Parks Beyond Borders: Global National Park News—Alberta National Park Budget Cuts Illustrate Angst Across Canada

Astotin Lake is one of Elk Island National Park's main attractions. Popular paths at the Alberta national park east of Edmonton include the Living Waters Boardwalk Loop, the Lakeview Trail and Shoreline Trail. Photo courtesy Travel Alberta/Parks Canada.

A major contraction of park funding across Canada is making news and stirring angst and debate. Alberta is a case in point.

The head of a Canadian national park’s friends group in Alberta fears that budget cuts at Parks Canada will mean that the supporters of Elk Island National Park near Edmonton may need to step in and fund initiatives that the park can no longer afford.

Elk Island isn’t widely known among national park fans outside of Canada, but it’s among the city of Edmonton’s most popular attractions.

Two other iconic Alberta parks are much better-known—Banff and Jasper. They too are facing big cuts.

In a story by Ed Struzik in the Edmonton Journal, Gary Harrold, who leads the Friends of Elk Island Society, says, “It’s not clear to me yet what the cuts mean for Elk Island, but given all the cuts that have been made in the past, it can’t be good. The agency is stretched to the limits and I’m personally concerned that a number of projects that we have been involved with might be threatened.”

“Budget cuts at Elk Island are not as deep as they are for Jasper and Banff,” the paper said. Cuts at Elk Island “... will result in nine of 60 people either losing their jobs or being invited to apply for other positions.”

Rocky Mountain Parks See Steepest Cuts

Factor in those cuts, and Alberta’s parks are facing challenges. Another Edmonton Journal article picked up in the Ottawa Citizen said, “More than one in eight of Jasper National Park's 340 employees will lose their jobs or be invited to apply for other positions in the coming months to deal with massive cutbacks at Parks Canada.”

At those Rocky Mountain parks, the article said, “Hours at information centres and museums will be cut back and management of the hotsprings in Jasper, Banff and Radium will be turned over to the private sector.”

Monica Andreeff, executive director of The Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment, said, “This is a big concern because it is going to have an impact on tourism. Parks Canada set a goal a few years ago to increase tourism in parks. Cutting back on services in the mountain parks is not the way to do it.”

Jasper superintendent Greg Fenton “concedes he and his senior management colleagues will face a big challenge maintaining habitat and trails in the backcountry, dealing with the interests and safety of tourists, maintaining infrastructure and managing wildlife and an environment that is increasingly threatened by invasive species, climate change, human activity and development along the park’s border."

"It will mean change in almost all areas of our operation," Fenton said one day after informing 41 of his employees that they are now surplus.

“The average visitor is not likely going to see any changes," says Fenton, despite the reductions. "There will be changes in hours of operation, for example, but that shouldn’t significantly impact how they get information.”

The Union of National Employees (UNE) representing Parks Canada’s 3,000 employees focused on the layoffs' impact on tourism. Union president Doug Marshall said, “When you shorten the season for visitors in our national parks and historic sites, you shorten the tourism season for Main Street in towns across rural Canada.”

“Many national parks in Canada haven’t recovered completely from the downturn in visitation that began in the 1980s,” the article said.

People across Canada are lamenting the budget cuts. Newfoundland’s St. John’s Telegram, in an article entitled "Even our sacred places aren't sacred" by editorial page editor Russell Wangersky, said, “Parks Canada has told 1,689 employees that their jobs will change or disappear. In this province, 79 jobs are affected, with 24 vanishing entirely.”

Elk Island: A Gem Worth Visiting

Elk Island stunningly exemplifies the geographical transition between the boreal forests of far northern Canada and the great prairies farther south. The park’s trails and ecological significance make it a popular stop for tourists who find themselves in Alberta’s vibrant capital. Elk Island is about an hour east of Edmonton.

The area was settled by Ukrainian immigrants from the late 1800s to about 1930, and the unique Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is another attraction just outside the park. The award-winning, open-air museum has thirty historic structures staffed by costumed interpreters.

The Journal describes Elk Island National Park as “among Canada’s oldest, having been originally intended to protect dwindling elk populations in the Edmonton region, it was eventually fenced and used to restore plains and wood bison populations that nearly went extinct in the late 19th century. Resembling a game sanctuary in some ways, the park acts much like a wildlife bank. Several hundred bison have been shipped off in recent years to help the United States and Russia re-introduce bison to various areas."

Budget travails aside, the Journal reported that the park’s field superintendent Alan Fehr said most visitors won’t notice a difference when they visit the park this spring and summer. “In fact, they’re likely going to notice improvements that have recently been made,” he said. “In addition to the roads being fixed and repaved, new signs directing people to trails and attractions have been put up.”

Guy Swinnerton of the Beaver Hills Initiative, a partner of the park and local governments in the effort to maintain the ecological integrity of the Elk Island area, said, “The cutbacks will inevitably have both short-term and long-term negative repercussions on the ecological health and social and economic benefits that Canadians and visitors alike derive from this country’s national parks and national historic sites.”

Despite the budget cuts, Elk Island National Park remains a high point of a visit to Edmonton. The city’s other attractions include the spectacular Art Museum of Alberta and the Royal Alberta Museum.