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Bring Switzer Park funding back up, open letter pleads

A barbecue that the Friends of Switzer Park put on for the 75th anniversary of Alberta Parks in 2007, with Alberta Parks staff helping out. | D.Swain photo

Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter | reporter@fitzhugh.ca

The open letter that Derek Swain wrote to Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Whitney Issik last week was professional and passionate yet clearly had a restrained tone. 

Swain, the chairman of the Friends of Switzer Park (FOSP), admitted that there was a simmering frustration that required much tempering before the letter achieved its final version.

“If I had shown you my first two or three drafts of that letter, it would be very blatantly obvious. I’m fuming,” 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 resulted in the attrition of the roster of conservation officers (COs) and seasonal park rangers, all of which are tasked to ensure that William A. Switzer Provincial Park’s campgrounds and recreational areas are safe and peaceful for all to enjoy.

The Hinton District of Parks, he wrote, once had five COs and a team of seasonal park rangers. Now there are only three COs for a district of 25 parks, including all of the backcountry lands. Their patrolling territory has also had all public lands piled on top of it as well.

“It is simply impossible to provide adequate enforcement and emergency response on such an enormous land base with just three officers,” the letter stated.

William A. Switzer Provincial Park is one of the earliest designated parks in Alberta and comprises 6,600 hectares. It has three day-use sites, five campgrounds (totalling approximately 200 sites), a visitor centre, two activity centres and a few historic places of interest also.

Swain and his wife Marg, like countless others, have enjoyed many hours of recreation activities in the park.

“To me, this park is the ultimate four-season wilderness playground, offering wildlife-spotting, camping, swimming, fishing, hiking, biking, paddling, and cross-country skiing,” Swain said.

The FOSP offers its services toward the betterment of the park through litter cleanup and trail grooming. The organization has a strong working relationship with Alberta Parks staff as demonstrated by their regular collaborative Parks Day public event in mid-July.

Alberta Parks also collects bottles and cans which the FOSP then recycles them as its main fundraiser. Those funds go toward projects that benefit the park, including the purchase of a grooming machine. In 2019, the group built a warm-up cabin in the Joachim Valley using that funding.

Swain explained how budget cuts have done much to erode those collaborations and those efforts.

“Year by year, we are witnessing a decline in all these areas,” he said. “Every year, we’ve had great support from Parks personnel who helped with our highway cleanup, but this year, no one was available.”

Several public programs including environmental education programs for the school groups and other amphitheatre presentations that were cut during the pandemic haven’t returned because they are no longer in the budget.

Those budget cuts have also negatively impacted trail maintenance. In 2020, an unusually wet summer left five large pools of water on the main trail. With no Alberta Parks funding to fix it, the FOSP sought out a local gravel company that provided nearly 140 cubic metres of fill along with the use of its bobcat. FOSP’s members did most of the grunt work, pumping out the water and co-ordinating the dumping of the fill while Alberta Parks staff operated the bobcat to level it out.

The worst of the cuts, however, are reflected in the general enforcement of the regulations to ensure peace and safety for all in the park. It’s something that Swain said people have always taken for granted, and now it is absent.

“I felt that being in a park, whether a national park or a provincial park, there was always someone who could be summoned in an emergency and would be there promptly for support.”

This is no longer the case. 

Swain is certain that most Albertans are unaware of the changes and their impacts on what is otherwise a glorious wilderness area. He said people would be appalled to learn how vulnerable they are if and when trouble occurs.

“If something does go wrong, what is their recourse, and how soon might they get support? It’s my view that nothing will change until something very serious occurs, and attention is drawn to this serious lack of enforcement staff.”

Minister Issik’s office responded to the Fitzhugh with an email focusing on 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 the Friends of Switzer Park, who share our vision for a strong provincial parks system,” the email stated, offering high visitation to all parks over the past two years as the reason why changes were made to funding seasonal staffing resources.

“We’ve instead hired more than 70 park recreation and resource officers to assist with these efforts, including six in the Hinton district. Staff will not be providing dedicated interpretive and educational 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 almost 19 per cent from 2019, it indicates.

The message also includes a reminder about 310-LAND (5263), the phone number for Alberta’s new, centralized reporting line for enforcement concerns, public safety incidents and illegal activities on Crown land.

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