The Town of Hinton has contributed to the Foothills Recreation Management Association (FRMA) since 2013, and Aaron Jones came to council on behalf of FRMA to ask for continued support.
West Fraser, on behalf of FRMA, manages 28 recreation sites that are either within Hinton Wood Products’ FMA, Edson Forest Products’ FMA, or adjacent to them.
Going into 2021, FRMA partners include West Fraser, Teck Coal, the Town of Hinton, the Town of Edson, Westmoreland Coal, and Yellowhead County.
The Town of Hinton contributed $20,000 in their 2020 and 2019 budget cycles.
Jones explained during the standing committee meeting on Nov. 10 that Teck cut their contribution in 2020 down to $25,000 from the previous $50,000, and has told the FRMA that it will contribute less in the following years. Westmoreland Coal Mine contributed on and off in the past years and while Bighorn Mining has been contacted, they have not committed any funding.
Jones added that the Town of Edson may be wavering on their funding as well.
Due to uncertainties around the economy, FRMA is unsure of anyone’s commitment in 2021. Under the FRMA Terms of Reference, West Fraser manages the entire program, which means that if less money is committed by FRMA’s partners, West Fraser is putting in more money.
The best case scenario for partner funding would be somewhere around $80,000, and it takes approximately $425,000 just to maintain the existing program
This means that in order to provide the services like free firewood, and inexpensive user fees, West Fraser spends at least 200,000 to $250,000 more per year than what is currently being collected in campground fees.
“If we raise the fees much higher, people are just going to random camp and the whole idea behind FRMA was to get people not random camping and into designated campgrounds. The way we figured we would do that is with inexpensive camping with free firewood,” said Jones.
Fees will be raised slightly from $11 to $15 going forward. Jones noted that if the fees are raised too much, they risk losing visitors to the campsites.
West Fraser continues to solicit support from other energy companies working in the area, as well as other organizations and companies.
The five-year operating contract for all of the government-owned recreation sites was recently awarded to West Fraser for 2020 to 2024.
Eighteen of FRMA’s sites are government-owned campgrounds, two government-owned trail systems, two West Fraser-owned campgrounds, one First Nation owned campground and six
West Fraser-owned trails.
FRMA’s regular campgrounds did not officially open until June due to the pandemic this year, while the group campgrounds didn’t open until July.
This meant that the May long weekend generated no revenue and considerable costs were incurred in May and June.
In the end, it was one of the busiest camping seasons in recent memory, as camping was one of the only things the public could do during the summer holiday season that was relatively safe.
“This last year was our busiest ever, which we certainly didn’t think it would be at the beginning of the year because of COVID-19. We didn’t open for the may long weekend, it’s normally the busiest of the year,” Jones said.
While 2020 was the busiest camping season FRMA has ever had, it was also the costliest to maintain, with numerous COVID related safety measures.
In 2020, despite a later start to the camping season and a limit on capacity up until July, there was still an increase in overnight visits of more than 60 per cent; a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They also increased their revenue by about 30 per cent in 2020 according to Jones, which all goes back into maintaining the sites.
Due to extremely low use and as part of the Government of Alberta’s initiative to reduce low use and low revenue campgrounds, the Little Sundance campground was shut down permanently in 2020. West Fraser is now working with Parks to shut the Brazeau River and Brown Creek campgrounds down in 2021, due to low use and high maintenance costs.
All of the day-today operation of the recreation program is carried out by Fox Creek Development Association (FCDA). FCDA is a Hinton aboriginal owned non for-profit business with a mandate of providing employment opportunities for local Aboriginal peoples.
West Fraser also does a lot of recreational upgrading using their own funds.
Over the last three years, they spent $850,000 in upgrades in the Hinton area, Jones said.
A large portion of that funding went to the Bighorn Mountain bike trail, which was completed this fall.
It’s a 13 kilometre up trail with a five kilometre down trail, that has the potential of bringing many outsiders into Hinton, Jones said.
Hinton Wood Products and Edson Forest Products, of West Fraser Mills Ltd., used its funds from 2000 to 2010, combined with revenue collected through camping fees, to run a large recreation program in the Hinton and Edson area.
West Fraser looked for different options to continue funding the recreation program later in 2010. The FRMA was formed the following year.
FRMA partners at that time included Teck Coal, Sherritt, Coalspur, the Town of Hinton, and Yellowhead County. Together they contributed $200,000 additional dollars to the recreation program.
FRMA is 100 per cent voluntary and no agreement has ever been officially signed.
By 2016, two of the original five FRMA partners had withdrawn due to financial and economic pressures.
Masha Scheele, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hinton Voice