EDMONTON — The Alberta government is fully or partially closing 20 provincial parks and is planning to hand over 164 others to third-party managers.
That's more than one-third of all the province's parks, recreation areas and other protected areas.
Environment Minister Jason Nixon says the province can no longer afford the "retail" side of parks.
"We can't continue to spend $86 million of Albertans' tax dollars and only see $36 million come in," he said Tuesday.
Nixon was unable to say how much money the move would save. Documents released by his department late Monday put the figure at $5 million in the 2020 budget year.
The closures and downgrades are accompanied by increases to camping fees and cuts to services, such as grooming cross-country ski trails in the popular Kananaskis area west of Calgary.
The 164 sites — which include provincial parks and wildlife areas — are to be dropped from the provincial list. They could be managed by other bodies or sold.
Nixon said about six groups have contacted him about one of those sites.
The changes range throughout the province — from shutting campsites at Dinosaur Provincial Park in the south to the complete closure of Kehiwin Provincial Park in the northeast.
The total amount of land involved is about 16,000 hectares. The United Conservative government says that's less than one per cent of the parks system, but it isn't clear if that includes the national parks.
The move brought a mix of disbelief and anger from environmental groups, political critics and park users.
"It's extremely disappointing," said Rhonda Jewett, a cross-country skier who has competed internationally and says she's never skied anywhere that compares with Kananaskis. Last weekend, she said, the trails were packed with skiers, including a Korean tour group.
Trail groomers make it possible for people with mental and physical disabilities to use the park, she said.
"This is a big deal and I don't see anything good about it," said Kecia Kerr of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
"These are public goods that are for all Albertans. We shouldn't be thinking of them from a business-model perspective."
Opposition environment critic Marlin Schmidt said hundreds of people had already contacted his office to express concern about the changes.
"It doesn't make sense. It's so out of touch with what Albertans have told me they want."
An online petition protesting the changes had more than 8,000 signatures by mid-afternoon Tuesday.
Nixon denied that removing 164 sites from the provincial park list was a prelude to privatizing them. He said conservation would continue to be a priority.
He said some of the closed parks had as few as 36 users a year.
"We ran on a clear platform to modernize our park system, to partner with municipalities and Indigenous communities and non-profits to help manage our park system."
Katie Morrison of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said during last year's election campaign that the UCP criticized the NDP government at that time for not doing enough consultation on parks policy.
"They did not run on a mandate of selling and transferring our parks system," she said. "It's kind of ridiculous to claim they can be making this type of change to our parks without consultation."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2020
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960
Bob Weber , The Canadian Press