It’s one of the most successful campaigns in the long history of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Northern Alberta chapter.
You've likely seen the mail drops, or heard about it on the news. 'Defend Alberta Parks' struck a chord with many Albertans, some who have spent more time in the province’s parks than ever before given the pandemic restrictions that have kept residents close to home.
“I experienced parks that I hadn't before. This past year inspired a lot of people to fight back against the loss of some of them,” said Tara Russell, program director at CPAWS Northern Alberta.
Defend Alberta Parks started in late winter/early spring 2020 when the Alberta government proposed legislation that would remove protected area designation for 175 Alberta provincial parks. The government’s plan ‘Optimizing Alberta Parks’ would see 20 parks closed outright and over 160 removed from the Alberta Parks system.
CPAWS Northern Albert--an organization that started in 1958--oversaw the Defend Alberta Parks campaign. It wasn’t easy, given the not-for-profit's reliance on protests, rallies and in-person gatherings to help spread the word.
“This campaign happened about two weeks before Alberta saw its first cases of COVID-19. We had 1,000 people signed up to attend an in-person rally and hundreds signed up to attend town halls. That shift made it challenging, as people appreciated nature a lot more last summer, but they were scrambling on how to engage and protect it,” she said.
The CPAWS Northern Alberta team used Zoom virtual meetings to promote a sort of “at-home protest” where people could set up camp sites in their back yards or living rooms, take photos, and send those to CPAWS and the provincial government. That effort, with a visible lawn sign and mail campaign, led to a positive outcome. In December 2020, the province stepped back, deciding against removing the parks from the system.
Russell says the battle isn’t yet over, with the government expected to announce new parks and public land legislation this year.
Defend Alberta Parks brought a lot of attention to CPAWS Northern Alberta but the group is also a national wilderness protection organization. The Northern Alberta chapter oversees such campaigns as Albertans for Coal Free Rockies, Stand Up for Jasper, and a campaign specific to Wood Buffalo National Park, which faces significant challenge from upstream industrial development and climate change.
Russell describes the role of CPAWS as one that brings information to the masses, sometimes needing to translate complex and confusing government speak.
“Behind the scenes (of the Defend Alberta Parks campaign), staff made sure the information we were bringing to Albertans was accurate, and could empower them to speak up,” said Russell. “We are extraordinarily diligent in all the work we do to ensure it’s firmly grounded in science and evidence.”
Like other charitable organizations, CPAWS Northern Alberta has experienced financial challenges due to the global pandemic. Russell says she hopes people can support the organization with a financial donation or by visiting https://cpawsnab.org/ to learn more and sign up for the newsletter.