The Kananaskis conservation pass and park user fees: what impact do they have on accessibility to nature?

The signage duly reminding everyone to purchase their conservation pass is abundant throughout Kananaskis. Present at visitor centres, trailheads, and campgrounds, there is an ever-present reminder to purchase the pass. PHOTO: ETHAN WARD/ARTICLE 1

It’s times of stress and worry where the little things can have the greatest impact. Don Carruthers Den Hoed was working on his dissertation in a little office overlooking a city park when a small but profound moment briefly took him away from his work. 

Looking out over the park, Carruthers Den Hoed saw a small pine marten skipping along through the branches of a tree next to his window. The small weasel-like creature transported him away from his dissertation.

Carruthers Den Hoed said that the moment has stuck with him for all the years since it happened.

“It was the best feeling in the world to be distracted by this pine marten. I physically felt better because I just saw it happen.” 

Carruthers Den Hoed is a research associate at the University of British Columbia, where he leads the Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation and Leadership. CPCIL is a network that seeks to transform and create a community of parks leaders that incorporate Indigenous knowledge and make parks more inclusive. 

Carruthers Den Hoed has over two decades of experience in parks education and management and spent time as the manager of two of the largest urban provincial parks in Canada, Fish Creek and Glenbow Ranch Provincial Parks. Much of Carruthers Den Hoed’s work has focused on the inclusivity and accessibility of parks and protected areas.

The story of the pine marten represents the restorative power of nature for Carruthers Den Hoed and how vital it is to make sure people have proper access to it. 

Many theories revolve around how humans are evolutionarily built for nature. Or how humans are specifically designed to have our minds restored by nature when life’s daily stresses wear us down. 

Doctors and other health care providers have even started prescribing outdoor recreation and exploration to help treat certain conditions, with more unified campaigns having started in Canada.

The Barrier Lake Visitor Centre was closed in the summer of 2020, at a time when there was an influx of visitors seeking to escape the boredom of the COVID-19 pandemic. It couldn�t have closed at a worse time as there was no contact point for people to be educated about the do�s and don’ts of the outdoors. The centre was reopened in the summer of 2021 once the conservation pass was implemented. PHOTO: ETHAN WARD/ARTICLE 1 

However, parks are not as easy to access as one would hope. Many barriers exist to prevent people from exploring the outdoors. Anything from medical conditions, to disabilities, to lack of transportation, blocks people from getting their needed dose of nature. 

Many who have the privilege to visit parks and protected spaces might not always realize or add up the costs that go into that endeavour. Exploring natural spaces is expensive, from the equipment to gas money needed to get to the destination. One cost that might slip people’s minds are user fees. It is almost invisible, as paying for Canada’s national park pass is reflexive for many who make regular visits to the mountains. 

But in the summer of 2021, user fees were scrutinized with the implementation of the Kananaskis conservation pass in Alberta. For over 100 years people have been paying for national park passes, but there has never been a user fee for Kananaskis. The new fee made some consider what impact a Kananaskis pass would have. Would the fee be enough to prevent people from visiting, or are other underlying issues more prevalent? 

While there were a lot of initial knee-jerk reactions against the pass when it was initially introduced, there isn’t much known yet as to how the pass will affect visitation. Some believe there should be less focus on pure financial pressure, and more time put into thinking about how to foster education and inclusivity within park spaces like Kananaskis to make them more accessible. Access to nature should not solely be thought of within the framing of money, they argue. 

History of national parks and commodification models 

Kathleen Rettie is an anthropologist and researcher who has taught at Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary. Rettie said that the history of parks in Canada is not one rooted in conservation. There were economic forces in play that led to their creation. 

Established in 1885, Banff is Canada’s oldest national park. Despite its reputation and framing as one of Canada’s foremost conservation sites, Banff’s park status wasn’t originally designated for conservation purposes. At the time, the west was still disconnected from the east, and in an effort to fully unite the country, the government pushed for the Canadian Pacific Railway to construct their cross-Canada rail line.  

Constructing the line through the rugged terrain of the Rockies, especially through Rogers Pass, was a huge financial investment. To generate revenue, the government decided to accredit the land around the Cave and Basin Hot Springs as a national park to create tourist revenue and fund the completion of the railway. 

Barrier Lake lies at the entrance of Kananaskis Country and is an immensely popular location. Hiking at nearby Yates Mountain and the opportunity for kayaking and canoeing in the picturesque waters on a hot summer day make Barrier Lake a hot spot of activity. PHOTO: ETHAN WARD/ARTICLE 1

“Banff was originally created as a park for profit. Of course, things have evolved since the 1800s, and we now have parks created for conservation reasons. But certainly, we are sitting in an example of nature being commodified to pay for the cost of confederation,” Rettie said. 

This is also why landmarks such as the Banff Springs Hotel exist. They point to the park’s past as a commodity and not a protected place. If the space was intended to be kept in pristine condition, hotels and tourist attractions wouldn’t have been constructed. 

In addition to the tourism dollars created by the attractions, entry fees were placed on Banff, starting in 1885, although the park only initially encompassed the area around Cave and Basin. The park was later expanded in 1887. This set the standard we still have today with our national park passes, but there are several models found all across the world for different parks demonstrating the way nature is commodified.

“There has always been an entry fee for our national parks. In some countries, there are gradated systems. If you are a resident of that country, you pay a different fee. And that brings up a lot of questions regarding accessibility. Is there a possibility that by taking away that equal opportunity for accessibility to public land, which belongs to all the citizens of Alberta, are we restricting access by putting those fees in place?” Rettie said.

“The pass is not the most expensive part of visiting a park. The amount of money people need to visit nature is in the gas, the car, the insurance, the time, the food, not working. It is not free to visit nature. People who think nature is cheap should count the steps it takes.”

DON Carruthers Den Hoed

The fee model for parks in Canada has been adopted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, which is the main international entity protecting natural and cultural areas. However, there is a lot of latitude within the IUCN. Some of the newest parks that have been designated are in the United Kingdom. Those parks have an entirely different management system because they are on private land as opposed to Canadian parks, which are on public land. An example would be Cairngorms National Park, which resides on private land and has significant stakeholder engagement with locals who live within the new park.

In the past, parks also had an elitist bent. This wasn’t just restricted to Banff. From the late 1800s at the time of Banff’s inception to the 1960s, all park spaces and vacation destinations, in general, had inherent societal limits on who could visit. Only the wealthy had the time and money to afford vacations and the luxury offered by places like the Banff Springs Hotel. Parks only became more democratized by the end of the Second World War when automobiles became more affordable. 

User fees for parks nowadays are less about elitism and more focused on conservation.

Lying at the end of the Kananaskis Trail, Upper Kananaskis Lake is another popular destination for hiking. Several popular points of interest like Rawson Lake are nearby and attract sizable groups of hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. PHOTO: ETHAN WARD/ARTICLE 1
conservation pass details 

The Kananaskis conservation pass went into effect on June 1, 2021, covering an area of 4,000 square kilometres on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains that includes 10 provincial and wildland provincial parks and 42 recreation areas. To date, the Alberta government has touted that the pass has gathered $10 million in revenue, with 253,000 passes sold. The province has said revenue will go towards hiring new conservation officers and the continued maintenance and grooming of cross-country ski trails, which had previously faced the possibility of no maintenance because of budget cuts.

The cost comes to $90 for an annual pass and $15 for a day pass. The passes are attributed to a licence plate instead of a particular person and two vehicle plates and two trailer plates can be added to an individual pass, so multiple people in one vehicle can visit without paying for the pass. Commercial visits also require a fee, with passes going between $135 and $180 depending on the number of people the commercial endeavour is transporting. Fines of up to $150 are in place for those caught defying the new rules. 

“There are an infinite number of ways of thinking about barriers that impact people, but I’d go back to that idea of feeling welcome. People of colour, Indigenous People, they often don’t feel welcome in parks, and that’s an active limitation even if they are the fittest and most knowledgeable of the outdoors. They are still feeling a barrier because of welcomeness.

Don Carruthers Den Hoed

There are exemptions for Indigenous Peoples with status, and they do not need to carry proof of exemption. Low-income individuals who are eligible or already receiving payments from the Alberta Income Support program are also eligible for exemptions. Despite safeguards for specific groups, there were concerns about the possibility that those who don’t fit into those categories might slip through the cracks and go unrecognized. As a result, they’d be ineligible for exemptions and would lose access to Kananaskis Country, which is a vital outlet for people to enjoy nature.

Kananaskis Country became how we know it today in 1977 when then premier Peter Lougheed and his cabinet approved the Kananaskis Planning Area. Initially the area was heavily focused on commercial development with aspirations for extensive roads, golf courses, and alpine villages. It wasn’t until 1999 that no new recreation developments were planned for Kananaskis. Up until 2021 there had been no user fees associated with the park. 

Major barriers to accessibility

The history of parks and protected spaces in Canada show that there are underlying issues regarding who gets to access natural spaces and why these spaces are protected in the first place. But in the context of today, what role does a user fee have on someone trying to visit a national or provincial park? Some say there are critical issues that need to be faced rather than focusing on user fees. 

In addition to being an outdoor enthusiast and pine marten viewer, Carruthers Den Hoed has, through his years of work, identified many physical, sociological, and mental barriers preventing people from visiting parks. 

Looking at the Kananaskis Pass, Carruthers Den Hoed said that the situation is not as negative as a first reaction might suggest. 

“It’s easy for someone to think about the user fee but not examine the context the user fee exists within. A user fee like the Kananaskis pass offers exemptions and ways people don’t have to pay if they can’t afford it. If it’s about money, the barrier is negligible there. 

The beginning of the Rawson Lake trail. This relatively easy walk is a popular hiking trail. But during the summer the area is frequented by bears and is often closed. The constant threat of a bear encounter reflects the environmental impact visitors have on the area and how important it is to be prepared and educated on bear safety.

There are even rebates for the pass where individuals can perform volunteer work for accredited organizations to earn a free pass. 

The fee isn’t necessarily the problem or the barrier. But Carruthers Den Hoed said that the safeguards only work if the messaging around them is sufficient. 

“It becomes about the information and knowledge to know how to get an exemption. You look at how things are rolled out and whether they are doing a good job communicating the exemption,” Carruthers Den Hoed said. 

“If that’s happening, there is no real reason why the pass should be a barrier. They offer the chance for people to volunteer to earn rebates. That’s a great idea. But how easy is it for people to get the volunteer hours?”

If volunteering requires a vehicle or being able-bodied, then the idea of the exemption is null for specific people. 

In the end, the park pass itself is not a root cause and could have benefits. Carruthers Den Hoed said other issues should be examined more closely before user fees. 

The pass would have a negligible effect on finances, but the actual process of exploring the outdoors is more costly than one might realize. 

“The pass is not the most expensive part of visiting a park. The amount of money people need to visit nature is in the gas, the car, the insurance, the time, the food, not working. It is not free to visit nature. People who think nature is cheap should count the steps it takes,” Carruthers Den Hoed said. 

For transportation to Kananaskis Country, there are few alternatives aside from driving your own vehicle or carpooling. 

Parkbus is a not-for-profit organization that operates in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec. Started in 2010, the initiative provides accessible transportation to parks and protected spaces for city dwellers who normally wouldn’t be able to access these places. 

In addition to providing accessible transportation, the group also aims to help reduce carbon emissions that long-distance travel to parks in personal vehicles creates. 

Transportation issues are bringing up concern within the business community in Canmore and the Kananaskis area. 

Michelle Faerden is one of the owners of Kananaskis Outfitters. Kananaskis Outfitters was bought by Faerden in 2006 and started as a rental shop. Additionally, the company now offers full guided tours.

Faerden said that the pass itself is less of a concern than transportation. 

Getting to Kananaskis requires a personal vehicle or carpooling. There are no buses or methods of public transportation. That lack of infrastructure means that with no vehicle, potential visitors won�t be able to experience what the area has to offer. This gap in access has prompted discussion surrounding alternatives like a high-speed rail line from Calgary to Banff with stops in Canmore. PHOTO: ETHAN WARD/ARTICLE 1

“Issues like transportation are bigger barriers. There is nothing like a bus that you can hop on in the city and then come out to Kananaskis. You have to have your own vehicle or be part of a club. It’s something we have talked about as a business community. How can we increase public transportation out to the park?” Faerden said.  

At higher levels, there has been discussion surrounding a high-speed rail line between Banff and Calgary. The proposed line would be built along the existing CN travel corridor and would provide stops at Morley and Canmore, which is a gateway town to Kananaskis. The idea behind it was to reduce emissions from vehicles travelling to and from the mountain, but for some in the business community, like Faerden, it could present a possible solution to the lack of transportation and those that need it.

The importance of inclusion 

Although there are problems with actually getting people to parks, Carruthers Den Hoed said the real issue is making people feel like they belong. 

For Carruthers Den Hoed, inclusivity is just as vital as accessibility. He said that people may be able to enter parks, but if they don’t feel welcome or don’t know how to move through and engage in that space, getting there doesn’t matter. 

“There are an infinite number of ways of thinking about barriers that impact people, but I’d go back to that idea of feeling welcome. People of colour, Indigenous People, they often don’t feel welcome in parks, and that’s an active limitation even if they are the fittest and most knowledgeable of the outdoors. They are still feeling a barrier because of welcomeness,” Carruthers Den Hoed said. 

This also extends to people with physical disabilities. There are many programs, campaigns, and places allowing people with a disability to enjoy the outdoors. William Watson Lodge in Kananaskis Country is an example. 

However, while there is a lot of effort spent on getting people there, Carruthers Den Hoed said that to make people feel included, management needs to stop thinking about making places for people and instead making it with them. 

One “aha” moment for Carruthers Den Hoed was the notion of being a TAB, temporarily able-bodied. It’s the idea that while any individual may be perfectly capable of exploring parks right now, that might not always be the case. 

Being temporarily able-bodied can extend to physical injuries like breaking a bone, but it could also extend to psychological barriers, like being afraid of driving during the winter. Carruthers Den Hoed said some recent immigrants to Canada experience a challenge to able bodiedness during the winter because of a lack of experience driving in snowy conditions could prevent them from visiting places like Kananaskis Country.

By thinking in this way, Carruthers Den Hoed said that more people might begin to consider accessibility in a different light. 

So, the conservation pass is only one small problem on top of a mountain of other issues that need to be addressed for parks and natural spaces to be more inclusive. 

That doesn’t mean the park pass has escaped scrutiny. 

How the revenue is SPENt

Due to the pandemic, 2020 was an unprecedented year for visitation in Kananaskis, which prompted the pass implementation in the first place. Up to that point, there had been a steady decrease in visitor services.

Visitor facilities like the Barrier Lake Information Centre were closed in the summer of 2020, only to be reopened in 2021 because of revenue generated from the pass. Cross country ski trail grooming was also to be discontinued, which sparked outcry from skiers, as losing the track set for ski runs would make it extremely difficult to enjoy the sport in the areas where grooming stopped. Again, the defunded services sprang to life once the pass was implemented.

This has led to criticism that the government was cutting funding for previously supported programs and then imposing a fee on visitors who would essentially fund these services. 

That has left many concerned about what is going to happen with the revenue from the pass and whether any of it will go back into Kananaskis. Even those who theoretically support the idea, may be questioning the intentions. 

Glen Hvenegaard is a professor of environmental sciences from the University of Alberta. He said that he believes the pass can be a real positive for Kananaskis. However, Hvenegaard pointed to this concern surrounding budget cuts made by the provincial government before the pass was introduced.

“To introduce a pass to make up for more recent budget decisions, and then to claim the pass is fulfilling important gaps is just a sleight of hand. It’s reducing the budget from the previous years and then putting money back into the system and saying, ‘we are doing something good,’ when the problem was introduced by the budget cuts,” Hvenegaard said. 

Some hikers exploring Kananaskis are also a little unsure about what effect the pass will have. 

Cam Stephens visited Kananaskis with his family and was hiking the Interlake’s trail along Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes. It was the first time his family had made the trip out to Kananaskis since the pass was implemented.

“We were kind of shocked when we first heard about the pass, but when we started thinking about it a little more we thought it could be good, anything that will help put something back into the park,” Stephens said. 

“Right now, we need to see what comes of that money. Then we can make a decision on whether the pass should continue or not.”

“In 2020 with COVID-19, there was a crazy blip no one expected. There was an increase in visitation from people who didn’t know how to recreate safely and responsibly. I saw some people who didn’t know how to use a bear-proof garbage bin. It came at a time when information centres were closed. There wasn’t a point of contact where someone who wanted education could go.”

Michelle Faerden

While some visitors are still taking the time to see what will come of the pass, businesses operating in Kananaskis Country also have to adhere to the new rules. They have their own rates, but as Faerden from Kananaskis Outfitters said, the pass hasn’t affected her business yet. However, she still has concerns about its implementation and the reasons for it.  

With more and more visitors coming to Kananaskis each year, business is going well, and Faerden said that the pass isn’t going to change it, but she is unsure how it will help anything either. 

“Initially, there was a negative response from people who were unsure if they needed a pass to go on a tour with us. But for the most part, there hasn’t been pushback. Where it might be more interesting is when we’ll get international travel back. For Albertans, they come many times a year, and the pass is worth it, but when people come from overseas, I’m not sure how much of a deterrent the pass will be for them,” Faerden said. 

Faerden said that other issues are more pressing. The impact of the closures on services like the information centres was felt all across Kananaskis, at a time when visitation was exploding with people who were looking for a way to escape pandemic boredom. 

Kananaskis saw a huge increase in visitation compared to previous years. 2020-2021 saw a record number of visitors, as stated by an Alberta government report, with a record number of 5.3 million visitors in Kananaskis Country alone, putting a strain on parking areas and increasing environmental impact.

Closures led to a lack of services at the wrong time. 

While the winter season sees less visitation than the summer, the line of cars is still sizable at the Kananaskis Village. The past two summers saw unprecedented visitation numbers and cars were continually overflowing parking lots to line up along the road highlighting visitor demand and the environmental impact on the area.

“In 2020 with COVID-19, there was a crazy blip no one expected. There was an increase in visitation from people who didn’t know how to recreate safely and responsibly. I saw some people who didn’t know how to use a bear-proof garbage bin. It came at a time when information centres were closed. There wasn’t a point of contact where someone who wanted education could go,” Faerden said.

The summer was an eye-opening event for Faerden, realizing the needs of the public and what goes into creating a decent experience while also protecting the environment. The cutbacks on infrastructure affected the quality of people’s experience. 

As for the potential of the pass to block people from exploring the Kananaskis, Faerden said that the unfortunate reality is that the pass is not the thing that will stop people from visiting. There are other more ingrained issues at play. 

“It will happen to some people for sure. There are systems in place to stop it from happening, but there will be those who don’t fit the demographics and slip through the cracks. Their income isn’t high enough for the pass, but they don’t apply for an exemption,” Faerden said. 

Education and accessibility 
Michelle Faerden is the owners of Kananaskis Outfitters, a business operating within Kananaskis Country and offering rentals and guided tours for visitors. PHOTO: SUPPLIED BY MICHELLE FAERDEN.

From a conservation angle, the pass is seen by some as having great potential. But there is again uncertainty if the money will go towards protecting the environment. 

Kate Corrigan is a recent graduate and research assistant from the University of Alberta. She also believes the pass can be a positive for Kananaskis and sees many of the issues Hvenegaard does.

Their concerns lie not with the pass itself but how it is implemented. For Corrigan, it doesn’t make sense to create a Kananaskis pass, but have no pass for any other provincial park.

“For national parks, you get access to every single park across the country, but this pass is just for Kananaskis, which makes the asking price quite steep. Since it’s so close to Canmore and Calgary, a lot of people are used to going there for hiking, and it provided an alternative to Banff,” Corrigan said. 

“I think people will be OK paying for the fee if they see the money going back into the land. But I think they should consider the Parks Canada model.” 

Corrigan also notes that this pass has the chance to provide funding for other areas surrounding environmental stewardship that are ignored, most importantly, education. 

There are concerns the increase in visitation could lead to more hostile encounters with wildlife, as well as damage to the environment, with more trash entering the area. 

Corrigan said that this is all alleviated with education. The lack of it presents more of a barrier than the pass does. 

“This past summer, we saw so many visitors to Kananaskis, and the parking lots and trails were full in ways we hadn’t seen before. New visitors need to be educated and informed about what their impacts are, what it means to leave no trace, bear safety, fire safety, and being aware of how to go through wild spaces,” Corrigan said.   

There is also concern about what the Kananaskis pass might mean for other provincial parks in Alberta. The Kananaskis pass was likely implemented because of visitation numbers. But Hvenegaard questioned whether that means other parks are considered less worthy of protection. 

“The application of this pass highlights the division between high use parks and low use parks. Parks with more visitors shouldn’t be the only places with high levels of enforcement and education,” Hvenegaard said. 

The worry is that other parks with less attention will get less funding and maintenance resulting in fewer high-quality places for people to enjoy the outdoors. The pass doesn’t support other parks in Alberta, and therefore isn’t supporting education needed across the province, creating more barriers for visitors. 

As for the pass itself providing a barrier, Hvenegaard said that unfortunately, people who wouldn’t be able to afford the pass weren’t likely to visit Kananaskis in the first place, because of transportation, camping, and equipment costs that go into enjoying the outdoors. 

All of these factors and more play into someone’s able-bodied status. Carruthers Den Hoed was able to enjoy his encounter with the pine marten from the comfort of his home, but moments like that are going to be few and far between when living in the city. 

Carruthers Den Hoed said that he’s had his own able-bodied status challenged several times, from injuries to becoming a new father. 

“If you flip around accessibility and inclusion that way, digging into things like how often you are going to face a mobility impairment, it will become clearer. Shortly after I had my first son, I realized pushing a stroller through parks is much harder than just hiking in a park. Everyone at some point in their life will face a limitation or impairment of their abilities,” Carruthers Den Hoed said. 

He hopes that people begin realizing the fragility of their able-bodied status and don’t take for granted how easily access to the outdoors can be taken away. 

People need the outdoors to experience moments, like Carruthers Den Hoed’s pine marten, to feel connected to nature and drift away from the struggles of everyday life once in a while.