With a new leader at the helm of the UCP, the future of the contentious Kananaskis Conservation Pass is unclear.
During her campaign, then-leadership candidate Danielle Smith briefly mentioned the pass as part of an online ask me anything session and has since told a radio audience she’s hoping to find an alternative.
“I don’t love it because I think it puts a burden on families,” Smith said during the Your Province Your Premier show on 630 CHED and 770 CHQR radio more recently, in November.
“The big issue is we have to figure out a way to support the cost of maintaining the trails and maintaining the parks.”
Now Smith has tasked Minister of Forestry, Parks and Tourism Todd Loewen with a review of the pass — something his office says is ongoing.
No decisions have been made, but groups in Kananaskis with a vested interest are watching closely, and are hoping to have a say.
“It’s less about the pass and more about the continued investment in tourism and the visitor economy,” said Tourism Canmore Kananaskis CEO Rachel Ludwig. “As the minister investigates options for the Conservation Pass, we hope to be at the table.”
Ludwig said despite the investments and announcements the government made in Kananaskis, the Alberta Parks budget has had cuts over the years. Going forward, Tourism Canmore Kananaskis and other stakeholders are looking for transparency to ensure the conservation pass money isn’t a substitute for provincial budgetary dollars.
Alberta Parks faced changes to services, fees, budget
The UCP government’s 2020 budget had changes in store for the Alberta Parks system. To save $5 million, the province first wanted to fully or partially close 20 parks or recreation areas, and delist another 164 sites in hopes that third parties could take over management.
Then the province planned to stop grooming and setting trails in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Mount Shark, and Ribbon Creek.
Both cost-saving measures didn’t go over well. Environmental groups were concerned about the future of the land and its protected status. Biathlon Canada told the media its organization was completely shocked by the decision to stop grooming and setting tracks that athletes depend on.
A short pilot project run by Nordiq Alberta promised to maintain those trails through a voluntary parking pass pilot which only ran for one winter season.
Then the K-Country pass was introduced in April 2021.
It arrived amid stories of crowding at trailheads, overflowing trash cans, vehicles having to park on the highways, plus a busy rescue season for overworked public safety crews.
Jason Nixon, who was then the minister of environment and parks, billed it as a revenue-generator, and a way to cut down on traffic in the park in the hopes that Albertans would car-pool to the trails.
In its first year, the Kananaskis pass has generated more than $12 million in revenue and the province has pledged to re-invest in conservation, public safety, services, and facilities.
For some groups, like Bragg Creek Trails, these investments have offered stability. The network of maintained trails has grown over the years thanks to countless volunteer hours, but president Conrad Schiebel said it was getting to a point where relying solely on volunteers and fundraising was becoming unsustainable.
And those trails are well-loved. On a Thursday, the West Bragg Creek Day Use parking lot is abuzz with people strapping on skis, riding by in fat bikes, and calming antsy dogs looking to skijor through the bush.
Stable funding needed to keep up park amenities
With funding from the Kananaskis pass, Schiebel said the group was able to hire key staff positions and cover operational funding.
“If they decide that the pass is not something that they want to continue with and then we definitely need to talk about what the needs of the organization are,” he said.
When it comes to the Kananaskis Conservation pass, Shaun Peter with Bragg Creek & Kananaskis Outdoor Recreation is blunt.
“I think we should axe it,” Peter said. “Albertans that use Kananaskis, that’s their backyard. And so we’re paying now to use our own backyard.”
He’d rather see the province commit better funding to the Alberta Parks budget, and raise cash using voluntary methods such as the parks licence plate program launched in B.C. in 2017.
This is the same program the NDP, which has also promised to scrap the Kananaskis Pass, has suggested in its stead.
In B.C., the program has raised $18 million over five years by charging a fee for a custom plate once a year to people who want to show their support for parks. That funding is only used for B.C. Parks enhancement projects.