The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) says the new public lands camping fee is nowhere near what the Kenney Government promised, and Bill 64 should be withdrawn.
AWA conservation director Dr. Ian Urquhart says the United Conservative Party (UCP) platform called for the creation of a $30 trail permit fee for off-highway vehicles (OHV) and camping trailers to pay for restoring and creating OHV trails and to hire additional enforcement officers.
Instead, they have created a fee for all camping on Crown land in the Eastern Slopes that the AWA says unjustifiably targets low-impact users of Alberta’s backcountry and will impact low-income Albertans.
AWA believes the government's commitment to sustainable recreation would be better served by the UCP's original promise.
Dr. Urguhart says he believes the move was made after Environment and Parks minister Jason Nixon faced blowback from Albertans on the parks issue last year. He believes they didn't want to face the same from OHV users on this one.
"I think one of the reasons they considered, and then went ahead, with broadening this user fee was not to anger, not to target, a group that has been pretty consistently supporting the party."
He says research completely clearly indicates OHVs cause considerably more damage than any other user to the land, and low-impact users of Alberta’s public lands essentially will be stuck shouldering some of the cost.
He points to the example of Willmore Wilderness Park, where no motorized vehicles are allowed, except for those working a trapline.
"What we're seeing here, with the camping pass, is low-impact users of our backcountry, like someone who is on a multi-day backpacking trip in Willmore, is expected to pay this fee, a fee that will arguably be used to pay for the damage that can be pretty-tightly linked to another constituency, namely OHV users."
AWA also believes it could open the door to further fees.
"One of the reasons I pay my taxes is to ensure that the government will devote a portion of those resources to issues like, and areas like, the backcountry of Alberta. I don't want to see us move in the direction where users are asked to pay more and more for the maintenance of areas that matter to them."
He says the fees come at a time when Albertans are already struggling with the economic downturn and ill-effects of the pandemic.
"You might not think $30 is a lot of money, but maybe it will discourage, especially low-income people, from getting out there at a time when the government is telling us we need to get outdoors and stay away from indoor settings because of the pandemic."
The government says it expects to raise $1.7 million from the fees in the first year and $2.7 in subsequent years.
Urguhart says a much different revenue stream is illustrated in the 2021 Alberta government. Budget estimates placed revenue at $4.5 million from a trail permit fee, not from a public lands camping pass, and questions how it arrived at the $1.7 million figure.
Whether the revenue generated will enhance the protection of public land has yet to be seen and will be closely monitored by AWA this summer.
"If that doesn't happen, then, unfortunately, this could go down as another tax grab from electors and taxpayers."