The Alberta government plans to launch a pilot program to precisely track the number of visitors and vehicles accessing day areas and trails in provincial parks and recreation areas.
Environment and Parks seek an outside contractor to set up trackers in three areas: Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, Lois Hole Centennial Provincial Park in St. Albert, and Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreational Area, which is east of Edmonton.
The project aims to fill an enormous gap in the data compiled by Alberta Parks.
Camping reservations can provide data. However, the department does not have accurate figures for first-come, first-served campsites, day-use areas, and trails.
The request for proposal document said that day-time visits comprise 75% of the visits to provincial parks.
“Day-use visitation is tracked using an insufficient number of traffic and trail counters, most of which are outdated,” the document said. “Additionally, automatic counters are absent from many parks and protected areas.”
A ministry spokesperson said that better data collection would aid the province in making better decisions about how to allocate staff and capital expenditure.
The NDP Opposition critic for Environment and Parks, Marlin Schmidt, said that the move raises red flags for him.
Environment and Parks released the “optimization” plan two years ago, eliminating 164 areas from the Alberta parks system and fully or partially shutting down 20 others.
The government said the sites were underused. Critics argued that the province didn’t have any way to know since it didn’t collect data.
After months of public outrage and denials by the government, Environment and Parks walked back to the original plan last December 2020.
Schmidt is worried that the government wants to retry it. Schmidt said Albertans no longer trust the government’s position on park issues.
“My suspicion is that now they’re collecting the data to make the argument that they wanted to make all along, that these parks should be closed down or sold off,” he said.
“It makes me concerned that they’re going to take another run at the parks that were on the hit list in 2020.”
In a written statement, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said that provincial parks “are not for sale and have never been for sale.” He added that the government had invested over CA$130 million into recreational areas and provincial parks.
“We are taking responsible steps to better understand day-use visitor patterns to make data-driven investments into high traffic areas that need infrastructure upgrades as part of our ongoing commitment to investment in Alberta’s public lands,” Nixon said.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) launched the popular “Defend Alberta Parks” campaign in 2020 to protest against the government’s plans.
CPAWS’s Northern Alberta Conservation Analyst Chris Smith said the organization is delighted that the government has begun working to gather better data.
He said that Alberta Environment and Parks lacked evidence to show the parks flagged in the plan were underused.
“Hopefully, this will increase the capacity for Alberta Parks to improve data-driven decisions if the pilot program is successful,” Smith said in an email to CBC News.
He said the information has been lacking since the province ended a monitoring program about 17 years ago.
According to the request for proposals, a successful proponent must have the equipment and software in place to automatically collect data regardless of weather conditions.
The equipment needs to recognize the different types of users, such as cyclists, hikers, horseback riders, and different types of vehicles.
The contract is scheduled to run for 11 months, ending on March 31, 2023.
The RFP provides some background on why day-use data become so unreliable. The province monitored day-use through traffic counters and surveys from 1997 until 2006.
According to the document, the collection statistics program began to fail because of decentralization, insufficient resource, and outdated equipment.
Although new equipment was purchased from 2006 to 2008, the program remained in a declining trend. Around 10 to 25 sites continued to transmit numbers, but the province didn’t have the personnel needed to cleanse, analyze and verify the information.
This article originally appeared on CBC.