The UCP government rushed to open provincial parks last week and if it is a sign of things to come, we should all be concerned.
The announcement came Thursday (April 30) from Premier Jason Kenney. Alberta's parks would reopen on Friday (May 1), however he reminded the public to respect the social distancing rules in place and plan accordingly that facilities, washrooms and garbage cans would not be functional.
There was almost a collective gasp in Canmore as residents on that community listened to the decision being made that would directly affect their lives and recognized it for what it was – ill advised and premature.
Opening parks without the measures in place to ensure the public can safely recreate is not a good as we move into a staged relaunch of this province. And we aren't even talking about COVID-19 related protections.
The fact politicians felt it appropriate to open parks without washrooms, facilities, or garbages that would be functional and emptied regularly by staff – who have not been working as a result of the closures that came into place mid-March – is irresponsible.
Not only for those who will eventually return to work and have to clean up the mess, but extremely concerning from a wildlife human conflict perspective.
Alberta's park system should not be reopened until staff have been brought back to manage human use. It isn't just the fact that washroom facilities are closed and garbage cans are not functional – but bears and other wildlife are directly affected by human use and especially when it results in human waste in all its forms being left behind.
To add insult to injury, this announcement failed to recognize that Alberta parks are not just places people go, they are places where people live.
Canmore is surrounded by provincial parks. In fact, the borders of these protected areas overlap our Town limits. This is an issue the community has dealt with, for example, due to the fact bow hunters could access park lands inside Canmore's borders through residential neighbourhoods to legally hunt.
Living with wildlife and living with protected lands near our community is something we know how to manage.
What we as a community do not have the capacity to handle is the inundation of our community by Albertans hoping to get outside and enjoy nature during a pandemic.
Getting outdoors is incredibly important right now, regardless of your circumstances. We can see it already – it seems as if there are more people outside walking, biking and running than ever.
That is understandable considering the unemployment rate in this valley due to the shutdown ranges from 50-85 per cent according to estimates by municipal officials.
Canmore and Banff residents getting outside during this time is a reasonable expectation. But when the direction from public health officials is to refrain from non-essential travel and to get outside to recreate within your own neighbourhood, what message does it send to Albertans to open parks?
Navigating the messaging on this issue has been extremely frustrating for residents of Canmore. Because we are the doorstep of the most popular provincial park system in Alberta – Kananaskis Country.
With Banff National Park remaining closed, Albertans wanting to get into the mountains are coming here as a result. We know officials recognize this is a problematic situation by the fact the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw tried to warn late Friday through a tweet.
"I’ve received questions about the #COVID19ABrelaunch strategy and travel. Domestic non-essential travel is not recommended," read the social media message. "This will not change until stage 3. Now is not the time to visit mountain communities for the weekend. Further, national parks remain closed to visitors."
Calgary is home to 1.3 million people who have been cooped up inside for seven weeks. It is also the jurisdiction with the highest rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases. It is easy to empathize with the desire to head into the mountains for a hike, but when the enjoyment of nature comes at the expense of spreading the coronavirus in rural communities – Canmore residents have reason to be concerned.
It means that even before we reach phase one of the relaunch strategy, the UCP government has failed to prepare appropriately before they reopened provincial parks and recognize the consequences of that decision on our community.