We don’t often get political here since above all else, this is a travel website. It’s meant to inspire people to get out and enjoy the world and if we help just one person have a delightful adventure, we’re happy. Now that the world is shuttered because of the pandemic, getting out and exploring your own backyard is more important than ever. So why then is the UCP government attacking Alberta’s Parks at the very moment that Alberta needs them the most?
We’ve written before about the UCP Government’s plan to delist Alberta’s magnificent parks land which will then make them able to become Crown land which can then be sold to the highest bidder. Now we understand that the previous sentence sounds like the plot of a House of Cards episode, but it is in fact, reality. It’s already happened.
This of course comes on the heels of Albertans accessing parks in record numbers over the summer and a stated goal from the provincial Government to double tourism revenue. As is the case with health care and fiscal conservatism, the UCP says one thing and then does another.
OK, So What’s Up With Cross-Country Skiing in Alberta?
Part of the UCP’s “cost-savings” plan has involved cutting service to our world-class parks. For example, to save a piddly $200,000/year the UCP cut cross-country track-setting in Kananaskis Country. To be clear, these are trails that have been around since a true Albertan, Peter Lougheed, set aside Kananaskis parks land to be protected and enjoyed by future generations in the 1970s.
These are light ecological footprint trails that follow existing disturbances (ie: summer trails, right of ways, roads) and their maintenance fee is the equivalent of what the “fiscally conservative” UCP pays their top “issues manager” Matt Wolf to troll Twitter all day, attack the opposition, and embarrass the province. Nevermind the cost of the $30M “War Room” or billions in corporate tax cuts and oil and gas subsidies. With projected revenue for 2020-2021 of $41.4 Billion, the Alberta government can quite easily afford to continue track-setting the trails in Kananaskis Country.
In fact, it was recently revealed that the Alberta Government gave the NHL $4M as part of their partnership to conduct the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Edmonton. $4M would have paid for roughly 20 years of normal Albertans enjoying Kananaskis country, but instead, we gave it to an organization worth billions so that rich athletes could play hockey.
Just as camping, cycling, and accessing the provincial parks surged this summer, cross-country ski stores have reported record interest heading into the winter. While many Albertans are staying at home to limit the spread, we also need a reprieve at times. What better and safer way is there to do that than getting outside and enjoying our province’s backyard when we are not supposed to be gathering inside?
The City of Calgary is leading the way here, attempting to create outdoor spaces for Calgarians. So why would the provincial government cut track-setting just as many people are getting into the sport? We need more investment in getting Albertans outside, not less. Moreover, in the post-Pandemic world, minimal investments in infrastructure and advertising could attract many more visitors from around the globe while still maintaining the ecological integrity of parks land.
But rather than investing in increasing revenue-generation in the parks, the paltry $5 fee was just eliminated for cutting down a Christmas tree in Alberta Parks. So we have enough funds to cut the $100,000 that is raised in fees from cutting down trees, but dear Gosh, you better not be cross-country skiing in the Parks! Fat bikers use the same maintained trails as cross-country skiers and haven’t been expected to pay user fees, and UHVs access parks lands for free while causing damage off-trail in what should be protected conservation areas as intended by the Provincial Parks Act.
TL: DR it’s ideological and not about cost-savings.
Track-setting is money well spent
Cross country skiing is a fantastic workout and a healthy population that spends more time outdoors reduces healthcare costs. It’s one of the best cardiovascular workouts around and engages multiple different muscle groups. Furthermore, it’s a low impact exercise that doesn’t place stress on your joints, meaning it can be enjoyed regardless of your age or level of fitness. Even better? It a stress reducer, something we could all use a little bit of right now.
Ontario Parks, for instance, recognizes this and maintains a number of track-set trails, so why shouldn’t Alberta continue to do so? Take a trip on the weekend to any of the cross country skiing areas in Kananaskis and you’ll find full parking lots and trail users grinning from ear to ear. That’s money well spent.
Nevermind the upside, suspending track-setting can lead to injuries. This is the Rocky Mountains and they can be dangerous. Not track setting trails that have been used for decades could lead to people accessing them when they’re not in ideal conditions. It only takes a handful of backcountry rescues to eat away at that $200k in savings.
Track-setting and tourism in Alberta’s provincial parks also provide benefits to the province through tourism. Kananaskis’ network of cross country ski trails is world-class and we should be proud of it. But not only is Kananaskis beautiful and a gem to be proud of, but track-setting these cross-country trails creates jobs. Remember Jason Kenney’s promise for “Jobs, Economy, and Pipelines” and the goal we mentioned earlier to double tourism revenue? This isn’t just the direct jobs for trail groomers, but sports outfitters and rental stores in among others Calgary, Cochrane, and Canmore, as well as countless hotels, restaurants, and coffee shops in the surrounding areas.
But haven’t they worked out a solution?
To be clear, the UCP are running around bragging about their partnership with Nordiq Alberta, solving a “problem” that they created. This is like smashing your Grandmother’s heirloom china set, only to have your sister repair it with super-glue and then taking credit for fixing it.
Now, the partnership with Nordiq Alberta is a great stop-gap solution and better than losing access to the trails, but it’s a non-profit that asked the government if they could fundraise to cover track-setting costs because they see the benefit in cross-country skiing. Hardly a partnership and this shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place, but it certainly demonstrates the passion Albertans have for their outdoor spaces.
Furthermore, this “partnership” is a one-year pilot program so not an ongoing solution. It’s all run by volunteers, and paying for a parking pass at the trails is completely voluntary with no enforcement. Users that fail to pay will be “educated” so it’s essentially completely optional. The Government has touted this as an “innovative” partnership, but is it really a partnership when one side is doing all the work? And there’s nothing particularly innovative about user fees, nor is it fair to single out cross-country skiers when plenty others are accessing the parks for their hobbies (ie: fat-biking, snowmobiling, backcountry skiing).
I recognize that there are plenty of governance models for parks that include all sorts of private/public partnerships, as well as models involving non-profits and management by Indigenous communities, but those need to be explored and negotiated in good faith and with transparency, so the people who matter the most, the parks users , can have a say on what happens to public lands.
Opening the door to user fees
You might be reading this and saying “But why should I care, I don’t cross-country ski?” To that, we’d argue so what? We all pay for a variety of services from the government that are determined to be a net benefit to society, even though we might not access all of these personally. I don’t live in the suburbs, play hockey, or have children yet my tax dollars subsidize all those things. But I don’t mind supporting those things because in turn I only hope that people will also support my responsible use of the parks and maintain these wild areas for future generations of Albertans to enjoy as was intended when Peter Lougheed created the Kananaskis Parks in the first place.
The long and short of it is that there’s a bigger game afoot, and the UCP Government has made no qualms about hiding this. We’re going to see a lot more user fees to access the great outdoors in our province. In fact, the UCP are conducting a survey on paying for access to Alberta Parks right now. They’re not even trying to hide that they are looking to build consensus for user fees.
What’s the problem with user fees? To be clear, we’re not completely opposed to user fees, especially if they mean thoughtful consideration is given to balancing user experience with the preservation of the ecological integrity in parks. But user fees do disproportionately affect those of lower economic status, and should only be rolled out if consideration or exemptions are made for those that can’t afford access.
Of the many winter activities that can be practiced in Alberta’s parks, cross country skiing is a cheap, accessible sport for many, especially compared to the rising prices for downhill ski resorts or the entry-gear requirements and knowledge for backcountry skiing for example. I’ll pay for parks if it means I can continue to use them and guarantees their continued conservation, but I can afford to do that. We need to provide access to parks for all Albertans, not just the ones that can afford it.
But Didn’t People “Ask” to pay fees?
At a recent “Town Hall“, Minister of the Environment, Jason Nixon stated that many trail users had “asked to pay fees”. This completely misconstrues the issue. Yes, people said they would be happy to pay fees if necessary, but that was only after the Government had already cut the track-setting service and announced that 164 parks sites would be delisted and “removed from the parks system” with no warning and no consultation.
If my choices are to lose access to Alberta Parks altogether because they’ve been delisted and sold off to the highest bidder or pay a small fee, I’ll pay the gosh darned fee. But here’s the problem with the UCP’s plan: it’s only a “trial” so there’s a good chance that in a year’s time I will have paid to access the parks that others continue to access for free only to see them sold off to UCP donors. That’s a dystopian future I hope to avoid.
Nevermind that the Government should be taking a more holistic look at this. Why do cross country users pay fees but not say, snowmobilers, who cause more environmental damage? Fat bikers using the same terrain don’t have to pay a cent, and there’s actually a pilot project ongoing to expand their access to some of the same trails. Are we going to charge backcountry skiers to access the mountains next?
While it’s clear that UCP is allergic to taking the long view on any issue, access to parks land and high-output but low impact activities such as cross-country skiing makes for a healthier populace which results in lower overall healthcare costs. Just imagine if the UCP actually turned their mind to real cost savings as opposed to facilitating handouts to their donors, we could have our parks and save money too.
Speaking of health, we’ll leave the discussion of why it has been so awful to cut health services and antagonize doctors to the point of leaving during a global pandemic to the experts in those fields. One thing we know to be true for ourselves is that Alberta’s parks are one of the things we love the most about our province and a source of much-needed mental and physical health recharging during this awful time.
So in summary, cross-country skiing is an amazing, low-cost of entry activity that enriches both the body and the soul. Getting out during the dead of winter to spend a few hours on the gorgeous mountain, prairie, or forest trails is one of the most incredible cold-weather activities that you can do in Alberta. During this pandemic, it’s no wonder that many people are choosing to pick up cross-country skis for the first time.
If you need some advice on how to get started here’s our post on why you should start cross-country skiing.
The point that we’re trying to make here is not that user fees are always bad or that we’re not willing to pay. We’ve already bought our parking pass and we encourage others to do so as well, but despite the fact that there is a one-year partnership for track-setting, Alberta’s prized Provincial Parks and the track-setting in Kananaskis are still at risk. Those of us that are passionate about seeing these areas protected for future generations need to keep up the fight.
What can I do to Protect Cross-Country Skiing in Alberta’s Parks?
Ontario born and raised Jason Kenney underestimated how much Albertans care about their parks. They are the pride of the province and should never be sold off to the highest bidder. There’s plenty of fat to be trimmed in the Alberta government’s balance sheets and the worthless $33 million/year war room would be a good start to name one thing. So what can you do to help keep Alberta’s parks the amazing places that they are? Below are a few suggestions:
- Support Defend AB Parks: You’ve likely already seen lawn signs popping up as they’re all over the province now (and we LOVE seeing it!). Get your lawn sign from the Defend Alberta Parks campaign, donate, or sign up to volunteer.
- Write your MLA: Add your voice to the thousands of Albertans that already have written their MLA. Copy Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment. Here’s where to find their email addresses.
- Donate: Support trail organizations such as West Bragg Creek, and Nordiq Alberta. Want to make it a little more targeted? Consider a financial donation to CPAWS, or even the Alberta NDP. Every little bit counts!
- Buy our 2021 Alberta Parks Calendar – 100% of profits will be donated to environmental organizations that support Alberta Parks.
The National and Provincial parks have been an absolute saving grace to people during this time and removing protections for them as well as cutting services does a massive disservice to Albertans. The parks have been around a lot longer than the current provincial government and should continue to be preserved for future generations.