By Jane Marshall

Have you heard about the Defend Alberta Parks campaign? Perhaps you’ve seen the lawn signs or checked out the website. It’s a movement that’s grown out of a desire to protect public lands in Alberta.

Last February the Alberta government published an announcement on its website. It explained it would be removing 164 provincially protected lands from the Alberta Parks system.

This was a big shock for many Albertans. It launched national conservation expert CPAWS into action as they tried to get the word out to alert Albertans. This is how Defend Alberta Parks was born. From there, other environmental groups — including the Alberta Environmental Network — joined forces and in August their lawn sign and letter campaign began.

In this blog post we interview Natalie Odd, Executive Director of the Alberta Environmental Network, for a deeper look into the campaign’s origin story and what it hopes to achieve.

Natalie Odd has been working in the non-profit sector for over two decades and she’s never seen such a passionate response.

“It’s unprecedented,” she says. “We have over 1,500 volunteers who’ve stepped up to deliver lawn signs and help get the word out.”

“We began focusing our efforts in Calgary where MLAs are supporting the de-listings and closures. From there, we’ve grown!” Defend Alberta Parks is now active in 16 cities and towns.

The choice to remove parks is confounding to Natalie and the team. “As far as we can tell through our research through access to information, zero public consultation was done. There is no budgetary data to explain their decision, so it’s not an evidence-based decision.”

Quick Facts about Alberta Parks

  • 37% of Alberta’s parks will be affected
  • 164 parks will have their protected status removed
  • 20 parks will be partially or completely closed
  • 4,493 campsites could no longer be available

Read the government’s partial and full closure list here

How does this affect Albertans?

Natalie Odd shares her opinion:

  • This summer a lot of people were going to full campgrounds, then trying second, third and fourth options and finding them full. The closure of parks would mean even further reduced access.
  • It’s estimated we need 4-5 times more campsites than we have. Closing parks would bar people from getting outdoors.
  • In my view, being outside is critical to physical and mental health. The connection to nature is so important. It’s highly valuable as a society for us to have access to those spaces. Yet we are looking at the closure of 37% of our parks!
  • It’s not just important for humans. It’s also about biodiversity and having green space for wildlife. It’s critical.
  • We built our park spaces over decades. Those protected areas were hard fought by Albertans.
  • Our parks are second-to-none. It’s why I live here and why people come here! It’s a motivator for people to live here which helps our economy.
  • Health. It’s one of our largest budget lines for our province, and unfortunately we don’t invest enough in preventative health care. Our parks provide many opportunities to foster health.

What Happens Next?

The closure/de-listing of Alberta Parks is a proposed policy that can be put through at any time. “The government says they are moving forward with it and expect to ramp up their plans in the new year.” Natalie says. “We’re already seeing that parks are having amenities stripped. It’s in motion. But it’s NOT a done deal by any stretch. There’s still a window of opportunity to make opinion known.”

For people who feel strongly about keeping the parks under provincial protection, Natalie recommends the following:

“We’ve gotten many calls from people who are outraged and shocked by this,” Natalie explains. “This has compelled people to write letters and get lawn signs for the first time in their lives.”

At the end of our phone interview, I ask Natalie how she would feel if Alberta loses the parks.

“It would be devastating. This is my home province and this is under our watch — a decision made by our government. If we don’t fight to the end, I will feel personally responsible. Many of us have worked every day since August to get every last lawn sign out. It would be very disappointing given the scale this campaign has grown and how many people care. A huge blow to Alberta’s morale. And not just for me, but also for CPAWS and the 1,500 people who stepped forward to volunteer.”

Her final message: “It’s now or never for the parks. If they lose protection and revert to crown land, and we start to allow other uses, it’s very hard to reverse that. This is our one chance and we need to act now.”