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Province plans campground, trail upgrades for Kananaskis

“I don’t care where you look in the province, there’s demand. Public lands – there’s demand. Park lands – there’s demand. Kananaskis Country – there’s demand. In my view, this is a positive investment,”

KANANASKIS COUNTRY – Improvements to a popular campground, as well as to trails and facilities, are among some of the projects the province is planning for Kananaskis Country this year.

According to the 2023 budget, $15.1 million will go toward provincial parks capital projects in K-Country. Another $5.6 million will be used for public lands, $2 million for Crown land trails, $3 million for provincial initiatives and $500,000 for new campgrounds.

The investments are part of the province’s $211.3 million plan to improve and expand recreation and access in parks and across Crown lands over the next three years.

“I don’t care where you look in the province, there’s demand. Public lands – there’s demand. Park lands – there’s demand. Kananaskis Country – there’s demand. In my view, this is a positive investment,” said Derek Ryder, Friends of Kananaskis Country communications director.

In 2022, more than 10 million people visited Alberta’s provincial parks, and about 4.2 million of those were in K-Country.

The budget puts $1.7 million into refurbishing and maximizing capacity at Spray Lakes West Campground, as well as for road resurfacing in Spray Valley Provincial Park. The campground currently has 50 unpowered sites, access to secure food storage, a boat launch to Spray Lakes Reservoir, toilets and a water pump.

Ryder said Kananaskis has many opportunities for small-scale expansions to existing campgrounds or to build more campgrounds in areas where not much exists on public lands, or where services can be improved.

“It’s interesting to me that [the province] is talking about developing camping opportunities on public lands because it could use it as much as [Alberta] Parks can,” he said.

Most campgrounds in K-Country are in provincial recreation areas, which – including provincial parks – fall under the Parks Act.

Ryder suggested that increasing the number of campsites on public lands may alleviate strain on other, more well-loved areas.

“Anybody who tries to get a campsite knows that camping is a hard thing to do on the weekends because everything’s booked,” he said. “But a campground is a fairly low-impact kind of thing and it creates great opportunities for people to access the outdoors.

“From my perspective, campgrounds are great infrastructure investments to enhance use and I see a lot of room to give people half decent places to go camping in Kananaskis, and across the province.”

Also highlighted for K-Country is $1.3 million worth of upgrades to trails and amenities in the Kananaskis Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ), and for design work to refurbish the Powderface Trail.

Ryder said upgrades to Powderface Trail are much-needed, even though the 34-kilometre mountain gravel road has already undergone repairs after the 2013 floods.

“That’s a big deal and a very good thing because that road is well-used and a mess,” he said. “It makes the [Highway] 742 look like a paved superhighway.”

Ryder said he hopes much of the remaining capital for K-Country is used to upgrade existing campgrounds to allow for tents, trailers and large RVs, and upgrades to water systems.

Many campgrounds in the area were originally built to accommodate tents and small trailers, and while there has already been a lot of upgrades made to modernize sites for large RVs, Ryder said the demand is increasing.

“Modifying and improving campgrounds is kind of an ongoing thing as camping evolves over time. There’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff that needs to be done, but every dollar that goes into those things is good,” he said.

The provincial budget includes another $11 million for 2024-25 to build new campsites, campgrounds, and to develop more recreation and tourism opportunities. About $12 million will be used to improve Crown land trails in 2024-25.

Capital investments to improve existing infrastructure in provincial parks and public lands across the province in 2024-25 is expected to be around $109.1 million.

In a press release announcing the investments, the province said all development in provincial parks and Crown land is subject to “strict environmental and cultural reviews.”

In the same press release, the president of the Friends of the Eastern Slopes Association, Dale Marshall, said the organization was pleased to see “the government’s commitment to increase environmentally sustainable, affordable access to the magnificent opportunities afforded to us by Alberta’s backyard.”

But Katie Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Southern Alberta, said the budget announcement misses the mark on land use planning and conservation.

“I think it’s great that the government is investing in parks and public lands recreation infrastructure because that allows people to sustainably access our parks and natural areas,” she said.

“But our big concern is that if we’re going to be expanding recreation infrastructure – whether that’s campgrounds, parking lots or trails – those things need to happen in the right places, and not in a way that just intensifies human use scenarios that may not be appropriate.”

The province’s 10-year goal is to build 900 new campsites across the province.

Morrison said improperly placed recreation infrastructure, including trails and campgrounds, can exceed science-based thresholds and carry numerous risks – including increasing human-wildlife conflict, fragmenting wildlife movement, and jeopardizing biodiversity and ecological integrity.

For instance, sensitive species such as grizzly bears, elk, and caribou may avoid areas entirely, further limiting their already-reduced habitat, or placing them at increased risk of conflict. Water quality also diminishes in overburdened regions, and aquatic species suffer.

CPAWS has been pushing the province for comprehensive and transparent land-use planning around the expansion of campgrounds, trails and infrastructure in parks to ensure sensitive areas and species remain protected.

The request has so far gone unanswered and the impact of infrastructure expansion without corresponding planning or an increase in protected lands is unclear, Morrison added.

“When you’re having decisions made about recreation and human use without considering conservation values, I think that’s very tricky and concerning if that’s the case.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

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