The province has pushed its new parks bill back to the spring session following a wave of protest from environmental groups.
Tourism, Parks and Recreation Minister Cindy Ady said Thursday she would pull the proposed Alberta Parks Act back for amendment instead of putting it to a final vote this session. "I still really am committed to the bill," she said, saying that this was not the end of it. "I think it will work, but I think if I add amendments it'll be more robust."
The bill, if passed, would reduce the number of categories in Alberta's parks system to two from seven. Instead of natural areas, ecological reserves and other regions, all parks in the province would be classified as either heritage rangelands or provincial parks, with the latter zoned to show what activities were permitted in which areas.
Parks and environmental groups such as the Big Lake Environment Support Society (BLESS) have criticized the bill's lack of detail. The bill proposes four types of zoning, for example, but does not say what activities each zone would permit — those details were left to the minister's discretion and regulation. That led some to fear that the province would let logging and oil wells into protected parks.
The parks system does need to be simplified, said Miles Constable, president of BLESS, but this act gives the minister too much power. Today's minister might be interested in parks protection, but future ones could use this law to open parks to roads and mines.
"The minister is saying, 'Trust me on this, we're not going to do that," he said. "I think we've been burned too many times with variances to the rules that people have just said, 'No, sorry, we don't trust you anymore.'"
Constable said he was encouraged that the province decided to listen to stakeholders and rethink the law. The law should have at least some description of how the four proposed zones would work, he said, in order to show that the province has some idea as to what it wanted its park system to look like.
Sarah Elmeligi, the conservation planner with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's southern Alberta chapter, wanted the current rules for wilderness areas, wildland parks and ecological reserves carried forward into the new law. Those rules restrict activities in some of the province's most sensitive ecological regions.
Today's park's system is complex, Elmeligi said, but so is nature. "Different protected areas demand different levels of protection." Alberta's current park system reflects international conservation standards, she said, and clearly spells out what can and can't be done in these areas.
Ady said she was thinking about putting a more detailed zoning policy into the act, but was wary of making it too complex. She also rejected calls from some groups to scrap the law altogether. "I'm not starting at square one."
The province would talk with stakeholder groups over the next six months and table amendments sometime in the spring, Ady said.