A recent Alberta provincial budget highlight points to a bright future for green tourism in Alberta’s rural southwest.

Budget 2023, tabled in late February by outgoing finance minister Travis Toews, lays out $10 million for new and “environmentally sustainable year-round experiences” beyond the province’s established tourist spots, Samantha Steinke, press secretary for the Ministry of Forestry, Parks and Tourism announced April 4. 

The initiative, to be stickhandled by Travel Alberta, has been funded through the end of 2024, heralding green growth within the regional visitor economy regardless of who wins this spring’s provincial election. 

“Travel Alberta is finishing up a whole series of consultations” with rural stakeholders, Bev Thornton, executive director at the Alberta SouthWest Regional Economic Development Alliance, said Monday. 

With clear recommendations expected in the coming months, Thornton said she anticipates Travel Alberta’s latest report will identify opportunities to build area tourist hubs as well as potential gaps in local tourist infrastructure.

A long and winding road

Alberta SouthWest has fostered economic drivers prioritized by Edmonton, including tourism, since the late 1990s, according to Thornton. 

The province’s Economic Development in Rural Alberta Plan (EDRAP), announced last December by Agriculture Minister Nate Horner, registers an economic shift that took hold in the eastern Rockies under Rachel Notley’s New Democrats and which lurched between policy reversals under former United Conservative premier Jason Kenney. 

The NDP in 2017 created Castle Provincial Park out of 255 square kilometres (just under 100 square miles) set aside for outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat along the Continental Divide, between Waterton Lakes and the border with British Columbia, according to crownofthecontinent.net, a tourist destination website created by Alberta Parks in partnership with National Geographic.

Oil prices had tanked across global energy markets roughly three years earlier, triggering a provincewide recession that turned only after oil and gas prices spiked in early 2022. 

Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon announced in March 2020 that the province was planning to close 20 provincial parks and “delist” 164 others. Delisted parks were to be taken over by private companies or else revert to Crown holdings, the minister said, promising an estimated $5 million in government savings. 

Nixon’s plan fell apart amid widespread popular opposition and a sharp increase in demand for park and campground access at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Kenney’s government came back in September 2020 with $43 million for new trail networks, public day-use areas and provincial parks, including campgrounds — a little over half of which was earmarked for the Kananaskis region and other areas farther south. 

The UCP’s enthusiasm for provincial parks shows no signs of slowing in the five-year economic strategy laid out in Minister Horner’s EDRAP. 

“Alberta’s provincial parks generate more than $1 billion in economic activity, and contribute more than 9,000 jobs through direct and indirect employment at more than 740 sites across the province, the vast majority of these in rural areas,” according to the plan’s rural economic highlights.

The UCP under Premier Danielle Smith announced last November that the province was committed to twinning Highway 3 Alberta-wide, which proponents say will significantly boost tourism. 

Managing conflict

Southwestern Alberta’s economy is grounded in non-renewable energy, agriculture and forestry, with tourism and renewable energy steadily gaining ground. 

“When you look at those key industries [it’s clear that] all of them rely on land use,” Thornton said. 

There’s always potential for conflict amid competing land uses, “so the trick is to maximize the benefit of each of those industries without negatively impacting any one of them,” she added. 

AlbertaSouthwest has taken a data-driven approach, furnishing its 15 member communities — including the Town and MD of Pincher Creek and neighbouring Crowsnest Pass — with “research-based evidence” as their councils address development challenges. 

“What’s measured gets managed,” Thornton quipped. 

Who’s who in the zoo? 

Alberta SouthWest is one of nine regional economic development alliances across the province. Its non-profit board is run by a who’s who of local government figures, including Fort Macleod Mayor Brent Feyter (chairman) and Pincher Creek Coun. Sahra Nodge (secretary-treasurer). Board directors include Pincher Creek MD Reeve Rick Lemire, Crowsnest Pass Mayor Blair Painter, and Kevin Todd, Nanton councillor (currently on leave) and Alberta Party nominee for Livingstone-Macleod. 

– With files from Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, Shootin’ the Breeze, and from Carol Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grizzly Gazette.

By Laurie Tritschler, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 12, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   Shootin' the Breeze   Pincher Creek, Alberta

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