SAPAA Newsletter No. 45, February 2023

This is a special edition of the SAPAA Newsletter with just one article, an excellent analysis provided by Dr. Guy Swinnerton, a long-time SAPAA member. Guy critiques a recent organizational change within the Government of Alberta and discusses its possible impacts on Alberta’s Protected Areas.

Cardinal Divide looking towards the East Ridge in Whitehorse Wildland Provincial Park; July 11, 2020. Administered under the Parks Act, Whitehorse Wildland now falls under the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism. (E. Beaubien)
Cardinal Divide looking towards the East Ridge in Whitehorse Wildland Provincial Park; July 11, 2020. Administered under the Parks Act, Whitehorse Wildland now falls under the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism. (E. Beaubien)


A lot has happened since our last full newsletter in July of 2022.

In November we had our Annual General Meeting which gave us, if not a new board, at least a board with a fresh mandate. Fortunately for Patsy, a reluctant accountant, Myrna Peters stepped forward as the new treasurer.

Unfortunately, board director Chris Smith is leaving us in person to take up a new job in his native Nova Scotia. He is our chief maps guy, Zoom meeting host and liaison with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), bringing us insights into the larger conservation scene. He will remain in touch with both SAPAA and CPAWS, and we wish him well.

We are missing Judith’s skills in design and her passion for conservation. To help fill the publications gap, webmaster Frank Potter has kindly offered to take over the newsletter formatting for us, with Hubert and Patsy continuing on the editorial team.

Please note that this is a special edition with just one article, Dr. Guy Swinnerton’s excellent opinion piece in which he describes his concerns and the possible implications of a political development this past fall: the splitting up of the Ministry of Environment and Parks into two ministries, the Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas and the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism.

Stewards – Two Ministries. Although Natural Areas fall under the Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas, Dr. Swinnerton notes that the Volunteer Stewards Program will now be administered under the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism. What practical differences this will make for stewards remains to be seen, but in the bigger picture of the conservation of Alberta’s biodiversity he does not believe it bodes well.

We are still awaiting the public release of the Miistakis report on the two workshops held in September and October, 2022 on the re-envisioned Volunteer Stewards Program, which Guy refers to.

Next newsletter. We will revert to our usual mixed-content newsletter in our next issue planned for April. As usual, we welcome interaction with our stewards and visitors and solicit their feedback on both the newsletter and the website.

Our thanks to everyone who has renewed their membership subscription for the year, and a reminder to those who still have to do so. The membership form is available on the website. Renew your membership via the contact page.

This online version of the newsletter allows you to comment and corrections as needed will be made to it. A printed version can also be downloaded.

— Top —

The New Ministerial Framework for Alberta’s Parks and Protected Areas: A Critical Review

by Guy Swinnerton

PhD, FRCGS, Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta

(Editor’s Note: Paragraph hooks – bolded text – have been added to aid in reading this article on mobile devices.)


SAPAA Hears from the GoA. The business agenda of the annual general meeting of the Stewards of Alberta’s Protected Areas Association (SAPAA) on November 26, 2022 was preceded by an up-date provided by Rob Simieritsch (Acting Assistant Deputy Minister – Lands Operations Division, Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism, Government of Alberta, and Executive Director for Lands Delivery and Coordination South) on recent government departmental changes and the implications for the re-assessment of the Stewards’ Program.

Examining Changes. The minutes of the AGM meeting provide a summary of his comments, as well as the subsequent discussion during the AGM regarding future directions for SAPAA. However, the significance of  the ministerial changes announced in October 2022, as they apply to Alberta’s parks and protected areas, warrants critical examination and analysis.

Implications for Parks and Protected Areas. The purpose of this article is to examine in more detail these ministerial changes and their implications for the future of Alberta’s parks and protected areas and their ability to protect Alberta’s diverse ecosystems and biodiversity.

— Top —

Ministerial Changes and Alberta’s Parks and Protected Areas

New Cabinet and Re-Assignment of Responsibility.  On October 21, 2022, Alberta’s Premier, Danielle Smith, announced the United Conservative Party’s new cabinet. The former Ministry of Alberta Environment and Parks was disbanded and its mandate reassigned to two new ministries: the Environment and Protected Areas Ministry and the Forestry, Parks and Tourism Ministry.

Two days later on October 24th Order in Council, O.C.362/2022 Government Organization Act: Designation and Transfer of Responsibility Regulation, was published. The appendix to this Order in Council identifies the various pieces of legislation, Acts, for which the respective ministers are responsible. Included in the list of enactments for which the Minister of Environment and Protected Areas is responsible is the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Natural Areas and Heritage Rangelands Act. Responsibility for enactment of the Provincial Parks Act and the Willmore Wilderness Park Act is assigned to the Minister of Forestry, Parks and Tourism.

Loss of Cohesion and Integration. Even a cursory review of this allocation is concerning. This reassignment of responsibility signifies that lands designated under the Provincial Parks Act (Provincial Parks, 246,797 ha; Wildland Provincial Parks, 3,486,154 ha; and Provincial Recreation Areas, 88,602 ha), together with the 459,671 ha of Willmore Wilderness Park, and previously managed under Alberta Environment and Parks, are removed from a hitherto cohesive and integrated parks and protected area system. All of these designations, with the exception of Provincial Recreation Areas, have a primary mandate to preserve and protect the Province’s natural heritage. This reassignment represents 92.1 percent of the Province’s Parks and Protected Area system. The broader implications of this action will be discussed in due course.

Mandate Letter – Environment and Protected Areas. Equally disturbing is the content of the Premier’s mandate letters, dated November 9, 2022, that were sent to the two ministers responsible for these newly established ministries. The mandate letter sent to the Honourable Sonya Savage, Minister of Environment and Protected Areas, makes no specific reference to the Ministry’s responsibility for promoting biodiversity conservation and expanding its protective area system except for establishing new land use plans under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act.

Mandate  Letter – Forestry, Parks and Tourism. The mandate letter sent to the Honourable Todd Loewen, Minister of Forestry, Parks and Tourism, is equally non-committal about the Ministry’s responsibility for the protection of ecologically important areas. This letter stipulates the Ministry’s responsibility for using active forestry and grassland management techniques to maintain the health and biodiversity of provincial crown lands, and for developing an environmentally responsible policy framework for developing more campgrounds and recreation and tourism opportunities. However, no reference is made to the conservation role of parks, and instead their implied role is seen exclusively in terms of infrastructure and service development for the furtherance of tourism and recreation opportunities and attendant economic benefits.

No Cooperation Mentioned. Another disconcerting feature of these two letters is that although in both instances the Ministers are given specific mandates to work cooperatively with other Ministries to pursue Alberta Government priorities, there is no reference whatsoever to the need for cooperation and coordination between these two Ministries that now share the responsibility for delivering a comprehensive and integrated parks and protected area system for the Province of Alberta.

Thus far, the establishment of these two new Ministries has been outlined in terms of factual information. Of greater significance is what might be inferred from these changes as to the future of Alberta’s parks and protected areas and the conservation of the Province’s biodiversity and ecologically important areas.

— Top —

A Critical Examination of the Implications of these Ministerial Changes

Parks are not for Protection? The most obvious message that is conveyed by the “names” of the two new Ministries is that, by  assigning “Parks” to a different Ministry than “Protected Areas”, “Parks” are no longer seen as an integral part of the Province’s protected area system, and that their primary role is other than conservation and protecting regional representation of the Province’s biodiversity.

Public Confusion. Uncertainty has often existed in the public’s mind as to the role of Provincial Parks, although their key objective is to preserve natural heritage of provincial significance while providing opportunities for public enjoyment that are compatible with environmental protection. The wide range of individual parks within the Provincial Park system, both in terms of size and conservation significance, has often contributed to this confusion. Exemplifying this range is the obvious difference between Aspen Beach Provincial Park (214 ha) that has primarily a recreation function and Dinosaur Provincial Park (8,085 ha) that is of such natural and heritage significance that it is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Recreation First? The recent ministerial changes will only exacerbate this confusion.  Moreover, assigning Parks to the new Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism has every likelihood of conveying the message, intentionally or otherwise, that the role of Parks is primarily there to meet the recreational and tourism needs of Albertans and to generate revenue for the Province. This perspective is not without basis.

Historical Precedents. There is convincing evidence that when “Parks” are embedded within a Ministry that has a predominantly economic product orientation and a utilitarian approach to resource use and conservation, this overriding mandate permeates all the components within the Ministry and, in the case of “Parks,” invariably leads to their recreation-use function dominating their protection and conservation roles. Such is likely to be the case with the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism.

Pro-Development Priority? Giving further credence to this perspective is the reaction in January of this year by Alberta’s Minister of Forestry, Parks and Tourism to Parks Canada’s intention of banning private vehicles at Moraine Lake in order to ease congestion at one of Banff National Park’s most popular tourist attractions. The Minister’s position was that such an action would harm tourism and that a more acceptable solution would be for Parks Canada to build a bigger parking lot. Such a response failed to acknowledge and appreciate that the first priority of National Parks is to protect natural resources and natural processes and to maintain their ecological integrity. The corollary to this example is that the Minister might well take a similar pro-development position with regards to the importance of providing additional recreation and tourism opportunities within parks that could compromise their conservation role.

— Top —

Parks as a Catch-all. Apparently the splitting of the former Environment and Parks Ministry in two, into the Environment and Protected Areas Ministry and the Forestry, Parks and Tourism Ministry, is even more confusing than is immediately evident from the Ministry titles. The term “Parks” is being used in an all-encompassing sense to include all those designations included under the Provincial Parks Act, the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Natural Areas and Heritage Rangelands Act, and the Willmore Wilderness Park Act.

Who is Accountable? The intention is that the delivery functions of “Parks” and Public Lands are located within Forestry, Parks and Tourism, whereas the policy and land use functions are in Environment and Protected Areas. Bearing in mind the allocation of responsibility for the respective relevant Acts as specified in the Order in Council, O.C.362/2022, it is difficult to ascertain where accountability for Alberta’s parks and protected areas system ultimately resides and how this might be evaluated and assessed.  In addition, and notwithstanding the intention for integration at the policy and land use, and the delivery level, there is a clear disconnect between the names of the two Ministries and how their respective mandates will be pursued within their organizational framework.

Names at Face Value. Unfortunately, Albertans and indeed the wider park community, both within Canada and beyond, will take the names of the two Ministries at face value and the message that they convey.

Unnecessary Complications. While it has to be assumed that the two new Ministries will pursue close cooperation in order to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of Alberta’s parks and protected area system, it is difficult not to construe these ministerial changes as incorporating unnecessary complications and potential pitfalls in the achievement of these goals.

Need for Cooperation. The delivery of a complex parks and protected area system requires a cohesive and well integrated decision-making system that extends from policy-making to operational delivery at ground level. An organizational framework that enables effective and reiterative assessment and feedback across the parks and protected area system is critical. Spreading this delivery system across two separate Ministries makes this task considerably more difficult and the tendency for “silo” mentalities to develop could become a reality detrimental to the future of parks and conservation in this Province.

— Top —


Changes in Context. The establishment of the two new Ministries is relatively recent. Consequently, it would be premature to predict exactly how these changes will have a bearing on the future of parks and protected areas in Alberta. However, it is timely to place these changes in the wider context of current conservation measures and attempts to halt the threat posed by biodiversity loss at global, national and more local levels. Reference is also made to the position of Natural Areas within this new ministerial structure.

Conservation Targets. One internationally accepted yardstick for measuring the relative level of success in protecting biodiversity and critical ecosystems has been to determine targets for the amount of land and water that should be conserved.

30×30 Target. The most recent of these targets was adopted at the 15th Congress of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15) which took place in Montreal in December 2022. Included in the Kumming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) is the key “30×30” target. Adoption of the GBF, and specifically Target 3, commits countries, including Canada, to achieving the effective conservation of 30 percent of terrestrial, inland water, and coastal marine areas by 2030.

Canada’s commitment to and ability to achieve this target depends to a considerable extent on the proactive and collaborative participation of all of this Country’s provinces and territories as well as the Federal Government, Indigenous Peoples and environmental NGOs.

Alberta’s Current Protected Area. As of the end of 2021, Canada had achieved a target of 13.5 percent for the amount of land included within protected and other conserved areas. The corresponding figure for Alberta was 15.4 percent. However, approximately 8.4 percent of Alberta’s protected area comprises lands under federal jurisdiction. It should also be noted that there is considerable disparity between Alberta’s natural regions as to their inclusion within parks and protected areas even when both provincial and federal jurisdictions are taken into account. 

Vulnerable Ecosystems. Of particular concern is that only 1.25 percent of the Grassland Natural Region and 0.93 percent of the Parkland Region, both of which are extremely vulnerable ecosystems, are represented within the existing parks and protected areas. These figures clearly show that the two new Ministries must adopt a progressive and assertive policy and meaningful action towards the protection and conservation of the Alberta’s biodiversity and the effective management of existing and future parks and protected areas.

New Initiatives for Aiding Conservation. Attainment of Target “30×30” will also necessitate both globally and within Canada and Alberta the pursuance of new initiatives including the recognition and implementation of “Other Effective- Area Based Conservation Measures (OECMs)” and “Indigenous Protected and Conservation Areas (IPCA).” Alberta is already in the process of exploring the applicability of these two designations, but tangible evidence of progress on the ground is now required.

— Top —

Public Opinion Survey – More Protection. Further evidence for the need for the two new Ministries to put a high priority on the conservation role of parks and protected areas is the results of polling undertaken by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society within Alberta last year. Highlights of the polling include: 59 percent of Albertans consider that the current amounts of land being protected by national and provincial parks is insufficient: 85 percent of Albertans support the province committing to the “30×30” target as adopted during COP 15; and 95 percent of Albertans are concerned about the loss of species and the global biodiversity crisis.

Alberta’s Stewards Program. Finally, it is important to consider the place of the Province’s Natural Areas and specifically the Natural Areas Volunteer Stewards Program within this new ministerial arrangement. There are currently 138 Natural Areas, amounting to 129,278 ha, designated by Order in Council (OC) within Alberta’s parks and protected area system. In addition, there are just fewer than 40 sites that do not have the same level of legal protection and come under various forms of restrictive or consultative notation.  Under the new organizational structure, the Alberta Volunteer Stewards Program falls within the responsibilities of the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism and, specifically, Lands Delivery and Coordination.

Miistakis Institute’s Review. Following limited communication for a number of years between the then Ministry of Environment and Parks and participants in the Parks Volunteer Program (with the exception of volunteer stewards’ submission of site reports), the Ministry retained the Miistakis Institute to undertake an external review of the Program. The results of an online survey were released in September 2021.

Re-visioned Program. A year later, in September 2022, Volunteer Stewards were notified that Alberta Parks was working towards a new re-visioned program with citizen science as a focus on crown land. The contribution that Volunteer Stewards had made through monitoring, education and research was also acknowledged. Two workshops were subsequently coordinated by Alberta Parks and the Miistakis Institute via Zoom to provide updates on the Stewards Program and to receive input from stewards as to the next steps for the Program.

Program Purpose. The overall renewed program purpose was given as “The AEP Volunteer Steward Program provides opportunities for the public to contribute to the care of Alberta’s crown lands.” Renewed program goals included:

  • (1) engage in data collection and stewardship activities,
  • (2) collect data including biophysical information, site condition, and identification of stewardship actions,
  • (3) apply – the information collected is utilized and stewards complete actions identified under AEP guidance, and AEP uses the data collected to inform planning and management, and
  • (4) AEP and stewards work collaboratively and information is shared purposefully, openly and transparently.

The two Zoom workshops were held on September 21st and October

Miistakis Institute’s Report – Pending. The report of the findings and outcomes of the two workshops that is being compiled by the Miistakis Institute is expected to be released shortly. These developments are encouraging and hopefully imply that the two new Ministries recognize that Natural Areas and the Alberta Parks Volunteer Program have a continuing and important role to play in the effective delivery of Alberta’s parks and protected area system and, specifically, its responsibility for conserving Alberta’s biodiversity and ecosystems.

Biography. Dr. Guy Swinnerton was the academic representative on the Provincial Coordinating Committee for the Alberta’s Special Places Initiative during the 1990s and has served on a number of advisory committees to Alberta Parks. He has been a member of the IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas for over 20 years and was one of the initial members of the WCPA’s Protected Landscapes Task Force. Guy is a recipient of the Canadian Council on Ecological Areas Gold Leaf Award and was instrumental in getting the Beaver Hills region designated by UNESCO as an internationally recognized Biosphere Reserve. He and his wife, Nonie, have been volunteer stewards for over 25 years.

— Top —

Looking north along Borden Lake esker trail in Whitney Lakes PP 2021.09.23 (J. Novak).
Looking north along Borden Lake esker trail in Whitney Lakes PP 2021.09.23 (J. Novak).