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User groups react to Kananaskis Conservation Pass

“We’ve seen massive fluctuations in the amount of maintenance staff, the amount of trail staff, the amount of maintenance work being done over the last decade, and it’s been kind of relentlessly downwards. There has been 100 per cent or 200 per cent fluctuations in K-Country’s budget. That becomes difficult because one year they can staff to do certain projects and then the next year magically there’s no staff.”
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The entrance to Kananaskis Country on Highway 546 west of Turner Valley on May 2. Starting June 1, visitors will be required to purchase a Kananaskis Conservation Pass for $15 a day or $90 a year to visit parks in Kananaskis, including Sheep River Wildland and Bluerock Provincial Parks. File Photo.

COCHRANE – The Government of Alberta's decision to introduce a $90 conservation fee in Kananaskis beginning on June 1 has sparked fierce discussions among user groups.

The government has pledged to reinvest 100 per cent of the estimated $15 million that will be generated from the user fees into parks and infrastructure upgrades.

The Alberta government released a survey regarding the user fee, which indicated many Albertans are in favour of a conservation pass but had a number of conditions they wanted to be attached to the fees.

“They wanted the fees to be based on the type of activity and intensity of use, so in other words users that have a high impact on the environment should pay more,” said Shaun Peter, president of Bragg Creek and Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation. “The fees from that should go towards sustainable recreation, and they do define that. One of the things in the definition for sustainable recreation is that random camping and OHV [off highway vehicles] are having too big of an impact.”

The province has indicated  one of its top priorities with the revenue generated from the conservation fee is enforcement and the hiring of new conservation officers.

Peter said enforcement is an important part of conservation, but he does not want to see the users of Kananaskis shoulder the costs of enforcement that will take place outside of the boundaries on K-Country.

“Everybody that’s paying this fee – equestrian, mountain biking, fishing, hiking, bird watching, skiing – all of these users generally practice leave-no-trace. That’s their motto and that’s what they do,” he said. “We don’t want to see it being used to fund conservation officers to go patrol Crown land and OHV use outside of the area. That should be a user-paid fee by those users, not the low-impact users.”

Peter said he is concerned the government’s current plan does not cover many of the most vulnerable areas in Kananaskis.

Between the work undertaken by Bragg Creek Trails and the Moose Mountain Bike Trails Society, the two user groups have constructed one of the most used trail networks in Alberta and likely one of the most used trail networks in Canada, Peter said. Many of the trails build around Moose Mountain are on crown land, and because there are no plans to expand park boundaries, or place additional protections on these areas, the area is left vulnerable to industrial activity like logging.

Spray Lake Sawmills is currently seeking public input on its 2021 Forest Management Plan which includes logging activity in areas close to West Bragg Creek and Moose Mountain recreation areas.

“The cost of the pass is not representative of what we’re getting. We’re not getting any added parks or protected areas, or protecting these trails that millions of volunteer dollars have gone into building and thousands upon thousands of volunteer hours have built,” he said.

Because many of the groups that build and maintain the trail networks in Kananaskis survive on donations and grant funding, Peter said he is worried many will see reductions in donations since people now have to pay a conservation fee.

He added he doesn’t expect to see funding come to Bragg Creek and Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation, since his group focuses on advocacy and education, not trail building and maintenance.

“We wouldn’t expect it. We would want the trails groups to be the ones who are funded, they’re the ones doing the work on the ground,” he said. 

Bragg Creek Trails was contacted for comment but declined, as they have not yet had an opportunity to discuss the situation with Alberta Environment and Parks.

They released a public statement detailing their concern on their website that reads, “Bragg Creek Trails (BCT) is pleased to see that trail stewardship and access to public lands continues to be a focus of this government during a time of provincial financial constraint. The pledge to reinvest 100% of the collected fees back into K-Country infrastructure and services in response to the increased public demand will ensure the long-term sustainability of this precious area."

Derek Ryder, the co-chair of the Friends of Kananaskis, said he is glad to see the user fee implemented as the current situation in Kananaskis is not sustainable. Friends of Kananaskis is a volunteer-based organization responsible for much of the trail maintenance in the region.

“What we see and have seen for more than a decade is that Kananaskis is struggling to maintain ecological integrity and sustainability, and the current situation is not sustainable,” Ryder said. “How to make it sustainable is challenging. A model that may have worked a bunch of years ago is not working now.”

Ryder said over the years, regardless of the government in place at the time, there have been serious fluctuations in the funding for Kananaskis Country, which makes it difficult to plan projects in the area.

“We’ve seen massive fluctuations in the amount of maintenance staff, the amount of trail staff, the amount of maintenance work being done over the last decade, and it’s been kind of relentlessly downwards,” he said. “There has been 100 per cent or 200 per cent fluctuations in K-Country’s budget. That becomes difficult because one year they can staff to do certain projects and then the next year magically there’s no staff.”

He said the role of the Friends of Kananaskis is to facilitate the work Alberta Environment and Parks can do, and when they don’t have the funding to do much, they struggle to work in that space. He added the user fee might bring some stability to the funding for Kananaskis.

“We have had statements, repeatedly, from every one of the contacts and partners that we deal with from the lowest echelons to the assistant deputy minister level, that says the money raised from the pass will stay in K-Country, and from that perspective we’ve created a stable revenue stream and that’s great," he said.

He noted the revenue will not fund Kananaskis as a whole, but it is a good source of sustainable economic support.

Ryder added he has seen some of the membership of his organization cite the new fees specifically as their reason to cease donations, or even to abandon their membership.

“We knew going in that it would likely have adverse effects on us from the perspective of volunteers and members and donations, and that’s exactly what’s been happening, but it happens on both sides. We’ve had members who say ‘this is not OK and we’re not going to be members anymore,’” Ryder said. “But we’ve also had the flip-side. We’ve had people show up and say ‘we’re seeing this, you guys are trying to help. We want to help you help.’ I think for every member we’ve lost we’ve gained one or two.”

Ryder said he wanted to urge the public to remain patient while the details of the plan are ironed out.

“I think there are lots of things that need to be sorted out and I think a bunch of the frustration that people have with the implementation with the pass will get clearer over time and the positive impacts of the pass will definitely become clearer,” he said. “We just have to have patience.”

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