KANANASKIS COUNTRY – The government of Alberta is establishing a Kananaskis Conservation Pass that will see vehicles charged a per day or annual fee to access the region's provincial parks and recreation areas in the Bow Valley corridor.
Starting June 1, 2021, visiting K-country will cost recreational users $15 a day or $90 a year per vehicle. The region a pass would be required includes popular hiking areas along Highway 1A, the Trans-Canada Highway and those accessed through trailheads in Canmore and around, such as Grassi Lakes.
Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said Tuesday (April 27) 100 per cent of the revenues from the initiative will go directly into managing the area and conservation initiatives to protect it into the future.
"The revenue from each pass will go directly back towards enhancing conservation activities, services and facilities right here in Kananaskis," Nixon said. "The cost is modest and is in fact less than the access fee in the national mountain parks in our province like Banff and Jasper.
"As a per vehicle fee, the conservation pass will help with traffic management, it will encourage folks to find alternative means for transportation to Kananaskis when appropriate. It will strengthen public safety by funding boots on the ground with new conservation officers to provide education and enforcement, and to assist with search and rescue activities."
Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin said the establishment of the new conservation pass will benefit tourism in the region.
"We are so fortunate to live and recreate in this incredible place and the ability to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors has served as a beacon of hope for many during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year," Rosin said. "But the increased use of these lands is straining them."
However, the new fee to access these areas was not universally welcomed by conservation groups in the province. The Alberta Wilderness Association called it a "cash grab that will deter visitors," in a press release. The association's conservation director warned it will result in increased pressures in other provincial parks where there is no vehicle entry fee.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association's conservation engagement coordinator Becky Best-Bertwistle said in a press release user fees must be thoughtfully implemented and result in increased environmental protections. She called for transparency on how the funds are spent, and assurances they would not be distributed to third party operators for facility management.
"As shown by the Defend Alberta Parks campaign, Albertans are passionate about parks and protected areas," Best-Bertwistle said.
“We hope that this user fee will be dedicated to environmental protection in the region without creating additional barriers for people to enjoy the outdoors.”
NDP MLA for Calgary-Buffalo Joe Ceci said the new per vehicle fee is making life more expensive for Albertans already struggling with the financial insecurity related to the pandemic.
“More income tax, more property tax, more school fees, more tuition, more insurance costs, more utility costs, and now a $90 fee for Albertans to enjoy a park that belongs to them. It’s an insult to the legacy of Peter Lougheed," he said in a press release.
Nixon said the government of Alberta has invested $160 million into Kananaskis Country since 2013, including upgrades to William Watson Lodge and building a new emergency services centre. There have also been upgrades to campgrounds and day-use areas, trail improvements such as the work done for Ha Ling, and highway upgrades.
He added an additional $11.5 million is planned for more upgrades, including $1 million this year to begin planning for the work to upgrade the Canmore Nordic Centre, with the intent to continue those capital investments at that facility in future years.
"I will have more details to share about those new projects and others that will benefit Kananaskis in the weeks ahead," he said, adding over the past five years, the cost to the provincial government to operate Kananaskis Country was $107 million.
Kananaskis Country saw increased visitation in 2020 with a record 5.4 million visitors to the area. Officials shared how they calculated that number, with more than two million vehicles entering Kananaskis, a generally accepted multiplier of 2.6 people per vehicle was used to calculate visitation.
It was a significant increase – 70 per cent above previous year's visitation counts – and put a strain on resources. Nixon said parking, garbage, infrastructure and public safety were all challenged last year due to the increased demand for these types of outdoor recreational experiences. He added the trend of record high visitation is expected to continue post-COVID.
"This is not a one-off for K-country and it is great to see so many folks venturing out to explore their own backyard," Nixon said, calling the area true crown jewel. "However, Albertans agree there needs to be a balance between recreation opportunities and conservation. More visitors to K-country is great news; however, it has increased pressures on the land in a very big way.
"These pressures have been well documented. You have seen the photos and heard the stories. Unfortunately, K-country has seen significantly more litter, illegal parking, over-crowded day-use areas and trails, human wildlife conflicts, injuries and several other major issues in the past few years. This has put an increased strain on our facilities and on our services, and on our resources needed to maintain K-country."
That includes more calls for assistance to the Kananaskis public safety team. At one point last year, the Yamnuska day-use area was closed down by Alberta Parks after public safety was called in several times in one day and emergency services had a difficult time accessing the area due to the number of vehicles parked in the area.
The MD of Bighorn council has called on the government to enforce the Traffic Safety Act to manage the number of vehicles illegally parking on the side of the 1A Highway, after parking lots for popular recreational areas, like Jura Creek, quickly fill up in the morning.
Nixon said this year an additional 20 conservation officers will be hired to help manage the Kananaskis Conservation Pass area, which includes Canmore, Harvie Heights, Exshaw and Dead Man's Flats.
Residents of these communities will not be expected to purchase a park pass, unless they intend to park at trailheads located in or near their communities to access the provincial park. That means anyone wishing to hike up Grassi Lakes, for example, would require the new pass if they drove their vehicle to the trailhead.
Last year, the UCP announced budget cuts for Alberta Parks that resulted in the closure of the Barrier Lake visitor information centre at the entrance of Kananaskis Country on Highway 40. With this new funding and revenues from the pass, Nixon said that facility will be refurbished and reopened to the public.
Also cut from the budget were funds for cross-country ski trail grooming. As a result, Nordiq Alberta stepped forward to help implement a voluntary paid parking pilot program to fund that service.
It was successful, but Nixon noted the new Kananaskis Conservation Pass revenues will be used to fund trail grooming moving forward and the paid parking program will not continue.
"We are investing 100 per cent of the revenue from the pass back into Kananaskis," Nixon said. "This conservation pass is about managing demand and environmental sustainability."