New plan for Alberta’s provincial parks aims to ease growing pains

Spray Lakes West Campground in Kananaskis Country in August 2023. Jungmin Ham/Rocky Mountain Outlook File Photo

By Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A lot has changed in Alberta’s parks over the last 10-plus years.

The province’s population has grown over 30 per cent from 2009 to 2024, and with that visitation has increased, creating growing pressures on the landscape.

It was 2009 when the first iteration of Alberta’s Plan for Parks was released as a 10-year blueprint for strategic planning of the parks system. Now, about 15 years later, the province is working on an update to address evolving needs and conservation challenges brought on by increasing population and visitation.

For Kecia Kerr, executive director of the Canadain Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) northern Alberta, the answer to providing more recreational opportunities while preserving natural beauty and ecological integrity is simple: create more parks and protected areas.

“Instead, they’re saying create more campsites. But we can’t just jam more and more campsites into the limited space in our park system that there is,” said Kerr. “There needs to be more parks, it’s as simple as that, and we need that anyway for having landscapes that provide protection of different types of habitats.”

Alberta’s parks under the Provincial Parks Act make up about 3.82 million hectares of the province’s total footprint of 66.18 million hectares, or about 5.7 per cent.

A revised strategic plan for parks will identify options to manage growing recreation demand across 78 provincial parks, 34 wildland provincial parks and 193 provincial recreation areas.

Kerr said there is plenty of opportunity to expand the parks system outside of already wildly popular areas like Kananaskis Country, which sees over four million visitors annually.

“We really do want to see parks managers – either the provincial or federal governments – thinking about visitation and thinking about how to manage that. It comes back to the indication of how much people want this and how important this is to people.”

A 2022 CPAWS poll showed more than 80 per cent of respondents supported protecting more land and sea, and 90 per cent of people believed protected areas play an important role in addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, supporting a healthy sustainable economy and supporting human well-being.

“We see that as an opportunity for providing more recreational opportunities and not having everyone in the exact same locations. Granted, of course, Kananaskis is so popular because it is so close to Calgary’s backyard.

“But there’s lots of areas throughout Alberta to recreate and enjoy being out in nature. It’s kind of one of those things that, if you build it, they will come. If people are given recreation opportunities in different locations, then we can respond to that demand and provide opportunities that aren’t as crowded … We hope that the public that would like to see more camping opportunities will also be asking for new parks.”

In a provincial press release announcing planning of the new strategic document for parks, it was noted that as “more visitors explore Alberta’s provincial parks, creating more recreation opportunities will be a top priority of the new plan.

“This updated vision will help Albertans to enjoy the great outdoors by creating additional campsites and improving access to activities like kayaking and canoeing,” it stated.

There are about 14,000 campsites, 201 backcountry camping sites, 74 comfort camping sites and 162 group camping areas, offered by Alberta Parks currently.

Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen said there is an influx of people looking for more of a comfort camping or glamping experience than ever before.

“We’ve definitely seen the size and complexity of RV’s change in the last 15-20 years, too, and when we’re looking at our campgrounds and things like that, we want to make sure we can accommodate those large RV’s with the services that people want,” he said in an interview with the Outlook

“We want to make sure that we keep the tourism going; make sure that people go to our parks and that they actually have things to do that they enjoy, so that they return and tell others to come.”

From now until Aug. 18, forestry and parks is asking the public for input to inform the new Plan for Parks, which will be shared as a draft, with more opportunity to provide further input in a second phase.

In the first phase, a 36-question online survey tries to understand trends in recreation and conservation – how often visitors go to parks, what they most value, how to enhance accountability in decision-making and reporting on parks issues, to what degree equitable access should be improved, and how to diversify recreation.

Friends of Kananaskis Country executive director Trevor Julian said creating a new plan is timely and necessary for Kananaskis. There are nine provincial and wildland provincial parks and over 50 recreation, wilderness and natural areas within the region, as well as public land.

It is popular as a hiking, camping, cycling, fishing, boating, rocking climbing, snowshoeing and skiing destination.

Over the last decade, visitation has shot up from around 3.5 million to over four million visitors per year, with social distancing restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic pushing the area to an all-time high of 5.4 million visitors in 2020.

“It’s empirically true that there’s many more visitors to recreation areas, in particular Kananaskis Country, in the last number of years,” said Julian.

“With those visitors that puts more pressure on the landscape and more pressure on existing recreational opportunities.”

The Friends are a trail stewardship group that build and maintain much of the Kananaskis trail network in partnership with Alberta Parks, relying mostly on volunteers.

The group has a unique understanding of the area and its challenges, with boots on the ground day in and day out.

With more people comes faster trail degradation, more traffic and cars, and garbage.

Julian supports Alberta Parks’ plan to hopefully ease these issues and wants to see more investment in designated official trails.

“That puts them in better shape to handle increased traffic. If they’re well-built, we want the public who comes in there to be on those trails because they’re there for a reason,” he said.

“To the degree that we can, we also want to separate people from wildlife and from some of the other areas of the parks where there are unofficial trails. Putting people on official, managed trails is a good idea and investing in them helps with that.”

The Kananaskis Valley is inhabited by bears, cougars, wolves, elk and other large wildlife, and an array of smaller wildlife, like pikas, pine martens, as well as various avian species.

Julian said he would also like to see a strong focus on education in the province’s new plan, another area where the Friends are frequently engaging the public.

“A lot of visitors to the area might be new to recreation and wilderness and the backcountry, and so having an education program on the ground in Kananaskis Country and online, too, to help educate people how to behave appropriately would ensure there’s less negative impact on the landscape.”

The survey also asks about satisfaction with parks legislation and regulation, sustainability and how Alberta Parks can advance Indigenous reconciliation.

Accountability, equitable access, reconciliation and sustainability make up the four guiding principles visioned for the new plan.

Kerr said CPAWS has some concerns with the terminology used. Under the 2009 plan, the province listed what are now being proposed as guiding principles as priority actions and strategies. One of those was to conserve landscapes.

“The guiding principles, they don’t mention protection of nature anymore at all,” she said.

“There is a guiding principle on sustainability, but there isn’t mention of the focus of our parks is to be protecting nature and the wildlife and plants within them, and the benefits of protecting nature for communities.”

Sustainability is explained by the province such that “current and future generations can visit, be inspired by and support continued conservation and access to parks.”

The survey also allows for feedback from the public on the guiding principles.

Kerr said she believes the survey focuses too highly on increasing visitation, development within parks and expanding more overnight facilities that are not camping.

“Some of that, of course, is for accessibility, but also is probably driven by some economic interests, as well,” she noted.

The province’s press release notes the current value of Alberta’s parks to the provincial economy is close to $1 billion in GDP, $400 million in labour income and nearly 9,000 jobs per year.

“We don’t feel that, if the way the questions are framed is where they’re planning to go on the new version of the Plan for Parks, that it is going to be what parks should be doing, which is protecting landscapes for both the benefit of nature but for people to enjoy nature as well,” said Kerr.

Loewen said there are areas the province “won’t be doing any more development,” though he did not say where.

“[Spaces] that people would be able to hike to or bike to and get into those remote areas, and that’s great, and we need to have those places. But we also need to have places for the other Albertans that maybe don’t want to go through that kind of activity to get to a place to enjoy,” he said.

“Parks are for people and we need to make sure that’s for all people and make sure we’re not just focused on one small portion of the population.”

The inclusion of questions around Indigenous-led conservation in the plan’s engagement phase, as well as several areas that leave room for specific comment instead of just a multiple-choice selection, is encouraging to this effect, Kerr said.

“They say that they’re going to be engaging and consulting with Indigenous communities and I would say that a lot of that aspect should be shaped by those communities of non-Indigenous peoples,” she said.

“I am not an Indigenous person and our organization is not Indigenous-led. But organizations like ours, we do want to be supportive and allies, and we certainly will be putting comments forth supporting introducing policy for Indigenous-led conservation, and we’ll be saying that it should be considering co-management, as well, not just collaborative management.”

The minister said he encourages everyone to be involved in the planning process, either by taking the survey online or mailing in survey responses.

“It is an important time and we want to make sure that we do what Albertans want,” he said.

To participate in the Plan for Parks survey, as part of the first phase of public engagement, visit: by Aug. 18.