UCP pledges more parks funding, user fees; NDP agrees

In an unexpected turn of events, Alberta’s two combative political parties seem to largely agree on plans to improve the province’s conservation efforts.

The United Conservative Party’s new environment platform was met with some approval March 14 from NDP Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips.

The UCP pledges to bolster funding for grazing and recreation management, as well as introduce user fees for OHV (off-highway vehicle) riders and random campers, which Phillips said she mostly agreed on.

“I actually agree with a lot of what’s being proposed here. I know that might be surprising,” Phillips said in an interview.

The UCP, if elected, would provide the Alberta Riparian Habitat Protection Society, known as Cows and Fish, with $1 million to increase grazing management efforts, keeping livestock from damaging critical water bodies and riparian areas along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

It would also offer $2 million over four years to not-for-profit conservation groups to maintain parks, and increase funding to the Alberta Land Trust Grant Program from $10 million to $15 million per year.

Agreeing with one another, however, didn’t stop the parties from taking swipes.

Phillips wondered how the UCP would pay for increased funding, given what she expects would be lower revenue due to the party’s plans to eventually cut the corporate tax rate to eight percent.

“The question is how he (UCP leader Jason Kenney) will pay for it when he’s also promising billions of dollars in tax giveaways to profitable corporations,” she said.

Kenney accused the NDP of pitting Albertans against each other and using environmental issues as a wedge, but Phillips brushed that off.

She said the NDP government has delivered on the file, pointing to their efforts to create and improve existing parks, as well as stabilize funding for organizations.

Despite the political animosity, conservation groups say they would gladly accept more funding and support a user-fee system as long as revenue went to parks activities.

The UCP plan would require OHV users and random campers to pay $30 annually to use the park system, with revenue going to conservation work. Passes would be made available to outlets that sell fishing and hunting licences.

“We as an association would support their environment platform, but we’re totally opposed to selling more crown land,” said Brian Dingreville, president of the Alberta Fish and Game Association, referring to the UCP’s plan to auction crown land for agricultural purposes following consultation.

“Selling land would take away the benefits from everyone,” he said.

Norine Ambrose, executive director of Cows and Fish, said more funding would be significant to the organization.

“The impact on the funds depend on some factors, but it would boost our ability to work more effectively and do more work on the ground,” she said.

Phillips said OHV fees are something the NDP could examine, but wondered how the UCP would implement new carbon offset programs if the carbon tax is scrapped.

The UCP wants to increase the use of conservation offset programs, but Phillips explained producers might not be able to access offset credits because there might be no program to participate in. The program is part of the government’s Climate Leadership Plan.

Kenney has previously said projects funded by the carbon tax could still go forward without the tax being in place.

More to the UCP’s plan, the party would introduce an Alberta Trails Act, aiming to encourage the sustainable use of trails, as well as review the Environment and Parks Act to make potential changes.

It also would deal with the illegal drainage of wetlands, creating what’s called a statutory tort action for landowners adversely affected downstream.

The NDP’s environment platform is expected to come as the province inches closer to the election, but Phillips said Albertans can expect the NDP to continue investing in parks, supporting ranchers and riparian restoration projects.

Contact jeremy.simes@producer.com

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