The final weekend to enjoy free access to Kananaskis Country has come and gone.
The sprawling network of parks and wilderness areas encompasses more than 4,000 square kilometres in the foothills and Rockies just west of Calgary, with parts of its eastern boundary just 50 kilometres from the city.
As of June 1, all personal and commercial vehicles stopping in Kananaskis Country and the Bow Valley corridor will need a Kananaskis Conservation Pass.
In April, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said the annual fee had become necessary because visits to K-Country, as it's known, have surged and created an environmental strain.
The new fee is the latest in a host of changes — or proposed changes — the UCP government has made with respect to Alberta parks, including shutting down visitor centres, cutting funding for cross-country ski trail grooming, and removing provincial recreation areas from the parks system. These moves have come under fire from numerous critics, and the government has backed down on some of them.
The new Kananaskis fee has its critics, as well, including the Opposition NDP and Alberta Wilderness Association, who have accused the government of making wilderness areas less accessible with extra costs. Outside of Kananaskis, a new $30 annual fee will also apply for people who want to random camp on public land.
But according to Michael Roycroft, the regional director for Kananaskis with Alberta Environment and Parks, the hope is that the new fee for K-Country can raise as much as $15 million in revenue that will be invested into the area.
"Kananaskis Country has seen a tremendous influx of visitation over the last few years — especially last year," Roycroft told the Calgary Eyeopener on Friday.
"We need additional resources, and the revenue from this pass will be going back into Kananaskis Country to pay for services that people will see."
Every dollar goes to K-Country, says park official
The park pass fees will help pay for more staff, reopening visitor centres and additional resources for the Kananaskis Country Public Safety Team, Roycroft said.
"For many years, our revenue streams have been really limited to campers and camping revenue, and yet 75 to 80 per cent of our visitation is day use. So, we want to balance it out a bit," Roycroft said.
"Ultimately, every dollar raised … will be going into Kananaskis Country, both on the operating side and on the capital side."
A Kananaskis Conservation Pass can be purchased online at Alberta.ca/conservationpass or at one of the visitor centres.
Day-use passes cost $15 per vehicle while an annual pass, which can be used 365 days from its date of purchase, is $90 per vehicle.
Households buying a year-long pass can register up to two licence plates for their vehicles and one for their trailer, Roycroft said.
Because the pass is tied to licence plates, there will be no vehicle stickers or slips to put by the windshield.
'This is critical'
Eventually, parks staff will patrol for passes with scanning technology similar to city parking, and fines for failing to register for a pass will cost Albertans up to $150.
However, Roycroft said officials are hoping to enforce the pass through warnings and education first, and making sure Albertans know where to get it.
Although Albertans have had mixed reactions to the pass, Roycroft said, many are understanding so long as the revenue is used to maintain amenities and services in K-Country.
"We want to make sure that ultimately we have the resources in place to make sure that Kananaskis is here for future generations," Roycroft said.
"We believe that this is critical."
With files from the Calgary Eyeopener an the Canadian Press.