Alberta's provincial parks and recreational areas are special places we have set aside to preserve and explore the outdoors.
Unsurprisingly, Albertans have been seeking out wild places since the economy began its phased reopening – but there can be too much of a good thing.
The increased visitation to Alberta Parks has been both gradual and explosive. More and more people have been accessing areas like Kananskis Country over the years – but this summer has been one for the record books.
We are seeing overcrowding at parking areas, swimming holes and trailheads. People are outdoors, but social distancing seems to be less of a priority than accessing popular natural places.
Albertans are heading out on an adventure without being fully prepared, driven by a desire to decompress given all that we are going through with COVID-19. It is a recipe for disaster.
Two things, however, need to come out of what we have witnessed so far.
The first is that Alberta Parks and Alberta Transportation need to step up to meet their obligation to manage the public spaces they are legally responsible for.
That includes trailheads and highways. It is illegal to park on the shoulder of a provincial highway – yet how is this being communicated at Alberta Parks sites that have exploded in day use?
One only need look over the border into Banff National Park to see effective management of parking for trailheads. No parking signs pepper the roadways and staff enforce the rules on site.
In Alberta, it is a free for all and it is putting lives at risk. That includes the lives of those tasked with responding when bad things happen.
The second thing that needs to happen as a result of the demand for natural outdoor recreational experiences in our provincial parks – the UCP government should recognize that step it took to eliminate many provincial parks and campsites, and the closure of the Barrier Lake visitor information centre, are counter intuitive to the increased use we are seeing right now.
The evidence before our very eyes is that Albertans want to spend more time in provincial parks – not less. Closing parks, campgrounds and visitor information centres does not meet the needs of this province – even if these changes have been delayed a year.
To say these amenities don't make enough money to justify the expense of operating them, fails to acknowledge the value Albertans are receiving at this very moment by connecting with nature.
The government should consider immediately reopening the Barrier Lake visitor information centre to help mitigate the situation. Right now, the only provincial visitor info centre available to visitors to the Bow Valley is in Canmore.
Visitors, especially those new to heading out into K-country, need to be able to access important information to keep themselves safe.
That includes being able to have a conversation with a real person about how difficult a route might be; using the phone to call emergency services because cellphone reception is precarious; up-to-date wildlife safety information and advisories; and any other question that a website is ill-equipped to handle.
Alberta Transportation should consider immediately posting no-parking signs along Highway 1A next to popular day use and trailhead sites. There should also be enforcement of this regulation before someone gets hurt.
Unlike other trails in K-country, these are along a roadway that sees 90-ton rock trucks going 90 km/h in both directions. Getting you and your family in and out of your car on the side of the highway is dangerous.
Failing to enforce parking along the 1A is a liability and there is no question who is responsible.
The only question is will the province of Alberta immediately take action to effectively manage its provincial parks during COVID-19?