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Protected areas are the central element of conservation efforts in Alberta. Various designations offer different levels of protection, ranging from highly protected wilderness landscapes to intensively used recreation areas.

Some of these areas are designed to protect the beauty and diversity of our natural landscapes, but science tells us that existing protected areas are too small, too few and too isolated to maintain the values of wilderness over time.

Alberta needs more protected areas. Integrated management for wilderness must provide the basis for land-use decisions throughout the province.

    • Introduction
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    12.6% of Alberta is protected:

    • 8.2% as National Parks
    • 4.4% provincial protected areas


    • Many protected areas allow industrial development, which undermines their protection value.
    • 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.
    • Many Natural Regions are poorly represented in the current network. Landscapes such as the foothills and grasslands require immediate protection.

    Alberta Natural Regions, Percentage Protected

    In 2010, IUCN recommended 17% be protected.

    Biologists have developed some basic principles for designing protected areas networks:

    • Representation requires that a complete protected areas network include 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.
    • Private landowners can also contribute to the protection of Wild Alberta by placing conservation easements on their properties.

    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 designations differ widely in terms of the degree of specificity about those restrictions.

    Following are the eight protected area designations in Alberta, beginning with Ecological Reserve, the designation that most limits human activities, and proceeding down to Recreation Area, the designation with the least restrictions on human activities.

    Ecological Reserve – A functioning ecosystem protected for scientific research, education, and heritage appreciation. Surface disturbance is not allowed within an Ecological Reserve.

    Wilderness Area – A large area that retains its primeval character and remains unaffected by human influences. Visitor travel is by foot.

    Wildland Provincial Park – A large area of natural landscape where human development and human interference with natural processes are minimized. This is similar to Willmore Wilderness Park and accommodates a wider range of outdoor recreation pursuits than does a Wilderness Area.

    Willmore Wilderness Park – Protects a significant area of the Rocky Mountains and is managed to preserve its natural landscapes and ecological values. Willmore was established under its own legislation, the Willmore Wilderness Park Act, in April 1959. It is similar in intent to a Wildland Provincial Park.

    Provincial Park – Distinguished from a Wildland Provincial Park by its greater range of outdoor recreation facilities, more extensive road access, interpretive and educational programs, and support facilities and infrastructure.

    Heritage Rangeland – Preserves ecologically significant areas that represent Alberta’s native rangelands. Grazing is used to maintain the grassland ecology. Recreational use must be compatible with preservation of natural values and grazing management.

    Natural Area – Protects special and sensitive natural landscapes of local and regional significance, while providing opportunities for education, nature appreciation, and low-intensity recreation.

    Provincial Recreation Area – Supports a wide range of outdoor recreation pursuits, including motorized recreation, in natural, modified, or man-made settings.

    Areas with Land-Use Restrictions

    Public Land Use Zone (formerly Forest Land Use Zone)

    Other means of minimal protection – often limited and temporary – are possible, including designating an area as a Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ). A PLUZ is designated under the Public Lands Administration Regulation and 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. Previously, Forest Land Use Zones (FLUZ) was administered under the Forest Act for a similar purpose. In spring, 2007, for example, the Minister of Sustainable Resource Development created a FLUZ in the Indian Graves area to prevent further environmental damage by unregulated off-highway vehicle use.

    Forest Recreation Area

    At one time Alberta contained a number of Forest Recreation Areas, designated for recreational purposes. Most of these are now Provincial Recreation Areas (see “Protected Areas”). The handful of Forest Recreation Areas that remain are generally staging areas for recreationists, including equestrian and off-highway vehicle users. The regulations governing Forest Recreation Areas are found in the Forest Recreation Regulations, sections 16(1) to 25.91, under the Forests Act.

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