CALGARY – The Alberta NDP outlined a potential source of optional revenue for provincial parks in lieu of the party’s intent to scrap the Kananaskis Conservation pass if elected in the next election.
NDP environment critic Marlin Schmidt announced at a Saturday (July 16) media conference, if elected the party would create an option for people to support provincial parks in Alberta through voluntary contributions via one-time, monthly and yearly donations as well as leaving inheritances.
Schmidt, a former geologist and MLA for Edmonton-Gold Bar, said any contributions will go into a specifically setup program rather than the province’s general reserve and have an annual report that outlines how much was collected and where it went.
“Unlike the K-pass, Albertans would be reassured their generosity is directly benefiting Alberta’s provincial parks,” he said.
In addition to the voluntary donation program, personalized licence plates to display for provincial parks will be available for purchase. The program is similar to one in British Columbia which was created in 2016 and collected about $10 million last year and Ontario, which sees millions raised each year.
The B.C. program is $50 for purchasing a plate and $40 for renewal. He said the NDP doesn’t have a set price yet.
Schmidt emphasized the Alberta Parks budget wouldn’t be penalized if the program is successful and any licence plate funding or voluntary contributions would be on top of the Parks budget.
“We like the idea because it doesn’t prevent people from enjoying parks if they don’t have the ability to pay,” he said. “If they do have the ability to pay, we will be creating an option for them to support the parks voluntarily.”
The Kananaskis Country pass began June 1, 2022, with a set rate of $15 per day or $90 a year per vehicle.
The UCPs have consistently said all revenue collected from the pass would be returned for infrastructure upgrades, conservation initiatives and other projects needed to preserve the region’s provincial parks.
Since its establishment, more than 100,000 permits have been awarded. From June 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022 $12 million in revenue was generated and this fiscal year has seen $4 million, according to the province.
In the 2022 provincial budget, the UCP earmarked $17.5 million for infrastructure upgrades to the Canmore Nordic Centre as well as $4 million for infrastructure repairs for Grassi Lakes and Goat Creek day-use areas, which will be closed in 2022.
The province also gave $1 million for a free transit route to the Canmore Nordic Centre, Grassi Lakes day-use areas, Bow Valley Trail and Quarry Lake in Canmore to be up and running by 2024.
Though the provincial government has stated all revenue would be returned to Kananaskis Country, there’s been doubt.
Earlier in 2021, former Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon said the pass helped create 19 new conservation officer positions. However, only six conservation officers were assigned to Kananaskis Country.
Nixon, now in the role of Minister of Finance and president of the treasury board and government house leader, reiterated Alberta law dictates 100 per cent of the money from the pass will go to Kananaskis Country.
The province has previously said roughly 75 per cent of the regional operations funding comes from the pass.
When asked if the NDP program was plausible, the UCP didn’t answer the question but said the province is doing what it can to ensure provincial parks are “sustainable, accessible and safe.”
“After years of neglect, Kananaskis Country needed serious repairs, upgrades and renovations,” said Rob Williams, senior press secretary for Alberta Environment and Parks in an email. “The conservation pass ensures that Kananaskis gets the funding it needs to maintain its access and services, paid for by Albertans who utilize the space.”
While the UCPs have listed funding projects, they’ve yet to commit to releasing specifically where money from the pass is being redirected and the provincial budget doesn’t include a section on what’s collected and spent from the Kananaskis Conservation pass.
In a statement for Parks Day, Minister of Environment and Parks Whitney Issik said the province is investing about $130 million into provincial parks and recreation areas this year.
“We’re committed to enhancing outdoor recreation opportunities, protecting the environment, supporting public safety and connecting more Albertans to nature,” she said in a media release.
The 2022 budget had Alberta Environment and Parks receive $604 million – an increase of $105 million from 2021 – but Parks only received $75 million and getting $81 million in 2021 and $76 million in 2020.
Though the pass comes with a fee, the provincial government instituted several free days during the year. The first Wednesday of each month is free as well as nine other days such as New Year’s, Earth Day, Remembrance Day and July 16 for Parks Day.
Kananaskis Country is one of the most popular areas in Alberta, with more than five million going to the region in 2020 and 2021.
In a statement read by Schmidt, Dr. Dianne Draper – a noted geologist with the University of Calgary who has written and researched environmental sustainability and sustainable tourism – supported the announcement.
“Using specialty licence plate fees to protect and support provincial parks and protected areas in Alberta provide an excellent opportunity to ensure conservation of important landscapes, habitats and species as well as access to nature in a broad range of park use,” her statement read. “Considering the success of the B.C. parks licence plate program, implementing a similar parks enhancement fund in Alberta will enable revenues to enhance programs, services and projects in provincial parks.”
In June, the NDP promised if it was elected in the next election it would remove the pass and return Kananaskis Country to being free to visit.
During its time in power from 2015-19, the NDP invested more than $40 million in Kananaskis Country.
Schmidt said the NDP has heard from people frustrated by the lack of transparency for the Kananaskis Conservation pass and whether or not conservation officers are being sent to where they’re needed by the province.
“People haven’t seen that enforcement take place,” he said. “There have been a lot of questions on how many additional conservation officers have been hired, where are they working, how much is the K-Country pass gone to training and putting those people out to landscapes. I think this is an innovative and unique solution to that problem.”
Estimated number of visits to Kananaskis Country
- 2015: 3,597,678
- 2016: 3,706,633
- 2017: 3,733,772
- 2018: 3,793,782
- 2019: 4,111,942
- 2020: 5,412,443
- 2021: 5,015,423