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NDP presses AEP to disclose if user fees are coming to provincial parks

“What we suspect is coming is potentially day-use fees that don’t exist in any of our provincial parks right now," said NDP Leader Rachel Notley
Barrier Lake in Kananaskis Country. RMO FILE PHOTO

KANANASKIS – Camping fees are going up $1 to $3 per night in provincial parks, but the Alberta NDP Opposition fears the provincial government is also considering day-use fees.

According to provincial budget 2021 documents, new or increased fees are estimated to add $20 million in revenue to Alberta Environment and Parks, which includes the increased revenue from a jump in camping fees.

“It does show that they’re talking about increasing the camping fees by $1 to $3 – that gets us to about $1 million – it does not get us to $20 million,” said NDP Leader Rachel Notley. “What we suspect is coming is potentially day-use fees that don’t exist in any of our provincial parks right now.”

Last year, an online survey for Albertans booking a campsite aimed to get feedback on the possibility of new or increased user fees to support programs, services and facilities. 

Campers were asked their thoughts on an all-inclusive pass covering multiple activities for a day in provincial parks or an all-inclusive pass covering multiple activities for a year.

The survey also asked for feedback on paying for use of hiking trails, cross-country ski trails, boat launches, beaches, parking, education programs for schools, interpretive programs for the public, learn-to-camps, and the rental of buildings, such as reserving a picnic shelter for the day.

John Muir, the director of communications for Alberta Environment and Parks, did not specifically address questions around a potential day-use access fee.

However, he said off-highway vehicle fees, random camping fees and to implement a backcountry land-use plan are all reflected in the revenue projections.

“We know that Albertans have expressed that they are willing to pay a bit more to improve our parks system and protect our public lands,” he said in an email.

“This has been confirmed through consultations undertaken by AEP in late 2020, which showed Albertans were in favour of fees to support sustainable recreation provided those fees are returned to the parks and public lands system.”

Muir said last year was Alberta’s busiest camping season on record, and the province is expecting similar or higher visitation numbers in 2021.

On the first day camping reservations opened on March 4, he said there was a record fivefold increase in visits to the booking website over the previous year.

“This dramatic increase in parks visitors will result in increased revenue, but will also result in some strain on the parks system and on our public lands,” Muir said.

Muir said the Alberta government continues to explore options to ensure the parks system is sustainable and parks continue to be fully funded through an appropriate balance of taxpayer and user revenues.

“All parks will continue to be public and accessible to Albertans,” he said.

Notley called on Jason Nixon, the minister of Alberta Environment and Parks, to spell out exactly where the $20 million in projected revenue is coming from.

“If it’s not going to be day-use fees, tell us that,” she said. “Tell us how Albertans are paying that extra $20 million.”

As a general rule, Notley said she doesn’t like user fees.

“I would be open to hearing what consultations had to say, but as a general rule when people are using our parks on a day-use basis, we are often talking about lower income people,” she said.

“I think it’s unfair. I think you’re restricting access and I don’t think that our parks should be something that is only available for people who have the disposable income to be able to afford to go. Our parks belong to all Albertans,” she added.

“I understand the camping fees because there’s obviously more infrastructure associated with staying overnight, but day-use is like going for a walk, and when did we decide that we have to pay to go for a walk?”

Meanwhile, the budget also includes $81 million in operating expenses for Alberta Parks to address increased recreational activity on crown lands and support a parks system managed in partnership with municipalities, Indigenous communities and non-profit societies.

“Budget 2021 increases overall funding for the parks system to address increased recreational activity, including more boots on the ground, to keep our lands protected and to keep Albertans safe while they enjoy our beautiful backyard,” Muir said.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) was happy to see that the provincial budget for Alberta Environment and Parks will not see cuts again this year.

Katie Morrison, conservation director for CPAWS’ southern Alberta chapter, said it is clear from the significant public opposition following the March 2020 ‘Optimizing Alberta’s Parks’ announcement that Albertans value provincial parks and want to see them stay protected. 

“However, we are still concerned that the government of Alberta plans to rely on third-party partners and camping fee increases to maintain protections and access for our provincial parks,” she said.

“We believe any provincial budget should offer stable and sufficient public funding to ensure a thriving and sustainable parks system in Alberta.”

Kananaskis Country Provincial Park estimated visitors

  • 2015: 3,597,678
  • 2016: 3,706,633
  • 2017: 3,733,772
  • 2018: 3,793,782
  • 2019: 4,103,965
  • 2020: 5,394,168

Canmore Nordic Centre and Spray Valley Provincial Parks estimated visitors

  • 2015: 828,921
  • 2016: 856,043
  • 2017: 856,903
  • 2018: 1,082,773
  • 2019: 1,141,093
  • 2020: 1,238,146