Alberta's cross-country ski community has come through to finance trail grooming in Kananaskis Country west of Calgary after the United Conservative Party government cut funding for maintaining trails last year.
Nordiq Alberta, the provincial sports body for cross-country skiing and a non-profit organization, announced that with three weeks left in its grooming pilot program, users have raised approximately $270,000 after expenses through voluntary parking pass sales.
It exceed its goal of raising $200,000 through a pilot project to pay the costs of the trail grooming.
On top of that, the organization has raised thousands in donations to support track setting.
"The pilot was set out in part to inform us and to inform the government as to the ability and the willingness of the recreational ski community to help pay for ski trail grooming," said program lead Ken Hewitt.
"The pilot proved, I think, beyond the doubt, that the ski community is prepared to pay for having groomed trails."
The project came about after Premier Jason Kenney's UCP government announced in February 2020 that it would be making a number of changes to Alberta provincial parks, including stopping the grooming and setting of cross-country ski trails in Kananaksis Country.
Though the government was to continue grooming at the Canmore Nordic Centre and track setting in the West Bragg Creek area, it planned to end trail setting and grooming in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Kananaskis Village/Ribbon Creek, Mount Shark and the Sandy McNabb Recreation Area.
The trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park are some of the most popular in the province with Alberta Parks estimating 100,000 site visits in the winter, representing about 40,000 vehicles.
News of the cuts concerned the cross-country ski community, who said not grooming these trails would take a bite out of trail availability in the area.
Under a pilot project arranged with the province, Nordiq Alberta asked people to voluntarily pay for parking if they were using the trails at Kananaskis Village/Ribbon Creek, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Mount Shark and the Sandy McNabb Recreation Area in Kananaskis Country.
The passes were $10 a day, or $50 for a season. People could book online and print their passes to leave on the dash of their vehicles. Lots were patrolled by volunteer crews who would ensure people knew about the voluntary program and leave brochures on vehicles without passing asking them to consider paying retroactively and why.
Meanwhile, the government continued to groom the trails with the same staff and equipment that it used for decades.
Here's how the pilot program fared:
Volunteers sold 5,200 season passes.
Skiers bought 2,500 day passes.
The program garnered $270,000 in net sales.
Donors provided $22,000.
The program got off the ground quickly. Hewitt said there were more than 150 volunteers assisting. Some drove in from nearby Canmore or Calgary, while others came to help from as far as Edmonton and Medicine Hat.
The program now guarantees tracks will be set and groomed for the remainder of the 2020-21 season, with an estimated $60,000 left over for future grooming.
Future of paid parking pass pilot unclear
But it's unclear what the next steps are, Hewitt told CBC.
"We're all optimistic that ski trail grooming will be sustained in next year and going forward," said Hewitt, adding the decision on how to proceed is in the government's hands.
He said continuing the program as it stands, and depending on volunteers year after year, may not be sustainable.
"You can only go back to the well so many times," Hewitt said.
Although the future is unclear, Nordiq Alberta does plan to do what it can and ensure trail setting continues in Alberta.
There are rumours in the cross-country ski community that a park fee system that operates similar to how National Parks charge for daily or yearly access could be brought forward, Hewitt said.
"I don't know if that's a reality or just just a dream," he added.
In a statement, Environment and Parks thanked Nordiq Alberta for its partnership and said any additional funds raised will be held in trust by Nordiq Alberta and used to support ski programs and projects in the future.
"We will evaluate the pilot grooming operations program following the close of the season and discuss future plans with Nordiq," wrote Environment and Parks press secretary Jess Sinclair.