Kananaskis User Fees are Highly Inappropriate

Commentary, Government, Marco Navarro-Genie

Excess costs for Kananaskis parks access should be paid from the health budget. 

As soon as the government locked Albertans down in March 2020, Calgarians headed outdoors in greater numbers than ever. However, soon thereafter the provincial and municipal governments issued orders restricting outdoor areas as well. Recall the hysterical complaints for even walking in municipal parks or seeing children in playgrounds. 

When the stricter portions of the government-imposed confinements were finally lifted in May 2020, people once again flocked to the outdoors. Anyone used to the mountain parks and wilderness areas west of Calgary would have noticed when visiting last year that the number of people on the trails had increased significantly. 

Problems naturally arose when the number of visitors nearly doubled from previous years: traffic, the number of injuries and the quantity of visible garbage, for instance. It became difficult to find a parking spot even in remote areas in Kananaskis. Parked cars often lined both sides of the highway shoulders for miles around popular trailheads, increasing the possibility of fatal accidents. 

Increased injuries led to a 51 per cent increase in the use of search and rescue services in Eastern Slopes’ parks. It was not unusual to see people with inadequate footwear on the trails, unprepared for wilderness exploration. One doesn’t need expensive hiking boots, but flip-flops are dangerous for walking on sloped surfaces or across fields of scree, for example. It was not unusual to see people begging for water, dehydrated on hot days, having brought nothing to drink or snack on to arduous trails.  

Finally, there was a most blatant explosion of garbage. Habitual hiking groups on social media complained regularly and impromptu volunteers picked up and hauled out garbage by the packful. The parks’ popularity became unsustainable, as the minister of Environment and Parks correctly assessed. 

As a corrective measure, the Alberta government has decided to introduce user fees: $15 per day or $90 for a yearly pass. User fees for access to the oversubscribed parks would be a sound market mechanism to tame demand. 

Except that these are not normal times, nor is it a normal market. The high demand for outdoor activities springs from a need for physical activity and human interaction provoked by government restrictions. Government closed nearly every other form of recreation, entertainment, social gathering, exercise and relaxation activity. 

In this sense, constraining outdoor activities while the government is still curtailing most other forms of recreation and social interaction will further accelerate the deteriorating mental health of so many. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) measured a fourfold increase in mental health problems among Canadians during the first few months of the pandemic. The repeated stop-and-go Alberta confinement rules have likely made it much worse 14 months later.

The MLA for Calgary-Buffalo criticized the government’s decision to charge for access to the recreational wilderness areas. The NDP MLA stated that this only adds to the stress for working families, during already stressful pandemic times. He is correct to an extent. However, the MLA for Calgary-Buffalo is totally wrong on two accounts: it is not the pandemic that has torn through working Alberta families, crippling their capacity to earn, crushing their businesses, blowing their savings and sending them into a series of harmful behaviours, some of which have cost lives. All these ailments are the direct result of government policies. Second, if the MLA for Calgary-Buffalo were in government, the effect of the greater restrictions he wants would cause even greater damage to businesses, jobs, families and the mental health of Albertans. 

But back to taming demand. Stating more of the obvious, government-imposed constraints in overwrought reaction to the coronavirus pushed Albertans to greater use of wilderness areas and outdoor parks. Demanding money from users now as a remedy to the strain placed on the parks is to add enormous insult to the economic and mental health injuries unleashed by the killing of their jobs and the strangling of their businesses. 

Damaging use of the parks would decrease if there were suitable alternatives, so let’s end the excessive COVID-19 restrictions. There are two strong reasons for the costs of increased usage of wilderness areas to be shouldered by the health-care budget. It is a health matter. Physical activity and social interaction are salutary for Albertans coping with the economic and psychological hardships imposed by their government. Second, a pricing mechanism is wrong because the excess use did not issue from regular market demand. Claiming “medical advice,” the government has locked Albertans down and continues to restrict most options for essential social and physical activities. The excess costs associated with wilderness usage should therefore be medical costs.

Marco Navarro-Génie is senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the president of the Haultain Research Institute. With Barry Cooper, he is co-author of COVID-19: The Politics of a Pandemic Moral Panic (2020).

Photo by Nicole Tarasuk on Unsplash.