Yamnuska meadows. Photo: Dave Robinson

THOMAS: Albertans love our parks — so why close them?

Standing up for Alberta should include nature.

I am a terrible cross-country skier. It’s certainly not for lack of time or trying. I put on my first skis—a Canadian Tire special—when I was about 5 years old. My parents would drive us out to Waterton Lakes National Park, where ski tracks were set from part of the way up the Akamina Parkway all the way to Cameron Lake.

As a 5-year old, I couldn’t make it all the way to the lake, so my dad would keep pace with me for the bits of the trail I could do. We would ski side by side, so if I ever started to pass him, especially going up a hill, he’d say, “you little stinker!” I would collapse with giggles as he inevitably took the lead, but just by a little bit.

These days, my partner and I try to get out every weekend during the season to ski Peter Lougheed’s trails. We are decidedly not the only ones. The parking lots are usually packed with cars, though it doesn’t take long on the trails to find yourself alone in nature.

This is precisely the point, and probably why so many people flock out there.

Of all the things that could be classed as the public sector, we thought parks might be safe.

One fine day earlier this year, we ran into a friendly couple named Kim and Jim. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation—the kind that, perhaps, only happens between strangers at a trail juncture—we marveled at the amazing public resource found in that wilderness.

A snowmobile, a track setter, and a few day-lodges gave Albertans some of the greatest access to unsullied nature. We felt lucky to live here.

The conversation shifted to how Alberta’s parks might be affected by budget cuts. Of all the things that could be classed as the public sector, we thought parks might be safe. Especially activities like skiing in Peter Lougheed, an already a shoestring operation. The bang for the few bucks spent on setting the ski tracks must surely be worth preserving.

I quipped, “And it’s named after Peter Lougheed. Surely that has to count for something!”

How naive we were.

Choosing profits over nature

In February, the provincial government moved to close 20 provincial parks and offload another 164. The savings? A paltry $5 million.

Unsurprisingly, this move drew widespread public backlash.

While the province has quietly paused the closure of 17 parks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the plan to offload 164 parks appears to remain on track. Keeping them open is a "temporary measure for this camping season," according to the government.

For a government whose yearly operations exceed $50 billion, a $5-million "savings" is, quite literally, completely inconsequential for Alberta’s finances. Yet, the effects on Alberta’s parks are massive: nearly three quarters of the provincial recreation areas Albertans enjoy will be affected.

But Albertans do not support these changes.

According to a recent survey, Albertans strongly disagree with the changes to parks.

According to a recent survey, Albertans so strongly disagree with the changes to parks that it’s the most common response they gave.

This is important to note because while it’s common to ask people on surveys if they strongly agree or disagree with something, it’s pretty rare for folks to actually choose these options. In general, people tend to have pretty moderate views, even when considering things like (extreme) partisanship.

Given the importance of parks and wilderness to what it means to live in Alberta, dismantling parks is baffling. There seems to be no economic gain, and only potential economic losses in curtailing parks-based tourism. Why on earth would the government do this?

Though it’s still difficult to say with certainty, there seem to be three motivations built into the changes to parks:

First, with the full or partial closure of 20 parks, restricting public access to these spaces appears to be a goal.

Second, management of 164 sites is to be transferred from parks to other operators, suggesting privatization is a clear objective.

Third, as the provincial government rescinded environmental protections that Lougheed’s government brought in to protect the eastern slopes of the Rockies, there is speculation that these policy changes are designed to incentivize new coal projects, potentially mined in open pits for export.

Missing from this list? Environmental protection and conservation of some of Alberta’s most pristine wilderness.

Kenney’s government wants to claim that it is making life better for Albertans.”

Kenney’s government wants to claim that it is “making life better for Albertans,” and that “living within our means” is a key part of that. Many Albertans agree with these statements, but it’s difficult to see how this is a persuasive rationale for gutting provincial parks.

The black box and the thermostat

As a political scientist, one way to explain this seemingly insensible move is to ask a question about how government makes policy decisions: is it a black box or a thermostat?

Both options use David Easton’s theory about how political systems work. A basic version goes something like this: public demands go into government, are processed and used to inform decisions. Those decisions, in turn, may shape the next round of demands. All of this is shaped by the larger context that surrounds that political system.

When the process is transparent and representative, it looks like a thermostat, where public opinion and policy are responsive to each other. When people want more or less of a policy, they call for it. If they are dissatisfied, they call for a change.

Political scientists observe how responsive policy decisions are to these calls to assess the health of a representative democracy.

But when a government isn’t responsive, this process falls apart. It can feel like the state is an opaque, confusing black box. It’s no surprise this produces public disaffection.

Standing up for Alberta must always include protecting nature and wilderness.

While there’s comfort in thinking that the choice of Kenney’s government to eviscerate parks and environmental legislation is an example of a black box, I don’t think this is the correct interpretation.

I think Kenney’s government is responsive. The key question is to whom?

A ‘fair deal’ for whom?

The 2020 budget that cuts parks wants Albertans to think that it’s responsive to them. It uses a great deal of language about fighting for Albertans to get us a “fair deal.”

The thing is, standing up for Alberta must always include protecting nature and wilderness. In failing to do this, the provincial government shows whom they’re responsive to, and it isn’t us. If it were, the policy could be abandoned entirely, given the extent of the public outcry.

So why would the Kenney government take the risk in angering and alienating Albertans with a policy on parks that is widely, strongly opposed? Context is key.

Like many governments before them, I don’t get the impression that this government thinks it needs to be responsive to Albertans if it wants to win elections. It takes Albertans for granted.

Changes to parks highlight this, but so does the government’s approach to physicians, teachers, and other parts of the public sector.

The frustrating thing is that a responsive government could use parks as a tool to address other systemic issues that demand change.

Certainly, now is not the time to try to displace calls for action on anti-Black racism and other forms of inequity with outdoor adventures. The unbearable whiteness of hiking, backpacking, cross-country skiing and other outdoor adventures is well-documented and, like all systemic hierarchies, difficult to shift. Even the organizations and firms with the best records fail.

Restricting access to parks helps maintain racist hierarchies in outdoor sport.

A responsive, forward-thinking government should show leadership by using its parks system to bust barriers that keep racialized folks away from outdoor sports.

Governments should amplify the work already done by Black activists. And they could partner with Indigenous nations and communities to further protect and repair the land from negative effects caused by resource extraction.

Instead, the government of Alberta is choosing to do the opposite.

Restricting access to parks helps maintain racist hierarchies in outdoor sport. And while parks do not necessarily protect Indigenous peoples or their territories, governments that choose to do so can use wilderness protection as a means to preserve sacred Indigenous territory.

But none of this seems to be a priority for this particular iteration of Alberta’s government.

Kim wrote the other day to say, “I’m so worried about what won’t be able to be fixed.”

In the face of such an unresponsive government, we all should be.

Melanee Thomas is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Calgary.

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