Alberta’s New Kananaskis Conservation Pass

The Alberta Government budgetrecently announced a new $15/day or $90/year Conservation Fee for access to Kananaskis Provincial Park.  Kananaskis is a favourite playground of a lot of Albertans and many Calgarians consider it to be an extension of their backyard.  It’s important to conserve the area, but this plan will not achieve that goal.

We’ve written many times about the beauty of Kananaskis, including fantastic hikes like Tent Ridge, larch hikes in the fall, some of the great cycling opportunities, incredible cross country skiing, or more challenging backpacking trips like Northover Ridge.  Seriously, I could go on, but the point is that Kananaskis has long been one of Alberta’s prized gems.  It’s important to conserve Kananaskis for future generations and we’re happy to contribute financially to our Parks, but this fee is not the right approach.

Backpacking in Kananaskis
Backpacking in Kananaskis

The Fight to Defend Alberta Parks

If you’ve been following our blog, over the past year, we’ve written three separate posts about Alberta’s natural recreation areas being under attack.  Unfortunately, Alberta’s Provincial Government seems determined to continue attacking Provincial Parks and the areas that outdoor enthusiasts cherish.

After a massive public outcry and a wildly successful “Defend Alberta Parks” lawn sign campaign, the Provincial Government backed down (somewhat) from cutting 175 provincial parks.  We originally wrote about that “In Defense of Alberta Parks”.  At the same time, the Government cut track-setting for cross country skiing, which volunteers banded together to fund and restore temporarily.  While the Government hasn’t really publicly acknowledged their mistake, they did include restoring that service in this new park fee.

stars in Kananaskis
Stars in Highwood, Kananaskis

We also wrote about specific actions Albertans could take to help prevent open-pit coal mining in Alberta when Alberta’s 1976 Coal Policy was rescinded. Finally, with your support, we raised over $1,000 selling 2021 Alberta Parks Calendars and donated all of the funds to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society which has been an important advocate for protecting Alberta’s wilderness areas.

Unfortunately for Albertans, the fight continues and when the UCP “back down”, their typical strategy seems to be to pivot and introduce a new way of doubling down.  The Government’s actions on Alberta Parks have not earned them the benefit of the doubt so let’s take a deep dive into the new Kananaskis Conservation Pass.

Kananaskis Conservation Pass

On April 27th the UCP Government unveiled the Kananaskis Conservation Pass, which is going to come into effect on June 1st (yep, just a month’s warning).  This “Conservation Pass” will be a $ 15-day use fee if you park your vehicle in Kananaskis Provincial Park or $90 for an annual pass that’s registered to your vehicle.

views from bill milne trail
Views from the Bill Milne Trail in Kananaskis

This is not a well-thought-out and communicated plan.  Why was it so last minute?  Folks have already booked campsites across Kananaskis for the summer as the reservation system opened up months ago.  Now they’ll have a surprise $15/day or $90 fee added on to their vacation in a time when many families are struggling financially.  Furthermore, when the UCP revealed their budget just a month ago, which spoke to increasing fees for reserving campsites, this Conservation Pass was nowhere to be seen.

On the surface, conservation sounds like a good thing, right?  But let’s explore some of the issues with this plan.

Where is the Pass is Required, and why not McLean Creek?

kananaskis conservation pass map
The Kananaskis Conservation Pass will be required in the purple area

This is a map of the areas that the Kananaskis Conservation Pass would be required.  Any time you leave your vehicle a $ 15 day use fee or a $90 annual pass would be required.  Seems pretty straightforward, and Kananaskis covers a large area, but look a little closer and there’s a glaring omission….why is McLean Creek excluded?

Conservation is important.  Most hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, or other backcountry users would agree, and these are relatively low-impact activities.  Most that practice these activities espouse Leave No Trace principles and responsibility in the backcountry.  Compared to the rest of Kananaskis McLean Creek stands out as an outlier.  What’s popular in McLean Creek?  Off-road vehicles, bush parties, and random camping.

off highway vehicle damage mclean creek
Off-Highway Vehicle Damage in McLean Creek

Off-road vehicles have a tremendous impact on the environment.  Yes, some OHV’ers are responsible backcountry users, but there’s a large group that isn’t, and those that aren’t can literally destroy an ecosystem.

That’s a bold claim, so let’s back it up with some evidence.  How about an Alberta Parks study that examined OHV use in Alberta in December 2017?  The Edmonton Journal took the time to pull out some pretty damning quotes from the study.

  • “OHV use across all seasons causes a disproportionate level of impact and damage compared to non-motorized recreational activities.”
  • “Impacts are often irreversible.” “ … Any natural recovery is either slow or non-existent.”
  • ”The sheer force from spinning tires on OHVs further contributes to and intensifies erosion … .”
  • “Vegetation loss and soil compaction associated with OHV use contributes to conditions that favour invasive species.”
  • “Trail usage can change the overall hydrology of the area by creating new flow pathways and, therefore also result in increased sediment movement.”
  • “Sediment production from OHV trails was three times greater than from forest roads … .”
  • “Increased sedimentation associated with linear footprints has been linked to population reduction of stream trout.”
  • Seven hundred peer-reviewed studies “found that both the noise and physical presence of OHVs in wildlife areas effectively reduced habitat connectivity, changed animal movements and altered population and recolonization dynamics.”
More OHV Damage in McLean Creek

These might just look like photos of muddy tire tracks, but that study (from Alberta Parks itself!) is crystal clear.  OHV use has a HUGE, often unrepairable level of damage to sensitive ecosystems.

I also mentioned random camping and bush parties, which McLean Creek is notorious for.  If you want to go get hammered in the woods, light a raging bushfire, leave your garbage, and get your truck stuck in the mud, McLean Creek is the place to do it.  In fact, one May Long weekend 450 out the 600 tickets that were given out that entire weekend were at McLean Creek!

random camping damage in mclean creek
Garbage left by Random Campers in McLean Creek

P.S. Thanks to Nathaniel Schmidt who hiked into McLean Creek after the Conservation Pass announcement and took these photos (and more) and allowed me to use them.

So why is McLean Creek, clearly one of the areas where conservation is most at risk in Kananaskis not included as part of the conservation program? If it’s all about conservation, why are we hitting the hikers, backpackers, road trippers, anglers, paddlers, etc the hardest and ignoring the OHV users which have the largest impact on the environment?  It doesn’t add up.

Mclean creek is part of Kananaskis
Alberta Parks lists McLean Creek as part of Kananaskis, so why exclude it from the Conservation Pass?

Overuse in Kananaskis

The purported reason that the Government points to for introducing this conservation pass is overuse in Kananaskis.  Specifically, the Government points to last year during the pandemic where Albertans flocked to Kananaskis to get outdoors, social distance, and vacation since they couldn’t travel internationally.

Overuse in Kananaskis is definitely happening and trash is a problem, we’re not going to dispute that.  Trails have been closed over the past several years and campsites are both insanely popular and challenging to book.  Increasing numbers of wildlife encounters put nature at risk.

But it doesn’t take a large logical leap to realize that part of last year’s record numbers in Kananaskis had just a little to do with the global pandemic and the fact Albertans couldn’t travel outside of the country.  Maybe, just maybe, last year was an abnormality.  Rather than strictly looking at visitations in 2020, a longer-term view should be taken.

Hiking in Kananaskis Country
Thea Hiking Northover Ridge in Kananaskis Country

Anyways, I’m not going to argue that overuse in Kananaskis isn’t a problem, it is, and will continue to be an issue.  But you know what else is a problem for Alberta Parks?  Budget cuts.  Last year the UCP shut down the Barrier Lake and Elbow Valley Visitor Centres as part of their plan to “Optimize Alberta Parks” and proposed shutting down several “underutilized parks”.  Never mind the fact that “underutilization” doesn’t seem to add up with the overuse they’re now referencing let’s talk about the Visitor Centres specifically.

Thankfully, the Barrier Lake Visitor Centre will be re-opened with the new fee (one of the things they got right), as it is an incredibly valuable resource for parks users as a place to learn about trail conditions, wildlife activity, safety, and yes, responsible use.  Education, much of comes from the Visitor Centres, would have made a huge difference with many new parks users last year.  It’s not exactly a surprise that when you close Visitor Centres and cut education that new parks users act poorly.

Introducing fees in one park won’t solve the problem itself either.  British Columbia for instance, recently instituted a reservation system (with no fees) for some of their most popular trails.  That’s now receiving criticism as the demand for the outdoors is still there, and instead of visiting well-maintained trails that are set up for high visitation, with boardwalks or facilities to reduce the environmental impact, people are venturing further afield.

The solution here is not simply instituting a fee or a cap, it’s investing in more areas and more resources for Canadians to get outdoors as the demand is clearly there.  With the Conservation Pass, we’ll see the same in Alberta.  Instead of paying to go to Kananaskis, people will find other provincial parks to explore and resources will need to be allocated to maintain those areas.

Taking in the view at Spray Lakes. Taken with the Sony 55-210
Spray Lakes Provincial Park, Kananaskis Country

Follow the money

In 2019 the UCP reduced the budget for Alberta Parks by $24M. Even with the funds raised from the $90 annual “Conservation pass”, that budget cut isn’t restored.  Quite simply, Albertans are paying more and getting less in return.  When you cut Alberta Parks’ budget for wardens, education, maintenance, and enforcement, even without record usage you’ll have problems.  Frankly, the problems that we see today in Kananaskis are in large part due to actions the UCP has taken.  In contrast, the previous NDP Government invested  $239M in Alberta’s Provincial Parks, with no added user fee.  Unfortunately, those funding levels have not been maintained.

Quite simply, Albertans are paying more and getting less in return.

Now let’s take a look at the funds that the Conservation Pass will raise.  The UCP says that this fee will raise $15M and that will be invested directly in Kananaskis.  Funny then, that the operating budget for Alberta Parks (which as we noted earlier, was already cut by $24M in 2019), is only going to increase by $5M in 2021 ($76M to $81M).  If all of the funds from the Conservation Pass are going to Kananaskis, why isn’t the missing $10M in the operating 2021 budget?

Even with $10M of the revenue missing,, the claim that “all funds will be invested directly in Kananaskis” doesn’t add up.  It’s quite clear that these funds will be spread across Alberta Parks.  And because of the fee to access Kananaskis, some Albertans will choose to enjoy nature at other Provincial Parks, where in turn, more services and investment will be required.

Is Alberta Parks deserving of funding from the Government? ABSOLUTELY.  Should Kananaskis be the cash cow that funds the rest of the Alberta Parks system?  No.

Views above Highwood Pass Kananaskis
Views above Highwood Pass Kananaskis

Some may argue that they don’t use Kananaskis, so why should they have to pay for it?  That seems like a reasonable argument on the surface, but again, the majority of this fee is going to general provincial revenues and in part to other parks in the province. Even within Kananaskis country, we talked about McLean Creek’s omission at length.

Why is Kananaskis country bearing the burden to fund the rest of the province’s park system, and high-impact areas like McLean Creek?

Furthermore, many trail users already donate to organizations like the Bragg Creek Trail Association or Friend of Kananaskis to help maintain the trails that they enjoy.  The Conservation Pass will likely see a large portion of these donations dry up.  Why donate when you’ve already paid to access the area?  And yet, the Government has been quiet on whether any of the funds raised from the Conservation Pass will be allocated to these volunteer organizations.

And of course, what would a conversation about Alberta politics and budgets be without a reference to the much-maligned Canadian Energy Centre Oil and Gas War Room?  We can afford to burn $30M/year on the War Room’s repeated blunders and attempts at Oil and Gas Propaganda, but can’t spend half of that maintaining our precious Provincial Parks?

Value for Money

Let’s take a look at the fee itself and how that stacks up.  The Conservation Pass costs $15 per day or $90 for a calendar year, giving you access to a single Park in Alberta.  For comparison, a Federal Parks pass gives you access to 80 National Parks across the country and only costs $70 for an individual or $140 for a family.

Parks Canada has their flaws (*cough* the reservation system *cough*), but in general, they provide outstanding services for that annual fee.  Trails are well signed, conservation is a priority, and campsites are generally well maintained.  Are we going to expect a similar level of service in Kananaskis for our Conservation fee?  Given that the fee doesn’t even restore previous budget cuts, it doesn’t seem like it.

Let’s compare the Conservation Pass with other provinces.  Not all provinces have a provincial park fee, but a few do.  In all of these cases, the fee is for accessing every provincial park in the province, and in every case (except for Ontario) the fee is lower.  For instance, in Manitoba, it costs $44 for an annual parks pass.    British Columbia is free.  Saskatchewan is $75.  But as noted, in all of these cases, the fee is for every provincial park in the province.

Storm Mountain Larches in Highwood Pass
Larches at the base of Storm Mountain

Fees on Fees

Astute observers have also noted that the map illustrating where the pass would be required includes the entire Town of Canmore.  To be fair, the Government has since clarified that a pass wouldn’t be required within city limits, but it just goes to show the amount of planning put into this Conservation Pass.

But, where it WOULD be required is the popular Grassi Lakes Hiking Trail and Canmore Nordic Centre.  Canmore Nordic Centre already has day-use fees so this is just another fee on top of that.  Nakiska ski area is the same idea and you’ll need to purchase both a Conservation Pass and a lift ticket to go skiing.  Backcountry or frontcountry camping?  Yup, fees on top of your reservation fees.  On top of that, in this year’s budget, the UCP increased reservation fees for campsites.

Minister of the Environment, Jason Nixon argued that they’ll be implementing a $30 OHV user fee for McLean creek which is why they don’t have to pay twice, but meanwhile it’s okay to pay fees on top of fees for camping, Nakiska, the Canmore Nordic Centre, or for those of us that purchased cross-country ski track setting passes this year to make up for the previous cuts.  And of course, a $30 annual fee for high impact OHV use in McLean Creek vs a $90 fee for low impact activities in Kananaskis simply doesn’t make sense if the end goal is conservation.

Let’s go back to Canmore and talk about the business impact from those increased fees, as for a Government that likes to position itself as pro-business, this plan clearly does not support those goals.  More fees to visit Kananaskis means fewer people will visit the area, and less visitation will not help the broad range of businesses in Canmore that have bet on Alberta’s tourism economy.

How many of you reading this have a favourite stop on the way back from the mountains (for us, it’s Sheepdog Brewing!)   I can’t count the number of times I’ve stopped in at a Canmore establishment for breakfast on the way out to the mountains or dinner after a day hiking in Kananaskis.

spray valley views on the tent ridge hike
Views of the Spray Valley, Kananaskis

But what is most confusing in all this, is that this fee goes completely against the UCP’s goal of doubling tourism by 2030.  Does it really make sense to add a fee to raise $15 Million, when it will impede the goal of doubling tourism revenue to $16 Billion?  $15M is small potatoes compared to the potential upside and whether it’s locals or international visitors, tourism operators and businesses will see fewer visitors due to these fees.

Wrapping it up

I’m not so partisan or against the idea of paying a fee for Provincial Parks that I’m not willing to admit they got a couple of things right.  The UCP  backtracked and re-instated funding for cross-country ski track setting with this Conservation Pass.  They’ve also stated they’re going to re-open the Barrier Lake Visitor Centre with part of the funds.  Conservation is important, but this plan simply doesn’t add up.  I’d be happy to pay a provincial park pass if it was done in an equitable manner, and all of the funds went to conservation or maintaining the parks, but despite the name, that’s not the case here.

Ultimately, the UCP has lost credibility on anything they do with Alberta Parks.  Whether it’s the original plan to shut down parks, coal mining on the Eastern Slopes, or slashing the Alberta Parks budget, this Government seems to consistently underestimate how much Albertans love their big natural backyard.  It’s why many of us live here and have fallen in love with the area.  It’s part of who we are.

Albertans have made it crystal clear that public lands and recreation areas are incredibly important.  Rather than sticking earplugs in and charging forward, the Government needs to take a step back and reconsider their plan for Kananaskis as it’s completely out of touch with what Albertans want.

What can we do to fight this fee?  Share this post; write your MLA; order a lawn sign; tell a friend.  Together we all need to keep up the fight to defend our Parks!

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4 Replies to “Alberta’s New Kananaskis Conservation Pass”

  1. Good read, thanks for putting this together. Just some other concerns showing how little thought the UCP have put into this, here’s a response from an MLA my uncle received “He (the MLA) also said if you stopped for a break at the picnic site along the highway you need the pass. When I pointed out that there were no rest stops between Calgary and Banff, and, by charging $15 to take a break, they were encouraging tired drivers to continue on down the highway until Banff, he said they never thought of that as well and would have to look into it.”

  2. This is a great post. I live in Canmore and it is frustrating that we and other towns or hamlets don’t even get a pass. I go to Kananaskis a lot and now I have to pay to climb a mountain or quietly sit by a lake minutes from my home. I don’t even cross country ski so why should I have to pay for it. I agree with some aspects but can’t find enough reasons to pay for this. The national parks doesn’t even issue fines, they are warnings, and I doubt the provincial parks will follow through. And from reading comments from local folks and from Albertans at large they will go elsewhere. When things open up everyone will vacation elsewhere. Last year was frustrating by the abuse the land went through but I told myself it will go back to normal when COVID passes. And it will happen. Wow I needed to vent about this.

    Thank You!

  3. It burns me that when i do a day trip to the mountains on my motorcycle iride for 2.5 hrs from Brooks to get to the mountains. I stop once at a rest stop for a pee and to rest. Then ride again and it costs me 15 bucks. All ive used is the road and an out door biffy. New version of hyway robbery.

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