Tourists explore a resort  in Kananaskis, Alta., Monday, April 25, 2016. Southern Albertans hoping to escape to the mountains in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic will soon have to pay for the privilege. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

‘Not sustainable:’ Alberta bringing user fee to Kananaskis Country west of Calgary

‘Not sustainable:’ Alberta bringing user fee to Kananaskis Country west of Calgary

KANANASKIS, Alta. — Albertans hoping to escape to a popular provincial recreation area in the Rockies during the COVID-19 pandemic will soon have to pay for the privilege.

Kananaskis Country, which is about 100 kilometres west of Calgary, has been flooded with visitors — particularly over the past year due to restrictions designed to limit the spread of the virus.

Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon said in 2020 the scenic area attracted 5.4 million visitors, which is one million higher than nearby Banff National Park.

Since 2014, he added, visits to the area have increased by 70 per cent resulting in overflowing garbage cans, illegal parking, injuries, overcrowded trails and day-use areas, and conflicts between people and animals.

He said search and rescue also responded to 428 calls for help last year — a 51 per cent increase over 2019.

“It’s more incidents than in the national parks of Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Jasper and Waterton combined,” Nixon said at a news conference in Kananaskis on Tuesday.

“Quite simply these pressures are not sustainable.”

Nixon said as of June 1, visitors can either pay $15 for a day visit or $90 in a per-vehicle annual fee. He said Albertans have indicated they don’t mind paying a fee if the money goes to support the area.

“The cost is modest and is, in fact, less than the access fee which is charged in the national mountain parks in our province like Banff and Jasper.”

The fee is expected to raise about $15 million per year. It will pay for trail maintenance, search and rescue operations, visitor services and the upkeep of facilities at day-use areas and campgrounds, he said.

It will also go toward increasing on-the-ground education and enforcement with additional conservation officers and allow for the reopening of visitor centres that were temporarily closed last year.

“One of the spinoffs we’re hoping will eventually be some reduced traffic count, because on the trajectory that we’re at it’s not sustainable,” Nixon said.

First Nations members, those who need to stop in the area for business purposes and recipients of Alberta’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program will be exempted from the fee.

The Opposition NDP condemned the announcement, saying the United Conservative government continues to take money out of the pockets of Albertans.

“Working families are already being pushed to the brink by the pandemic and the long list of new costs (Premier) Jason Kenney has imposed on them,” said Joe Ceci, the legislature member for Calgary Buffalo.

“It’s an insult to the legacy of (former premier) Peter Lougheed. The UCP should have learned their lesson from trying to sell off provincial parks and mine our mountains.”

The Alberta Wilderness Association called the decision further evidence of the government’s commitment to the “user fee model” for funding parks.

“This fee is a cash grab that will deter Albertans from visiting Kananaskis and shift the visitation pressure to provincial parks outside of K-Country that don’t charge a vehicle-entry fee,” said conservation director Ian Urquhart.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said it recognizes the need for sustained funding for recreation, conservation, and related infrastructure to support healthy communities and healthy economies but says the province shouldn’t rely on a user-pay model.

The society said if the fees are implemented, they should correspond with an increase in environmental protection.

— By Bill Graveland in Calgary

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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