UCP to turn ecologically sensitive area into a park

Last week, the provincial government announced plans for a provincial park in Edmonton.

The new 68-hectare (168-acre) Big Island Provincial Park will be built in the southwest region of the city.

To kickstart the establishment of the park, the province has promised nearly $300,000 for planning and engagement: $189,000 of it will go to Enoch Cree Nation, whose territory encompasses the site, and $109,000 will go to the City of Edmonton.

A park in this area has been a pet project of Don Iveson, mayor of Edmonton, who has lobbied for such a project since at least 2016.

The ecological assessment and traditional land use study will begin in 2021. Public and Indigenous consultation will follow the subsequent year. Construction of the park could occur in 2023, the same year as the next provincial election.

The information gathered during the planning and engagement phase will “inform sustainable recreation opportunities for the future park while ensuring Indigenous rights are respected and sensitive habitat and wildlife are protected”.

The 2019–2020 annual report for Alberta Environment and Parks claimed that the park would provide “local nature-based recreational and tourism opportunities”.

During the 2019 election, creation of this park was part of the UCP campaign platform, and they had promised up to $10 million over 2 years for the project. No word yet on what the final cost will be for creating the park.

Related to this promise, Jason Kenney, who was the official opposition leader at the time, promised during the election that if elected, his party would reallocate funds from a local solar farm project to help pay for the project.

Which is weird, given that according to an Edmonton Journal article, that project received only $1.9 million in provincial funding, through Alberta Innovates. It’s not clear where the other $8 million promised will come from.

The 2021–2024 capital plan for Alberta Environment and Parks, forecasts spending a total of $1.4 million this year for the park, $1.8 million next year, and $6.5 million during the election year, for a total of $9.5 million. Technically, the line item says “Big Island Provincial Park Planning”, but spending $6.5 million on planning during the construction year seems excessive, so I think this line item might be mislabelled.

That being said, a 2015 Edmonton Journal article reported that it could cost $25 million just to purchase the land necessary for such a park. So maybe $10 million just for planning isn’t too far off? Still seems like a lot to spend on only planning.

The North Saskatchewan Conservation Society advocated for something to be done for this area since at least 2010, but their focus has been on a conservation area designation, not on it becoming a park.

Humans have significantly disturbed the natural ecosystem through mining, crop farming, timber extraction, quarrying, and boatloads of picnic tourists during the early 20th century. This ecological disturbance has allowed non-native plant species to invade the area.

But for it to become a conservation area, it’d have to undergo a massive restoration project, which would not be cheap or quick. And honestly, it’s probably just easier to build a parking lot, some roads (there are no public roads to Big Island), and a few amenities than it would be to try and restore it as a critical wildlife habitat.

Speaking of which, according to Kenney in 2019, his government plans to allocate $250,000 for annual park maintenance and development once the project is built.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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