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EDITORIAL: Budget 2021 should invest in Alberta's parks and wildlife

The 2021 budget for the government of Alberta will be released Thursday (Feb. 24). It will be the third budget for the United Conservative Party, elected two years ago to power in this province.

The 2021 budget for the government of Alberta will be released Thursday (Feb. 25). 

It will be the third budget for the United Conservative Party, elected two years ago to power in this province. We would like to take this opportunity to make the argument that running certain public services – like Alberta's parks system – like it is a private business where revenues and expenses need to balance each other out, is short sighted and will only come back to haunt this government.

Albertans love their parks. They will stand up to defend them and that was on full display over the past year as many did just that after the last provincial budget proposed to remove dozens of parks and protected sites from the provincial system. They claimed it would save $5 million a year, which was later debunked by freedom of information requests for internal briefing documents from government officials. 

Momentum grew behind the campaign, spearheaded by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the result was for the Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon to later announce the government had heard from Albertans and would not move forward with those changes.

That budget also cancelled cross-country ski grooming in parts of Kananaskis Country. It forced user groups and volunteers to step forward with a solution to voluntarily collect parking fees to pay for the grooming instead.

These types of changes, for this government, are about reducing expenses because revenues are much lower than what it costs to operate the provincial parks system. It is ideological – the UCP does not value investing in public services like the parks system because they cannot make money directly from it.

But the reality is that there are plenty of Alberta businesses – big and small – that benefit economically from our parks system and investing in it. From outdoor gear rentals, sales and group tour providers, to local craft brew pubs, restaurants and cafés – those who spend the day outdoors often spend money to do so, or afterwards. 

With COVID, we have seen Albertans seek out these natural spaces and wilderness experiences in numbers never before seen. Visitation to Kananaskis Country alone in 2020 was 5.4 million people – which should have everyone at Alberta Parks committed to finding ways to support that level of visitation.

That means resources for parking management, wildlife biologists, traffic, emergency response and even just emptying out the garbage cans – need to increase in response to better management of these protected areas this summer.

It presents a bit of a puzzle, because we have a government focused on cutting expenses, and all these things are expenses. 

The solution we would like to propose, and that we hope the budget entertains, is the establishment of a park pass or user fee for Kananaskis Country to pay for the increased need for provincial funding to manage this space for Albertans now and in the future.

Parks fees are not a novel idea. We only need to look to Parks Canada's approach to managing its protected spaces for an idea of how much revenue can be gained through an entry fee.

They key for this kind of initiative is that it support the additional and future needs of the park, it doesn't just offset the costs of regular operations. More is needed, if this government won't pay for it, Albertans are more than willing to step up to the plate and support its parks system.

We need only look at the Defend Alberta Parks campaign and the success found in raising the voluntary parking fees for grooming over the past year. Albertans would be willing to pay a user fee to recreate in K-country as long as that fee was used to support the increased services needed to sustain this higher level of visitiation into the future.