The Alberta government is set to introduce access fees for visitors to Kananaskis Country.
Starting June 1, visitors will have to pay $15 per day to access the area, or will have the option of purchasing an annual vehicle pass for $90 which would cover up to two licence plates, the government said Tuesday.
Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon said the annual fee has become necessary because visits to K-Country have surged, putting environmental strain on the park. He said money raised by the fee will be reinvested in the park.
Kananaskis Country, located less than 50 kilometres west of Calgary in the foothills and front ranges of the Rockies, covers 4,211 square kilometres of wilderness parks.
K-Country saw a huge surge in visits last summer as Albertans ventured out to the mountains more frequently because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It was a record breaking year. We had 5.3 million visits. To put that in context, that's about a million more than Banff National Park, and through the summer months that was a 43 per cent increase over last year," said Michael Roycroft, regional director for Alberta Parks in the Kananaskis region.
Alberta Parks reported a corresponding increase in garbage and traffic congestion, and concerns that wildlife was negatively affected by visitors unfamiliar with best practices, such as keeping to the trails and ensuring dogs are on leashes.
At a news conference Tuesday to announce the plan, Nixon said the Kananaskis Conservation Pass will allow the government to invest $11.5 million in K-Country. That will include trail maintenance, search and rescue operations, visitor services and the upkeep of facilities at day-use areas and campgrounds.
"The conservation pass will help manage visitor demand and support investments in Kananaskis that ensure this world-class mountain destination remains beautiful, accessible and protected for generations to come," he said.
Included in the new investments will be $1 million to begin planning work on upgrades to the Canmore Nordic Centre, the province said.
The new pass is expected to generate about $15 million per year.
"All funds will be directed toward conservation and service improvements in Kananaskis through a dedicated revenue initiative," the province said in the release.
First Nations members with recognized federal status will be exempt. People only driving through Kananaskis will not have to pay the fee.
Critics say UCP piling expenses onto Alberta families
The Opposition NDP criticized the new fee as another example of the UCP government making life more expensive for Alberta families.
"Working families are already being pushed to the brink by the pandemic and the long list of new costs Jason Kenney has imposed on them," said Calgary-Buffalo MLA Joe Ceci in a release.
"More income tax, more property tax, more school fees, more tuition, more insurance costs, more utility costs and now a $90 fee for Albertans to enjoy a park that belongs to them. It's an insult to the legacy of Peter Lougheed. The UCP should have learned their lesson from trying to sell off provincial parks and mine our mountains."
The Alberta Wilderness Association also criticized the new fee.
"This announcement, coupled with the new public lands camping pass, is just further evidence of the UCP government's commitment to the user-fee model for funding parks," the AWA said in a release.
Last month, the Alberta government announced plans to introduce a $30 annual fee this spring for people who random camp on public lands.
The random camping fee will apply to public lands in the eastern slopes outside of Kananaskis Country, and random campers will not need both passes on public land inside Kananaskis Country, said Nixon's press secretary, Paul Hamnett.
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.
Canmore Mayor John Borrowman said in a statement that he's cautiously supportive of the fee, as he recognizes that rapidly increasing congestion in the area is untenable. However, he provided a note of caution as he worried there could potentially be a negative impact on neighbourhoods close to popular park destinations.