The open letter Derek Swain wrote last week to Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Whitney Issik was professional and passionate, but clearly had a restrained tone.
Swain, the president of the Friends of the Swiss Park (FOSP), admitted that there was a latent frustration that needed a lot of moderation before the letter reached its final version.
“If I had shown you my first two or three drafts of this letter, it would be very blatant. I’m furious,” Swain said in an interview with the Fitzhugh.
As published in the Hinton Voice on July 21, his letter details how budget cuts under the UCP government have led to attrition from the roster of conservation officers (COs) and seasonal park rangers, all of whom are tasked with ensuring what William A. Switzer Provincial Park campgrounds and recreation areas are safe and peaceful for all to enjoy.
The Hinton Parks District, he wrote, once had five commanding officers and a team of seasonal rangers. Now there are only three OCs for a district of 25 parks, including all backcountry land. Their patrol territory was also covered with all public land.
“It is simply impossible to provide adequate enforcement and emergency response on such a huge land base with just three officers,” the letter said.
William A. Switzer Provincial Park is one of the first designated parks in Alberta and encompasses 6,600 hectares. It has three day-use sites, five campgrounds (totaling about 200 sites), a visitor center, two activity centers, and a few historical places of interest as well.
Swain and his wife Marg, like countless others, enjoyed many hours of recreational activities in the park.
“To me, this park is the ultimate four-season wilderness playground, offering wildlife viewing, camping, swimming, fishing, hiking, biking, boating and cross-country skiing,” Swain said.
The FOSP offers its services for the improvement of the park by cleaning up litter and maintaining the trails. The organization has a strong working relationship with Alberta Parks staff, as evidenced by their regular collaborative Parks Day public event in mid-July.
Alberta Parks also collects bottles and cans which FOSP then recycles as its main fundraiser. These funds are intended for projects that benefit the park, including the purchase of a snow groomer. In 2019, the group built a warm-up hut in the Vallée de Joachim thanks to this funding.
Swain explained how budget cuts have done much to erode these collaborations and efforts.
“Year by year we see a decline in all of these areas,” he said. “Each year we have had great support from parks staff who have helped us clean up our highway, but this year no one was available.
Several public programs including environmental education programs for school groups and other amphitheater presentations that were cut during the pandemic have not returned because they are no longer in the budget.
These budget cuts have also had a negative impact on trail maintenance. In 2020 an unusually wet summer left five large puddles on the main trail. With no funding from Alberta Parks to fix it, FOSP sought out a local gravel company who provided nearly 140 cubic meters of fill with the use of their bobcat. FOSP members did most of the heavy lifting, pumping out the water and coordinating the dumping of the fill while Alberta Parks staff used the bobcat to level it.
The worst cuts, however, are reflected in the general enforcement of regulations to ensure the peace and safety of everyone in the park. It’s something that Swain said people have always taken for granted, and now it’s missing.
“I felt that being in a park, whether it was a national park or a provincial park, there was always someone who could be called in an emergency and would be there quickly to acquire help.
This is no longer the case.
Swain is certain most Albertans are unaware of the changes and their impacts on what is otherwise a glorious wilderness. He said people would be appalled to learn how vulnerable they are if and when problems arise.
“If something goes wrong, what is their recourse and how soon can they get help? I am of the opinion that nothing will change until something very serious happens, and attention is drawn to this serious lack of enforcement personnel.
Minister Issik’s office responded to the Fitzhugh with an email highlighting how the government is committed to protecting provincial parks and recreation areas while supporting sustainable outdoor recreation opportunities.
“We are proud to work with partners, like Friends of the Swiss Park, who share our vision for a strong provincial park system,” the email reads, delivering high attendance at all parks over the two years as the reason why changes were made. the funding of seasonal staff resources.
“Instead, we have hired more than 70 park recreation and resource officers to assist us with these efforts, including six in the Hinton District. Staff will not provide dedicated interpretation and education services, but they will help our visitors have enjoyable experiences.
The province has invested more than $585,000 in William A. Switzer Provincial Park this year, an increase of nearly 19% from 2019, she says.
The message also includes a reminder regarding 310-LAND (5263), the telephone number for Alberta’s new centralized reporting line for law enforcement concerns, public safety incidents and illegal activity on Crown lands.
Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh