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Alberta Parks removes three recreation areas in Kananaskis Country

The Province delisted Fir Creek, Eyrie Gap and Crane Meadow as provincial recreation areas, effectively transferring a total 14 hectares to become Crown land.

Four provincial recreation areas in Kananaskis Country have been axed of their designations by Alberta Forestry and Parks.

An order in council announced Wednesday (Jan. 24) delisted Fir Creek, Eyrie Gap and Crane Meadow as provincial recreation areas, effectively transferring a total 14 hectares to become Crown land.

Also removed – but still protected under the Provincial Parks Act – is Big Elbow recreation area, which is fully overlapped by Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park.

“These amendments enhance recreation and camping opportunities for Albertans while protecting rare grasslands and addressing unresolved administrative issues and small site deregulations,” states an Alberta Parks news release.

The changes to recreation areas in Kananaskis Country were among 10 sites listed for deregulation throughout the province totalling 50 hectares.

Two of the three sites removed in Kananaskis are near Highwood Junction, where Highway 40 and Highway 940 intersect, southwest of Longview and next to Eden Valley. Both were destroyed by flooding in 2013 and earlier flagged for removal in the 2013 South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP).

“Eyrie Gap and Fir Creek used to be day-use areas down near Highwood House … and both of them were nice pre-2013 flood because they were right down by the Highwood River, and then the Highwood River destroyed them,” said Friends of Kananaskis Country director Derek Ryder.

Eyrie Gap has been closed since 2013, with all facilities since removed and the site reclaimed, according to an Alberta Parks fact sheet, which notes it was also closed due to low use.  

“The decision to deregulate Eyrie Gap PRA was made through the approved SSRP, which underwent public, stakeholder and Indigenous consultation,” it states.

Fir Creek was also impacted by flooding from the river in 2013, but also in 1995, leading to its closure and reclamation.

“There’s nothing there to protect anymore and they’re part of the floodplain,” said Ryder. “If another 2013 flood happens, they’ll be underwater again.”

Also removed was Crane Meadow Provincial Recreation Area, east of Highway 40 on Highway 68. The site was never developed for recreation opportunities despite its designation.

Katie Morrison, executive director with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Southern Alberta, said the areas aren’t of particular concern from a conservation and recreation perspective, but stressed the importance of engaging the public in parks decision-making.

“I think in general what we are a little bit concerned about is that process,” she said. “Anytime we are delisting or changing the boundary of a park, there should be public engagement and Indigenous consultation on that management action(...). Whether you need to delist them or not, I think we need to see a lot more of the analysis that went into that.”

Banff-Kananaskis MLA Sarah Elmeligi said closing a loop on the SSRP to rescind some of the recreation areas in Kananaskis makes sense, but argued the way the changes were communicated caught people off guard.

In 2020, an Alberta UCP cost-savings effort to delist 184 provincial parks and recreations areas throughout the province was met with public uproar and growing campaigns to defend parks and protected areas.

“It went out on social media before the government press release came out with the detailed information,” Elmeligi said of the recent announcement. “The reaction that folks had on social media last night was quite clear to me that Albertans, again, just in case we needed to be reminded, really care about the parks system.”

She noted the SSRP also calls for expanding protected areas in Kananaskis. About 43 per cent of the region is unprotected Crown land.

“Those expansions have not been included in this order in council, but they should be.”

Provincial recreation areas in Kananaskis are regulated under the Provincial Parks Acts, as well as the Kananaskis Country Provincial Recreation Areas and Bragg Creek Provincial Park Management Plan.

The plan notes provincial recreation areas established under the Provincial Parks Act to “accommodate a wide variety of outdoor recreation activities rather than providing a high degree of protection for natural or cultural values.”

There are 50 provincial recreation areas in Kananaskis listed on the Alberta Parks website designed mainly for day-use activities and parking, and some camping. Restricted activities include random camping, industrial activity, hunting or grazing.

Rescinding the designations allows these activities to occur alongside other recreation activities as they become part of surrounding public land use zones, which have fewer protections.

The Outlook reached out to Alberta Forestry and Parks for additional comment on reclamation and future land use of the rescinded areas and this story will be updated when a response is received.

Elmeligi, a former Alberta parks planner for Kananaskis, said it’s unclear what that means for potential long-term effects on the landscape.

“There could be questions about the surrounding landscape that the answers to aren’t yet clear,” she said. “I’ll be following that, to see if we can get some clarity on that.”

Also announced by the province was an added 1,400 hectares of provincial park and recreation areas through expansions of four other sites throughout the province and establishing Kleskun Hills Provincial Park near Grande Prairie and a new provincial recreation area northwest of Lac La Biche.

The provincial park was created through the purchase of 1,087 hectares of private land by the province and pledges to “protect and highlight the area’s rolling hills and spectacular, rare grassland ecosystem,” states a fact sheet.

Elmeligi celebrated creating more parks but also encouraged looking at expanding more existing protected areas and recreation opportunities like camping, which she noted a need for throughout the province.

She said she’ll also be looking for increases to forestry and parks in the 2024 provincial budget.

“We’ve got a provincial budget coming up and I will be looking to that to see if there is increased funding for Alberta Parks to hire more planners, ecologists, communications staff, to work with communities and stakeholders to expand camping opportunities in the province in a meaningful way,” she said.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

About the Author: Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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