We have, in the past, called on the provincial government to look at a fee system for Kananaskis Country to help pay for the desperately needed services.
Services that used to exist and have been cut, like the closing of the Barrier Lake visitor information centre, and the lost positions for biologists and conservation officers eliminated over time with other budget cuts.
We argued a park pass would create the revenues needed to support the work to keep K-country clean and running smoothly after it was inundated by 5.4 million visitors last year.
This week, the UCP government announced it would be instituting the Kananaskis Conservation Pass for $90 a year per vehicle, or $15 a trip. This pass can be applied to two vehicles and a trailer – and will be applied to licence plates and enforced like paid parking with checks on vehicle licence plates in the park.
Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon said 100 per cent of all revenues from this pass, which goes into effect June 1, will be invested back into K-country. That includes $11.5 million in newly announced upgrades.
The great news is that includes $1 million this year to begin the planning work for major upgrades needed at the Canmore Nordic Centre. Upgrades that have been on the list of approved capital projects for tourism in this province, but have not had funding identified for the $10 million project yet. The province is spending $1.2 million to upgrade Yamnuska this year – these kinds of projects need to be funded from somewhere.
The announcement also means the Barrier information centre will be refurbished and reopened – this is welcome news. There will also be 20 conservation officers hired this year and that is also welcome to help manage the influx of Albertans accessing these natural areas. And the new fee will also cover the cost of grooming cross-country ski trails, which was cut from last year's budget and saw a voluntary paid parking project established to cover those costs and maintain that service.
Critics of this new fee argue this move goes against the intention Peter Lougheed had when he created Kananaskis Country and mandated it would be a natural resource for Albertans to access for free. They would be right, as well.
We would not need a fee if this government, and governments of the past, had not sliced and diced its way into trouble. The continual squeezing of the Alberta Parks budget over the years has resulted in deep losses, one bit at a time.
There are those who feel all Albertans should be able to enjoy these provincial park spaces for free and all Albertans should pay for these services and projects through government funding.
There are many reasons why this position is right. One is that accessibility should not be about who can pay, and who cannot. A fee to access K-country will negatively affect those with lower incomes more than others. This is also why Kananaskis was created in the first place – for Albertans to enjoy for free.
Many critics point to the way the UCP has spent taxpayer's monies over the past year as the real problem here and if they had not mismanaged the finances of this province, we wouldn't need to suffer year after year of budget cuts to the services we have come to value like free access to provincial parks.
They would also be right.
But when we consider paying an access fee to enter and enjoy a national park, and provincial parks in other provinces, is a proven way to fund these services, and when we consider the government in the legislature right now and how it has treated the parks system in Alberta, then this is the most reasonable solution to this problem at this moment in time.
The NDP has already come out and stated that if elected, it would eliminate this Kananaskis Conservation Pass fee. The current government has already made parks in Alberta a political issue, and with this new fee, that is going to continue right up to and through the next election.
In the meantime, at least K-country will have the resources needed to manage the issues we as residents of the Bow Valley had to witness and deal with last year.