Proposed law is not to protect parks

“The lady doth protest too much methinks.” — Hamlet Act 3 Scene 2

Two weeks ago Tourism Parks and Recreation Minister Cindy Ady tucked her tail between her legs and pulled the proposed — and egregious — Alberta Parks Act back from the brink. Rather than rushing it through the legislature with a hasty third reading Ady and the PC über-majority took a hard look at the uproar Bill 29 had stirred and decided to let the hornets return to their nests before making it law.

Many who care about the health and welfare of our provincial parks and other protected areas breathed a huge sigh of relief but the drama has only begun. Ady is already plotting her revenge promising to bring the bill back in the spring with a few minor amendments to placate the infuriated environmentalists and their Liberal and NDP allies.

But putting lipstick on a pig doesn’t turn it into a butterfly and no amount of fine-tuning will make this proposal anything but an underhanded attempt to open up to development the few meaningful protected areas this government has deigned to grant over the years.

This bill must be killed.

Ady insists that Bill 29 as the proposed Alberta Parks Act is known is a much-needed enhancement to clean up the messy business of managing our parks and protected areas. She defended the bill even as she pulled it from the order table as a well-meaning effort to maintain current levels of environmental protection while making it simpler for Albertans to understand what they can and can’t do in our parks and protected areas.

“I still really am committed to the bill” Ady told the St. Albert Gazette. “I think it will work but I think if I add amendments it’ll be more robust.”

Whether it will “work” or not depends on what it’s meant to achieve. Critics less sanguine about the bill’s real purpose have called it “the worst piece of environmental legislation in Canada in a generation.” Despite Ady’s heartfelt protestations to the contrary it is clear the proposed bill would gut the environmental protection mandate that’s at the heart of our parks and protected areas system.

Too many of our parks and protected areas already allow too much commercial and industrial use (including unbelievably oil and gas drilling) and Bill 29 would only open them up to more. The act reduces the number of categories in Alberta’s parks system from seven to two even though international guidelines used by most jurisdictions suggest seven is the magic number.

Gone would be those designations — natural areas ecological reserves wilderness areas and wildland parks — that make protecting ecological health priority Number One. All that would remain are heritage rangelands which protect grasslands for the purpose of grazing and provincial parks which by today’s standards are the least protected of Alberta’s so-called protected areas. These parks would be carved into zones that would define what would be protected and what developed.

What kind of zones? And how much of each? Who knows. The legislation doesn’t say and — here’s the rub — such decisions would be left to what an Edmonton Journal editorial rightly called the “arbitrary authority” of a handful of ministers and the government du jour. There’s also a nasty little section (Section 8) that would allow the government to “delegate authority” for trail creation maintenance promotion and management in Alberta’s parks and protected areas. This is simply code for “privatize” which if the lobbyist’s registry is any indication is something that the Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association seems keen on.

Given this government’s predilection for turning nature’s gifts into ready cash as fast as you can say free-market extremists you can be certain that priority will be given to those zones that allow for unsustainable levels of the kinds of human activities — mining oil and gas industrial-scale tourism and the noisy smelly belch of off-highway vehicle use — that simply don’t belong in the few precious places we’ve had the foresight to leave off limits to the Oncelers among us.

Of course Ady continues to insist that “the intent is for current protections to be maintained” but this claim is a little hard to swallow rather like Queen Gertrude’s erstwhile protestations in Hamlet . Despite similar assurances from Tory politicians and the government functionaries who do their bidding Albertans have been forced to endure the continued decline of grizzly bears and caribou and sage grouse (to give but three examples) over the years the latter two almost to the point of no return.

There’s no question that the legislation guarding Alberta’s parks and protected areas could be improved but if we are to have a new and comprehensive parks act it should include more strong legislated protection and less of the discretionary power Ady’s Tories have used to push their neo-liberal economic agenda at the expense of the health of our water forests and wildlife.

While editorial boards and environmentalists have bent over backwards to applaud Ady for her decision it beggars the mind that she would propose such an affront to democracy in the first place. The only reasonable decision is to kill the bill and start over preferably with the goal of building the expanded world-class parks network that Albertans have been demanding for decades.

Jeff Gailus’s most recent book The Grizzly Manifesto was recently nominated for the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award. Read more of his work at jeffgailus.com.

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