A Reluctant Steward: Alberta and Its Parks

This article originally appeared on the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE).

This past week the Alberta Provincial Government announced it’s plan to ‘optimize’ its park system. This includes:

  • The full or partial closure of twenty parks.
  • Shortened operating seasons.
  • Fewer groomed cross-country tracks
  • Closures of a few visitor information centres
  • Service fee increases
  • A proposal to partner with public, non-profit, and Indigenous organizations to co-manage 164 parks.

Unsurprisingly this news has caused an uproar from Alberta residents and park-goers. People mourn the closure of their favourite parks. They fear for a possible future for-profit park system and what that will mean for recreation and preservation in the province. For the general public parks are more than a line on a balance sheet. They are places where we relax, create memories, and find ourselves. They are something we can be proud of. They are good.

Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park’s Tolman Bridge Campgrounds will be closed as part of the “Optimizing Alberta Parks” plan. Photo Credit: Jessica DeWitt, August 2015.

As someone who has immersed myself in the history of provincial park development and studied Alberta’s park system in detail, I am not as distressed by this news as one may expect. One reason for this lack of anxiety on my part is that I know that parks are dynamic, colonial institutions that have always existed in a for-profit, capitalist system. As Leslie Bella noted in Parks for Profit, the creation of a park is inherently exploitative. Parks reside on occupied land. The boundaries of a park are created by settler governments in order to control and economically benefit from the activities that take place within them.

“Parklands are often positioned as apolitical, as ‘common’ or public land that somehow eludes examination amidst the grit of property markets and land-use battles, but it is critical to understand parks as a central feature of colonial land logics, as aggressively regulating and disciplining the land and its occupations.” – Matt Hern

On This Patch of Grass: City Parks on Occupied Land (Fernwood Publishing, 2018, page 15.

We may wrap our parks in a shroud of preservation, but ultimately they exist because they are useful to us. Any claim that parks are not about making money (at least partially) is false. There is no magical time in the past when provincial park systems acted solely altruistically.

My initial reaction upon hearing about the optimization plan was: “yeah, that sounds about right.” If there is anything that sets Alberta’s park history apart from other provinces and US states, it is its repeated regret at creating them. Throughout its history the province has tried to close and offload its parks onto other public governing bodies and private institutions. When they have not directly tried to do this, they have whispered internally about a desire to do so. Alberta has always been a reluctant park steward.

The history of a park system is exceptionally complex, but a look at the past can help us think about the present in different ways. It can help assuage our fear and enable us look at a situation more clearly when we understand that we have gotten through similar situations before. It can help us move forward when we look back.

Rurality, privatization, and prioritization concerns are themes running through much of the coverage of the Alberta park plan unveiling. An examination of some aspects of the formative years of Alberta’s park system provides some historical context for these contemporary issues. In the 1930s, the Alberta Provincial Government established a park system specifically for its rural population and almost immediately regretted it. One result of Alberta’s early park creation anxiety was to lease its first provincial park, Aspen Beach, back to the community from which they bought it.

Sylvan Lake, 1923. Though used by the public as a recreation spot for decades, Sylvan Lake did not become a provincial park until 1980. In 2018, the province sold the park back to the Town of Sylvan Lake for $1. Credit: Canada. Dept. of Mines and Technical Surveys / Library and Archives Canada / PA-019584
Rural Oases

“These are in more rural communities and smaller centres. They may not be right next to Calgary or Edmonton, but they are providing places for Albertans to go out and camp with their families,” – Katie Morrison

“20 Alberta parks to be fully or partially closed, while dozens opened up for ‘partnerships,” CBC, March 3,2020.

One of the primary concerns is that these cuts are aimed at the rural regions of the province. The province characterized the chosen parks as “mainly small” and “under-utilized.” Meaning, likely, that they are not driving a large enough crowd to maintain profitability.

An emphasis on catering to urban centers is a hallmark of most provincial and state park systems, but Alberta did not always fall into this convention. Alberta’s provincial park system was created specifically to cater to rural residents.

Lagging behind other provinces and states, Alberta did not create its first park until 1932. This delay was largely due to the fact that the province did not have control over its natural resources until the Alberta Natural Resources Act of 1930. The Alberta government, led by the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), anticipated this transfer of power and passed the Provincial Parks and Protected Act of March 21, 1930. In 1932, Alberta established ten provincial parks. Most were small, created to enable beach access for rural residents, and established on land already used as summer resort destinations.

Premier John E. Brownlee and other members of the UFA viewed provincial parks as a way to make rural life more attractive. Alberta’s population was still primarily rural in the 1920s and 1930s. Approximately 70 percent of the population lived in communities of less than 1,000 people. In a province with a population of about 800,000, 100,000 farms existed.

By 1930, most farmers were in dire economic straits due to drought. Farmers were leaving the province in droves and those families that remained were distressed. Officials designed the parks to be gathering places where people could nurture a sense of community. The government hoped the parks would alleviate the rural Albertan despair of the Depression; these small, provincially owned beaches were to serve as oases in the Albertan desert. They were also designed to protect against the encroachment of urbanization on rural life

This era of hope was fleeting. Because of economic hardship, the province had very little money to put into park and facility development. When the Alberta Social Credit government came into power in 1935, it further tightened the provincial park budget and closed six of the original parks. The government no longer viewed provincial parks as a solution for Alberta farmers’ problems. Alberta would not create another provincial park until 1951, when the pressure of an increasing urban population on a sparse provincial park system led the SoCred government to reluctantly pump resources into it. [1]

  • The Alberta government viewed the creation of its original parks as a financial imperative. Park creation, in their mind, would stem further agricultural loss. Are there ways that rural communities can frame their need for parks in a way that will get the Alberta government to take them seriously?
  • When we focus on visitors and visitor experiences in parks, do we erase or unintentionally ignore the importance of parks to rural communities’ economies? How do these park closures affect the local business owner? …The nearby Indigenous community?

Fall camping at Fish Lake Provincial Recreation Area. Credit: Alberta Parks.

Too Many Parks!?

“It is easy for a state or provincial agency to load itself up with a large number of small holdings which are very much more expensive to maintain and develop than an equal acreage in a few fairly large holdings.”

Herbert Evison, Secretary, National Conference on State Parks, 1932. [2]

The Alberta Provincial Parks Board’s first secretary, William Thomas Aiken, was in frequent contact with Herbert Evison, secretary of The National Conference on State Parks, and sought advice from an American perspective during the park system’s early years. Evison particularly advised Aiken to avoid the mistake made by many states: acquiring too many small parks. Maintaining small parks was unsustainable according to Evision.

Aiken expressed regret that the province had created provincial parks in the first year of the park system’s existence. Writing to Evison, he stated that “no doubt you have come to the conclusion that we have made a similar error to some of the states in purchasing too many small areas. This may prove to be true. Already difficulties can be seen in the way of proper development at some of the bathing beaches where property has been purchased.” [3]

The majority of parks being closed and proposed for partnership are not “provincial parks,” but rather “provincial recreation areas.” The province has 70 provincial parks and 204 provincial recreation areas. These provincial recreation areas are often smaller and “support compatible outdoor recreation and tourism, often providing access to lakes, rivers, reservoirs and adjacent crown land.” By offloading responsibility for many of these parks, the province claims it can focus more attention on larger, more popular, and more ecologically important parks.

  • Does Alberta have too many small parks? Is the current model in fact unsustainable?
  • Is the distinction between provincial parks, provincial recreation areas, and other areas managed by Alberta Parks important? Are these distinctions meaningful to the public?

Alberta’s first provincial park, Aspen Beach. Photo Credit: Jessica DeWitt, August 2015.

That Time Alberta Tried to Give Aspen Beach Back

Aspen Beach Provincial Park is located on the southwest shore of Gull Lake, north of Red Deer. At the time of its creation it consisted of seventeen acres. The park was created next to an established summer cottage community, the Village of Gull Lake, and consisted of land that was formerly owned by cottage owners.

As a beachfront property, Aspen Beach was expected to act as one of the wet, rural oases for agricultural families. A pier was constructed at Aspen Beach soon after its establishment. The province expected this pier and the accompanying swimming beach to be the focal points of the park and were the only reason for the park’s existence. There was only one problem. It became quickly apparent that Gull Lake was receding at a rapid rate. By 1939, the park pier was entirely on dry land, and the province was not impressed.

The Provincial Park Board noted, in 1939, that because of the lake recession they “were not of the opinion that it would be wise under the present circumstances to spend further money in connection with the park.” [4] They declared that the park was useless and proposed leasing it back to The Village of Gull Lake for $1.00 a year. The residents and cottage-owners of the Village of Gull Lake welcomed this opportunity to take back control of the beach. This arrangement continued until October 26, 1953, when the province determined that the community had not kept their promise to manage the area as a public beach and had denied use of it to the general public.

A park management partnership between a community and the province did not work in this instance. In the 2020 Optimizing Alberta Parks plan, it states that the:

Sites removed from the parks system would have their legal park designations removed, and could be open for alternate management approaches. This includes potential Park Partnerships through transfer to another entity such as a municipality, so that sites could continue to provide important economic and recreational benefits to local communities. Some of the sites could also stay open under a public lands management model or revert back to vacant public land.

The province is very vague about how they see this plan coming to fruition. It is important to note that private and non-profit partnerships have worked very well in other provinces and states. For instance, the Ontario provincial parks system thrived and grew rapidly during the 1980s, when other park systems were struggling, using a combined tactic of non-profit and private partnerships. The scary thing here isn’t necessarily the partnerships, it is the potential complete removal of these parks from the system and our lack of faith in the Alberta government to go about these partnerships in a responsible manner.

  • What would beneficial and healthy park partnerships look like?
  • Is this an opportunity to push for Indigenous-led conservation? Is this an opportunity to decolonize our parks?
  • Most discussion of these parks (and parks in general) is human-centered. How does this plan shake out when we center non-humans and the environment? Is reverting some parks back to vacant land better for the non-humans that live there and the ecosystems in which they reside?

You can read more about Alberta’s provincial park history in my dissertation. “Middle Parks: Development of State and Provincial Parks in the United States and Canada, 1890-1990″ (University of Saskatchewan, 2019).


Notes

  1. A version of this section appeared in Better Farming, January 2020, page 77.
  2. Herbert Evison to William T. Aiken, December 3, 1932, 1983.0092, Box 9, Folder 51, Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.
  3. William T. Aiken to Herbert Evison, December 29, 1932, 1983.0092, Box 9, Folder 51, Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.
  4. Letter from James A. Whistlecroft, September 18, 1939, GR1938.0498, Recreation & Parks, Box 1, Folder 11, Provincial Archive of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.

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