Plans by the provincial government to charge fees to randomly camp on public crown lands in the Eastern Slopes are sparking concerns it will discourage some Albertans from a source of safe outdoor activities during the pandemic.
People age 18 and older would be required to pay $30 per person for an annual pass as part of the proposed Public Lands Amendment Act, or Bill 64. They would otherwise have to pay $20 per person for a three-day pass.
“Alberta’s beautiful outdoors has provided a public refuge for so many who needed to get away from the difficulties of the public health emergency and our economic recession,” said Alberta NDP environment critic Marlin Schmidt, MLA for Edmonton-Gold Bar.
“We need to be encouraging people to spend their summer and their time in the province and outdoors, not charging them more to do so, especially while so many Albertans are struggling to make ends meet.”
Bill 64 was introduced on April 12. If the legislation is approved, the Public Lands Camping Pass will take effect June 1 for the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains, said a provincial statement.
The area is already the focus of controversy over upcoming public consultations about a new coal policy for Alberta. Due to public opposition, the provincial government reversed a decision in 2020 that eased the development of open-pit coal mines in the area.
The passes would be required for random camping on public lands in the Eastern Slopes from Grande Prairie south to Waterton Lakes National Park.
People camping in the area would be required to show proof of payment via a printed pass or mobile app to enforcement officers, if asked. However, people such as First Nations and Metis Settlement members would be exempt.
“Initially, as the new pass rolls out, campers may be provided information and given an opportunity to comply,” said the statement. “However, over time, non-compliance could result in a fine.”
Revenue from the fees will be used for things such as promoting public safety, supporting conservation and upgrading infrastructure, said the statement.
“These fees would be reinvested directly to improve visitor experiences and help conserve and protect wilderness areas so they can be enjoyed now and into the future.”
Although a camping fee of $30 per year doesn’t sound like much, visits substantially dropped when Washington state implemented a $10 car fee, said Ian Urquhart, conservation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association.
“I’m 65 – I mean, I remember the days when camping was free, or close to free, and it’s getting more and more expensive to do that.”
Overnight hikers or multi-day backpackers who are low-impact users are also being placed in the same category as people who do major landscape damage, such as users of ATVs or off-road vehicles, he said.
“Now you’re asking that constituency to effectively cough up money to restore and reclaim and repair the damage that another user group has done, and we just think that’s unfair.”
There’s nothing in Bill 64 that suggests the provincial government will limit the fees it will end up charging Albertans, said Schmidt, who spoke at a recent online news conference. “They have already increased other camping fees and recreation-related fees several times during the pandemic.”