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EDITORIAL: Clarity needed on Riverlot 56

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Who knows what's going to happen to Riverlot 56?

Not residents, if the 30-some people who rallied Monday at one of the St. Albert region's most cherished natural areas is any indication. And not the Riverlot 56 Natural Area Society, which was blindsided by last week's provincial announcement that the river lot made a list of 164 sites proposed to be removed from the provincial parks system in order to cut costs by a meagre $5 million.

Even the province itself doesn't seem to know what the announcement really means, and our efforts to have Environment and Parks clarify this for residents have come up rather short.

The province thinks it can save money in part by eliminating the costs of groundskeeping, garbage collection or other services. But the Riverlot society has been stewarding this area for the province since the 1980s, and the society says it's been decades since the province has invested money in the river lot.

If little to no cost savings will be realized from delisting Riverlot 56, how many other Riverlot 56s are there on this list? Since volunteers currently care for many of these areas, it's no wonder the cost savings are so small.

Jess Sinclair, the press secretary to Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, told the Gazette in an email there won't be changes to the way Albertans access and enjoy Riverlot 56. At the same time, Sinclair wrote the province doesn't know what the changes will mean for the river lot.

Riverlot 56 enjoys stewardship from a group of dedicated volunteers today. That will certainly continue, but the lack of a provincial park designation removes a layer of protection that is critical to preserving Riverlot 56 as we know it today. Could Riverlot 56 become Crown land? Could it become part of St. Albert's parks system? Will the natural habitat users have enjoyed for decades be threatened by the removal of provincial protection?

The lack of clarity around the future of this site has residents understandably up in arms. Riverlot 56 lies on the northeast end of St. Albert, technically outside city limits. It features eight kilometres of groomed cross-country ski trails, an interpretive walking trail and is a wildlife haven.

The province says the sites identified for removal from the system "are mainly small and under-utilized provincial recreation areas that would become vacant public land." Any one of the hundreds of St. Albert and area residents who walk, hike, ski, bird-watch or engage in other nature activities in the river lot, would beg to differ.

Our government should have learned by now that it needs to consult with and provide clarity to Albertans before making changes to the areas we hold dear.

This makes us question the depth of thought, or lack thereof, that went into this announcement. In all, the changes to Alberta's parks system are expected to help the province save what amounts to a paltry sum of money when one considers a provincial budget of $56 billion.

Given the recent international news of oil prices plummeting and the impact COVID-19 could have on Alberta's bottom line, why is this government spending its energy on such small potatoes when we have immediate and dire economic threats and uncertainty about Alberta's place in a new world economy?