Camping boom straining emergency services for rural municipalities

More people are hiking, camping and off-roading on Alberta public lands but the surge in demand is putting a strain on emergency services in rural counties and municipal districts.  (Sarah Rieger/CBC - image credit)
More people are hiking, camping and off-roading on Alberta public lands but the surge in demand is putting a strain on emergency services in rural counties and municipal districts. (Sarah Rieger/CBC - image credit)

Rural municipalities want the province to reimburse them for the costs of dispatching their crews to rescues and medical emergencies on Alberta public land.

More Albertans are camping, hiking and off-roading on provincial land. When they get into trouble, crews from counties and municipal districts, which are usually staffed with volunteers, are dispatched to the scene.

The municipality ends up paying the entire cost. That includes buying equipment for specialized rescues and providing appropriate training.

The 69 municipal districts and counties that are members of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta want that to change.

On Wednesday, the majority of delegates at the RMA fall convention in Edmonton passed a resolution from the Municipal District of Bighorn asking the province to come up with a compensation framework for paying them back.

Bighorn deputy reeve Rick Tuza said sending first responders to the backcountry takes services away from residents who live in the area.

"While away from our home, the volunteers and life-saving equipment are not available for our communities," he said.

The M.D. of Bighorn is east of Banff National Park. The northern section of the Calgary Forest Area is within its boundaries.

The M.D. has 1,600 residents but estimates more than 10,000 people head to its public lands on the weekends.

In the last five years, the M.D.'s emergency crews have responded to 140 incidents on Crown land, including 14 incidents in the Ghost Reservoir Recreational Area, 17 in the Kananaskis Improvement District and 15 in Bow Valley Wildlands Park.

Paul McLauchlin, the president of the RMA and reeve of Ponoka County, said emergency services is another cost downloaded onto rural municipalities.

"We will take on the responsibility, but somebody needs to pay for it."

Camping pass revenue

Delegates passed a resolution from Clearwater County asking the province to share revenue it collects from the sale of public land camping passes, which are required in the eastern slopes and foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

The Alberta government has used the money to pay for vault toilets, garbage cans, signage and other upgrades to random camping spots and trailheads along Highway 11 from Nordegg west to the border with Banff National Park.

The resolution asks the province to allocate a portion of that cash to municipalities that have that land within the borders so they can pay for garbage pickup, toilets and municipal peace officers and firefighters.

Todd Loewen, the minister for forestry, parks and tourism, told delegates he wants to double tourism to rural municipalities.

Bighorn M.D. reeve Lisa Rogvold asked if he planned to double funding to municipalities to handle the surge of visitors. Her municipal district is close to Banff and Kananaskis Country.

Loewen said his comment related to the entire province, not just specific areas. He said municipalities need to be able to generate revenue to help manage the extra loads but didn't specify how.