Months after the Alberta government announced it wouldn't groom and set popular cross-country ski trails in Kananaskis Country this winter, it has made a deal with a skiing organization that hopes to pay for the upkeep by charging users for parking.
A voluntary parking pass program will cost users $10 a day, or $50 for a season pass, and will support grooming on popular ski trails at Kananaskis Village, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Mount Shark and the Sandy McNabb Recreation Area.
Alberta Parks originally announced in February it would stop grooming and setting the trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. The reduction in grooming and setting was one of the measures intended to reduce Alberta Parks' budget and save $5 million.
However, Nordiq Alberta, the governing body for cross-country skiing in the province, signed a deal with the province that it will cover the cost of maintaining the trails, which is around $200,000 a year.
The new voluntary parking fees will help Nordiq raise the funds and reimburse Alberta Parks for the grooming operations.
As well, the organization is asking volunteers to commit one day this winter to helping with the pilot program.
"It's a voluntary program where people will purchase a pass and the funds raised will go to offset the costs. A lot of work has gone into this. It's a great partnership between the province and Nordiq Alberta, but really the effort now is for all of us to participate by either buying a parking pass or volunteering," said Chris Reitz, chair of Nordiq Alberta, at a press conference last week.
Miranda Rosin, MLA for Banff-Kananaskis, says the province needs to shift more to user-pay models.
"I've always believed that we need to begin divesting responsibility for services off of the general taxpayer and onto the user," she said at the press conference.
"Our government has a duty to protect and manage our beautiful provincial parks, but we must do so in a financially sustainable way."
The government says the move will save taxpayers money, but the NDP says it's just the start of a UCP plan to introduce user fees at Alberta parks.
Marlin Schmidt, who is the NDP critic for Environment and Parks, says he's "tremendously" upset to hear that this user-fee program is being instituted.
"This is something that Alberta Parks has done free of charge for years and years, and I honestly don't see any reason that it can't continue. This government is choosing to spend money on things that aren't working, aren't serving the people of Alberta, and then turn around and charge people to use things that they've used for free for decades," he told the Calgary Eyeopener.
He says there's lots of other ways for the government to make up the $200,000 grooming fees, rather than asking people to pay out of pocket.
"I think that it's really softening the ground for other user fees and other parks," he said.
Schmidt says that parks have always been a free and easy option for people to go to, and an extra $10 per trip may dissuade some.
"I think that the right thing to do is to scrap this plan to charge fees, come up with the $200,000 to maintain the trails as they have in the past, and allow Albertans the opportunity to enjoy the winter outside this year," he said.
With files from Pamela Fieber and the Calgary Eyeopener.