Why the new Kananaskis fee is giving us whiplash

Alberta is creating barriers to the outdoors in a selective and sudden way

Northover Ridge Loop

Kananaskis is a special place for many Albertans, including us.

We regularly hike, backpack, bike, cross-country ski and ski tour in this wonderful piece of protected wilderness just a short drive from our homes in inner-city Calgary. 

We grew up hiking with our family in this region, and started exploring it on our own with friends in university. As students tight on cash, cross-country skiing for free in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park was an ideal activity. 

In recent years, biking Highway 40 from mid-May to mid-June — when the highway is free of snow and cars — has become a spring tradition. In the fall, we head to Kananaskis for golden larch hikes, on trails like Burstall Pass and Pocaterra Ridge. 

The view at the end of the Blueberry Hill cross-country ski trail in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.

We’ve long marvelled at Kananaskis and all it offers: stunning mountain vistas, close proximity to Calgary, an endless array of outdoor opportunities.

All this, with no entrance fee attached.

That will change on June 1. In less than a month, the United Conservative government’s new user fees for Kananaskis Country goes into effect, as first reported last week, by the Globe and Mail. Visitors will have to pay $15 per day to access the area or they can purchase an annual vehicle pass for $90.

We’re not completely against user fees. From an annual National Parks pass, to paid memberships to outdoor organizations like the Alpine Club of Canada, and annual donations to the Bragg Creek Trails Association, we don’t necessarily have a problem paying to go outside, especially when that money goes to support the maintenance of basic amenities that balance conservation with accessibility.

User fees in Kananaskis, however, feel different. At least, this particular plan, which seems slapped together at the last minute and not particularly consistent.

The government frames the new fee as a way to help “keep this special part of Alberta beautiful and protected for generations to come.” Purchasing a pass supports conservation efforts in the area, they say. 

But apparently this same type of conservation effort isn’t required for McLean Creek, an area in Kananaskis popular for ATVs and random camping that’s exempt from the fee. That’s a mistake, say conservationists — and honestly, just about anyone whose been to McLean Creek and has seen the damage caused by off-roading.

Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon tweeted that random campers in this area will pay a different fee, in addition to a trail permit fee coming this fall, but these fees will also apply in wilderness areas across the Eastern Slopes. The special new fee for Kananaskis, meanwhile, will apply everywhere in K-Country, except McLean Creek.

Exploring Opal Ridge.

Kananaskis was intended for all Albertans. What next? User fees for treasured local green spaces in Calgary and Edmonton? Having to pay to walk your dog in Calgary’s Nose Hill Park, have a picnic in Riley Park, or bike through the Weaselhead?

The benefits of our parks system are intangible. How much money does having an active, nature-loving population that visits accessible spaces save our health-care system? What does it mean for the mental health of Albertans? Where’s the long-term thinking? Why are we selectively creating barriers to the outdoors and recreational opportunities, especially during a pandemic, when going outside is so crucial?

A view along Pocaterra Ridge.

Consider, too, that just over a year ago the UCP government tried to close 20 provincial parks, put more than 160 up for partnership, shut down two visitor centres, shorten the camping season and stop cross-country-ski-track setting, all under the banner of “optimizing” our parks, which they claimed at the time were “under-utilized.”

Way back then, in 2020, UCP politicians said these measures were needed because these sites didn’t see enough use. That included the Barrier Lake and Elbow Valley Visitor Centres, both located in Kananaskis. A month after these closures were announced, the pandemic hit and with it came record visitor numbers in K-Country.

Biking on Highway 40 during a seasonal road closure to motor vehicles.

Now, the government says fees are needed because last year was so busy and the area is straining under the weight of so many visitors who are disregarding the rules of K-Country. The same government that, just last year, closed the visitor centres where those new to the area could stop to get information about safety, rules and trail etiquette.

It’s also worth noting that Albertans who were respecting the public-health guidelines didn’t have a plethora of options when it came to going outside last year. There was a period of time when the mayors of Banff and Canmore were begging Calgarians to stop visiting. We were encouraged not to go to B.C. — a popular place for many outdoor enthusiasts living in Calgary.

The UCP government also tried to compare Kananaskis’s 2020 visitor numbers to those of Banff, but the comparison wasn’t fair. Banff relies heavily on international tourism, which was non-existent during the strange pandemic summer. And the measurement of K-Country visitation relied on vehicle counts multiplied by an assumed occupancy of 2.6 people per vehicle, which seems high during a time when carpooling was discouraged, and is not comparable to Banff’s visitation numbers, which are based on an actual count of people passing through the park gates during business hours.

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All that aside, we worry about the precedent this new fee sets. Is this the first step in introducing user fees in all our provincial parks? Will the Kananaskis fee drive people to explore other natural areas, then those areas will become overrun and next year, a new fee will be introduced?

We know firsthand how being outside and getting a dose of nature helps us to feel happier and healthier. By adding user fees to such experiences, we’re limiting who gets to feel that. There are fair and consistent ways to do that, as we’ve seen with our national parks, but this sudden shift from closing parks to charging Albertans to access them is giving us whiplash. There has to be a better way.

King Creek Ridge in Kananaskis.


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