes trails and recreation, and includes no mention of increased spending for environmental protection.
Funding includes $87.8 million in 2023-24 to refurbish and enhance outdoor recreational opportunities, natural features, and buildings on Crown lands, $14 million for Crown land trails, $11.5 million for new campground development and $9.6 million for Big Island Provincial Park planning.
To boost recreational opportunities, the budget also assigns $49 million to enhance angling through the provincial fish stocking program in 2023-24.
While recreation and building and maintaining trails is an important part of parks management, Young said the more disconnect there is between conservation and recreation, “the more uses there are on the land, the more people there are on the land, and the more degradation happens.”
“We’re definitely seeing a death by 1,000 cuts-type problem happening when these ministries aren’t talking to each other and they’re not addressing large landscape conservation in a really concerted way,” she said. “It’s not going to happen naturally; we’re going to see degradation happen, so it’s concerning for sure.”
What’s more, there is no indication that the significant drop in EPA’s budget is being put toward parks or elsewhere.
EPA’s budget drops nearly $200 million between 2023-26, and the forestry, parks and tourism budget – at $435 million for this year – is also expected to drop, but by less than $20 million.
In an email, forestry, parks and tourism spokesperson Bridget Burgess-Ferrari, said the reduction in the ministry’s parks department makes up for only about $4 million and is due to various stages of completion for the Big Island Provincial Park capital grant.
“There are no direct operating or program reductions projected in 2024-25 or 2025-26,” she said.
A spokesperson with EPA did not return the Outlook’s request for comment about the budget in time for publication.
Young added the latest change in discussion by the provincial government, which would restructure fish and wildlife management under three ministries – including the Agriculture and Irrigation ministry, to become responsible for fish hatcheries management – only serves to further hurt conservation efforts and confuse Albertans.
“It all needs to be managed together. It really does,” she said. “There needs to be a concerted approach to our habitat and species management, and I’m always concerned when I see things becoming more and more isolated.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.