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A welcome sign greets visitors to Kananaskis Country on June 24, 2002.

STR New/Reuters

Albertans who want to hike, ski or otherwise play in Kananaskis Country will have to pay to access the area come June 1, when a $90 per-vehicle annual fee comes into effect.

The pass is part of a broader set of measures the province will announce Tuesday to protect the area, after a record five million visitors descended on the region last year. By comparison, Banff National Park next door sees, on average, about four million annual visitors.

Social media posts on Kananaskis mountain trails in 2020 skyrocketed as Calgarians and others fled the city to find outdoor fun during a pandemic, but so did graffiti on signs, excessive speeding by some drivers, illegal parking, helicopter rescues and garbage.

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Dubbed “Alberta’s mountain playground,” the Kananaskis region is about an hour’s drive west of Calgary. It comprises about 4,000 square kilometres of Rocky Mountain parks and foothills loaded with scenic hiking paths, alpine and Nordic ski trails, caves and golf courses.

Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon told The Globe and Mail that as a result of the surge in visitor numbers, the “greatest gem inside the provincial parks system” exceeded its operational expense budget.

“It’s great that everybody is going to enjoy Kananaskis – that’s what we want – but we continue to see a significant environmental strain on what is one of the most beautiful places in our province,” he said.

“What we hear from Albertans is that they’re comfortable with modest fees, as long as the fee is going back to the park or to the landscape. In this case, it will be 100 per cent doing that.”

Mr. Nixon said Tuesday’s announcement will include “some significant capital upgrades” to – and the expansion of – Kananaskis, the hiring of 20 new conservation officers and 50 new park employees, and the opening of a new emergency centre.

Unlike Ontario, Alberta doesn’t charge for day use of its provincial parks. Mr. Nixon said his United Conservative government is not considering implementing a provincewide park fee system at this point, given most are camping areas that already charge a fee. But nothing is off the table.

The annual pass will be tied to licence plates, but visitors will also have the option to pay $15 per day. Among those exempt from the fee will be low-income earners and First Nations people. Much like the system in place in Banff National Park, the fee will apply to anyone who uses park facilities.

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Debbie Mucha, Kananaskis West area manager with Alberta Environment and Parks, said on a departmental blog that the amount of garbage and disregard for parks facilities was a huge issue last year, with filled dog poop bags and paper coffee cups littering scenic hiking trails.

The surge of people also led to “significant damages” to “delicate flora and fauna which were being crushed or decimated in sensitive areas,” she said.

Ms. Mucha said visitors were also behaving “in a more aggressive way with staff and contractors,” likely because of the underlying stress of the pandemic. Conservation officers had a difficult time responding to the increased enforcement issues, she said, because much of their days were spent on public safety incidents, wildlife response, parking issues and cleaning up garbage.

The new fee is the latest in a series of changes the UCP government has introduced for public land use.

Its February budget hiked camping fees by $1 to $3 a night. Earlier this month, the government announced changes to the Public Lands Act to allow a new, $30 annual pass to camp on public land on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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