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The backbone of conserving nature, protected areas provide large, intact spaces where wildlife can roam and we can learn and play for generations to come.

Alberta needs to complete a system of protected areas throughout all of Alberta’s diverse natural regions and the species at risk that live within them. Achieving representative protection is not only possible, but essential to our health and wealth.

    • Introduction
    • Features
    • Concerns
    • Archive
    • Other Areas

    “As of the end of 2016, Canada recognizes 10.6 percent of our land and inland waters as protected, an increase of only 1 percent since 2010; therefore, much needs to be done to achieve 17 percent by 2020.” – Canada’s Conservation Vision: A Report of the National Advisory Panel

    Take Action

    • Ask federal and provincial governments to live up to their international commitment to protect 17 percent of Canada’s landscapes and 10 percent of our oceans by 2020.
    • Write a letter to the Premier and ask the government to produce plans to protect 17 percent in each of Alberta’s diverse natural regions. Protecting our biodiversity is essential to our health and wealth today, and for future generations.

    Protected Areas

    Alberta is blessed with an amazing diversity of natural landscapes ranging from mountains, grasslands, boreal forests, to wetlands.

    Healthy, protected ecosystems provide us with many services such as food, clean water, protection from natural disasters, and recreation opportunities. Protected areas provide direct and indirect benefits to overall physical and mental health (Equilibrium Research 2010; Sturm and Cohen 2014).

    In addition to these ecosystem services, direct economic benefits from Alberta’s protected areas are significant; in 2009 visitor spending in National Parks amounted to 1.5 billion dollars (The Outspan Group Inc. 2011). The provincial government has also analyzed the contribution of parks to the economy and estimated that “parks and protected areas can contribute as much to the provincial economy per unit of land as other types of resource development, including  agriculture or forestry.”

    Moraine Lake is one of the many iconic landscapes for which Banff National Park has received international acclaim – in the 2016/17 season the park received 4.06 million visitors. PHOTO: © AWA FILES


    In 2015, Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments committed to conserving at least 17 percent of Canada’s lands and inland waters by 2020, otherwise known as Aichi Target 11 under the Convention for Biological Diversity:

    By 2020, at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.

    In keeping with this national and international commitment, the Alberta government has also committed to protecting 17 percent of Alberta’s landscape.


    As of the end of 2016, 10.6 percent of Canada’s terrestrial areas and only 0.96 percent of its marine territory are protected. As Canada’s National Advisory Panel Report noted this is “an increase of only 1 percent since 2010; therefore, much needs to be done to achieve 17 percent by 2020.”

    As of June 2018, 14.6 percent of Alberta is protected:

    • 8.2 percent as National Parks
    • 6.4 percent as provincial protected areas

    In order to meet the Aichi Target 11, protected area systems must protect each natural region, include areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystems, and be well-connected.

    While some of Alberta’s natural areas, such as the Rocky Mountains, are relatively well protected, many of Alberta’s Natural Regions – such as Grasslands, Parkland and Foothills – are poorly represented in the current network. A lack of representative protection has caused widespread declines in wildlife. The Grasslands Natural Region is less than 2 percent protected and more than three quarters of Alberta’s species at risk rely on prairie habitats (Alberta Environmental Protection 1997).

    Many of Alberta’s protected areas allow industrial development, which undermines their protection value. In addition, most provincial protected areas are small and isolated within a highly developed landscape. These areas will not support wildlife, viable ecosystems, or landscape-scale natural disturbances over time.


    AWA is requesting that the federal and provincial governments commit to the following:

    1. By 2020, 17 percent of Alberta’s overall land base will be protected, with additions to the protected areas network focusing on landscapes which are currently underrepresented and provide habitat for species at risk.
    2. By 2020, the Alberta government will have identified and committed to the protection of specific areas that will achieve 17 percent protection in each of our six natural regions. In regions that are heavily developed such as the parkland natural regions, other effective area based conservation measures will need to play an important role in enhancing a government established protected areas network.

    Over the years, AWA has identified important landscapes containing key Natural Region features and rare or special landscapes. We have worked to maintain the ecological integrity of these areas, keeping them wild. Some of these Wild Spaces are essential, containing regions and ecosystems that have not yet been protected, and that require protection to complete the provincial protected areas network. Other Wild Spaces may function as corridors or transition zones for species between other protected areas. Many Wild Spaces require sound management for working landscapes, where economic development can be sustainably integrated with conservation objectives.

    The following principles guide AWA’s vision for protected areas:

    • A complete protected areas network includes portions of all Natural Regions, landscape features, and rare and special landscapes.
    • Core areas need to be set aside as the foundation of the system. These must be large, natural, and interconnected.
    • Corridors are needed to provide connections among the cores. These must be designed to allow for the movement of wildlife and natural processes.
    • Buffer zones should surround the cores to insulate them from the negative effects of nearby development.
    • Working landscapes throughout the province should incorporate management objectives for the maintenance of natural values. Because protected areas alone are not enough, environmental protection should be at the forefront of all land-use planning initiatives.
    • Free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples in the creation and management of protected areas provides inherent value as well as significant opportunities to meet conservation objectives. We must uphold reconciliation commitments and meet Target 18 under the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, so that “traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous  and local communities relevant for the  conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and their customary use  of biological resources are respected,  subject to national legislation and  relevant international obligations, and  fully integrated and reflected in the  implementation of the Convention  with the full and effective participation  of indigenous and local communities,  at all relevant levels”.
    • It is appropriate for government to be the primary responsible body for achieving Aichi Target 11; however, Other Effective Conservation Measures (OECMs) such as private land conservation easements can play an important role in complementing and enhancing government established protected areas network, provided they meet IUCN protection requirements for OECMs.

    Alberta contains protected areas which fall under federal and provincial jurisdiction.

    Federal Protected Areas

    National Parks –
    From Banff, Jasper, Waterton Lakes, Elk Island to Wood Buffalo, some of Alberta’s largest and most iconic protected areas are National Parks. Under the Canada National Parks Act, National Parks are established for “the benefit, education and enjoyments” of Canadians and must be managed in a way that leaves them intact for future generations.

    National Wildlife Areas –Under the Canada Wildlife Act, National Wildlife Areas are “created and managed for the purposes of wildlife conservation, research, and interpretation.”  Most are relatively small with the exception of Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield NWA, which is significant for its protection of native prairie.

    Migratory Bird Sanctuaries – can be established on private, provincial, territorial and federally owned land to protect and conserve migratory birds, both as populations and individuals including nests; Environment and Climate Change Canada are responsible for the protection of migratory birds and their nests. They are established under the Migratory Birds Convention Act.

    Provincial Protected Areas


    The term protected area is used in Alberta to cover eight distinct designations covered by three different legislative acts: the Provincial Parks Act; the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Natural Areas and Heritage Rangelands Act; and the Willmore Wilderness Park Act.

    Each of the eight designations is distinguished by varying restrictions on activities in the protected area; the following are the eight protected area designations in Alberta, beginning with Ecological Reserve, the designation with the most stringent protections down to Recreation Areas, the designation with the least restrictions. Source: Alberta Parks 2017

    Ecological Reserve – An ecosystem containing representative, rare and fragile landscapes, plants, animals, and geological features that is protected for scientific research, education, and heritage appreciation.  They are established with the strict intent to preserve natural ecosystems, habitats and features, and associated biodiversity. Surface disturbance is not allowed within an Ecological Reserve and can only be accessed by foot.

    Wilderness Area – Established to “preserve and protect natural heritage while providing opportunities for non-consumptive, nature-based outdoor recreation”.  Alberta has three wilderness areas – Ghost River, Siffleur and White Goat. Travel within these areas is restricted to foot access only and removal of any part of the environment (plants, rocks, fossils, etc.) is prohibited.

    Willmore Wilderness Park –was established under its own legislation, the Willmore Wilderness Park Act, in April 1959 which states “The Park is dedicated to the use of the people of Alberta for their benefit, education and enjoyment, subject to this Act and the regulations, and shall, by the management, conservation and protection of its natural resources and by the preservation of its natural beauty, be maintained for the enjoyment of future generations.”

    Wildland Provincial Park – “A type of Provincial Park specifically established to preserve and protect natural heritage and provide opportunities for backcountry recreation.” Wildland Provincial Parks are typically larger landscapes with lower levels of developments. Popular activities include equestrian use, backcountry camping, hiking and fishing. Some Wildland Parks have designated trails for off-highway vehicle use.

    Provincial Park – Protecting both natural and cultural landscapes and features, Provincial Parks are distinguished from a Wildland Provincial Park by its greater range of outdoor recreation facilities, interpretive and educational programs, as well as generally more support facilities and infrastructure.

    Heritage Rangeland – To protect and preserve represent Alberta’s prairies by the continuation of cattle grazing to maintain grassland ecology, while limiting other disturbances such as industrial development. Recreational use is generally limited to foot access.

    Natural Area – Intended to protect special and sensitive natural landscapes of local and regional significance, while providing opportunities for education, nature appreciation, and low-intensity recreation. These areas are typically quite small and include natural and near natural landscapes. New Industrial development is not permitted.

    Provincial Recreation Area – Often small areas established for outdoor recreation as the primary objective, these areas support a wide range of outdoor recreation pursuits, including motorized recreation, in natural, modified, or man-made settings.

    Areas with Land-Use Restrictions

    Provincial Recreation Area – Often small areas established for outdoor recreation as the primary objective, these areas support a wide range of outdoor recreation pursuits, including motorized recreation, in natural, modified, or man-made settings. Generally, no new industrial development is permitted although sites are typically heavily developed for recreation use.

    Public Land Use Zone (formerly Forest Land Use Zone) – designated under the Public Lands Administration Regulation, it is an area of land to which legislative controls are applied to solve specific land-use problems, and better manage conflicting land use activities in sensitive areas. Generally little/no restrictions as to the types of land uses permitted. Previously, Forest Land Use Zones (FLUZ) were administered under the Forest Act for a similar purpose.

    AWA’s primary concerns regarding protected areas are to ensure that they remain in perpetuity and are managed in a way that they actually are protecting the ecosystem values that they were established to protect in the first place. If activities that are harmful and damaging to the landscape and wildlife are allowed to take place, is an area actually protected?

    Insufficient management and enforcement

    Many of Alberta’s protected areas are lacking formal management plans, without which many individual small decisions produce cumulative effects that diminish the wilderness resources that parks were intended to protect.

    A lack of enforcement in protected areas can cause extensive damages from activities such as poaching, garbage dumping and illegal off-highway vehicle (OHV) use.

    Recreation and Commercialization

    Although recreation, and specifically non‐motorized recreation is indeed “critical to the quality of life we experience as Albertans” (Questions and Answers on the Proposed New Parks Legislation, 2010), Albertans also recognize that recreation is not, and should not be, the top priority within protected areas. The 2008 public survey found that 70.8% of Albertans believe the top priority for Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation should be to set aside more land and leaving it in an undisturbed state.

     Threats to parks from recreation include:

    • Overdevelopment of facilities within protected areas leading to urbanization of wilderness environments
    • Permitting activities which are incompatible with conservation objectives of a specific area, such as the introduction of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) in areas where such use was historically prohibited
    • Inappropriate developments such as commercial recreational use, including downhill ski operations, golf courses, and alpine villages
    • Overuse and overcrowding – when protected areas reach visitor carrying capacity and it is effectively impossible to manage human-wildlife conflicts

    AWA believes that it is crucial that any new recreation opportunities and facilities should only be developed in newly designated parks land, and not at the expense of existing protected areas. Turning existing protected areas into manicured playgrounds is not the way Albertans want to see the shortfall of recreation facilities being addressed.

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