The irresponsible use of Crown lands in Alberta is forcing the province to discuss conservation, and pushing forward a new public land use bill.
If passed by the provincial government, Bill 64 will mandate fees for random camping in Crown lands along the eastern slopes of the Rockies beginning June 1. The fees will be $20 per person for a three-day pass and $30 per person for an annual pass.
The new bill also includes fees for access to Kananaskis Country, where visitors will need to pay $15 per day to access the area or purchase an annual vehicle pass for $90. Low-income earners and First Nations people are exempt from all new costs.
Those familiar with some of Alberta’s Crown lands say that this is a good start toward educating the users who abuse it.
“I’ve seen forest fires ignited by careless camping. I have seen very dangerous use of firearms in places that, while they were being used, weren’t safe for other people that might be using the landscape as well. I’ve seen poaching. I’ve seen the use of vehicles on trails and in waterways that is highly destructive. I have seen lawless behaviour that comes under civil and criminal law,” said Dene Cooper, reeve of the Municipal District of Bighorn.
The MD of Bighorn includes the Ghost Public Land Use Zone west of Calgary, but like other Crown lands within the province, it’s expansive and difficult for officials to monitor and educate all its users.
About 60 per cent of the province is made up of public lands which see a large number of people each year hiking, riding Off-Highway Vehicles, and camping for free within its boundaries. These environmental impacts have gone mostly unaddressed and under-monitored due to a lack of funding.
“We support the philosophy of the deal,” said Cooper. “In the sense that Alberta must update its understanding of lands and land use, because we will only have in the future what we learn to protect today.”
The provincial government intends to use the money collected from passes to upgrade infrastructure, improve education, fund conservation officers, enhance public safety and improve environmental and waste management.
While more enforcement is evidently needed, education also needs to play a crucial role in conservation efforts, says Alberta Off-Highway Vehicle Association (AOHVA) president Garett Schmidt.
“I think on the whole, you know, we see that some people will leave garbage,” said Schmidt. “Because they think someone else was going to come through there and clean it up.”
“Or they’ll leave it beside a dumpster in the Ghost. But they actually don’t know that the AOHVA, through our member clubs, does all of the garbage disposal. And we’re a volunteer organization.”
Most Albertans support user fees in Crown land areas found a recent survey by the Alberta Government. Over 30 stakeholder groups were invited to participate, including the Alberta Hiking Association (AHA).
Chair of the AHA Don Cockerton says that in his experience, recreation in parks and public lands is “often one of the first parts of a government budget to be cut, and one of the very last to be reinstated.”
“The level of care given to existing trails, even in the prominent area of Kananaskis Country where a lot of money was spent to build good trails and other facilities – a lot of them were really not getting anywhere near the proper care and maintenance that they needed,” said Cockerton.
Bill 64 will generate an estimated $15 in revenue to be reinvested into public lands, but education will be the key to the province’s long-term success.