Excess costs for Kananaskis parks access should be paid from the health budget.
As soon as the Alberta government locked Albertans down in March 2020, Calgarians headed outdoors in greater numbers than ever. However, soon thereafter the provincial and municipal governments issued orders restricting outdoors areas as well. Recall the hysterical complaints for even walking in municipal parks or seeing children in playgrounds.
When the stricter portions of the government-imposed confinements were finally lifted in May 2020, people once again flocked to the outdoors. Anyone used to the mountain parks and wilderness areas west of Calgary would have noticed when visiting last year that the number of people on the trails had increased significantly.
Problems naturally arose when the number of visitors nearly doubled from previous years: traffic, the number of injuries and the quantity of visible garbage, for instance. It became difficult to find a parking spot even in remote areas in Kananaskis. Parked cars often lined both sides of the highway shoulders for miles around popular trailheads, increasing the possibility of fatal accidents.
Increased injuries lead to a 51 percent increase in the usage of search and rescue services in Eastern Slopes’ parks. It was not unusual to see people with inadequate footwear on the trails, unprepared for wilderness exploration. One doesn’t need expensive hiking boots but flip-flops are dangerous for walking on sloped surfaces or across fields of scree, for example. It was not unusual to see people begging for water, dehydrated in hot days, having brought nothing to drink or snack on to arduous trails.
Finally, there was a most blatant explosion of garbage. Habitual hiking groups on social media complained regularly and impromptu volunteers picked up and hauled out garbage by the packful. The popularity of the parks became unsustainable, as Jason Dixon, minister of Environment and Parks, correctly assessed.
As a corrective measure, the Alberta government has decided to introduce user fees: $15 per day or $90 for a yearly pass. User fees for access to the oversubscribed parks would be a sound market mechanism to tame demand.
Except that these are not normal times, nor is it a normal market. The high demand for outdoor activities springs from a need for physical activity and human interaction provoked by government restrictions. Government closed nearly every other form of recreation, entertainment, social gathering, exercise, and relaxation activity.
In this sense, constraining outdoor activities while government is still curtailing most other forms of recreation and social interaction will further accelerate the deteriorating mental health of so many. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) measured a fourfold increase in mental health problems among Canadians during the first few months of the pandemic. The repeated stop-and-go Alberta confinement rules have likely made it much worse 14 months later.
Opposition MLA Joe Ceci criticised the government decision to charge for access to the recreational wilderness areas: “Working families are already being pushed to the brink by the pandemic and the long list of new costs Jason Kenney has imposed on them.” Ceci is correct in stating the obvious about an increase and even more so in his understanding of pushing people to the brink. But he is totally wrong on two accounts: it is not the pandemic that has torn through working Alberta families, crippling their capacity to earn, crushing their businesses, blowing their savings, and sending them into a series of harmful behaviours, some of which have cost lives. All these ailments are the direct result of government policies. Second, if Ceci were in government, the effect of the greater restrictions he wants would cause even greater damage to businesses, jobs, families and the mental health of Albertans.
But back to taming demand. Stating more of the obvious, government-imposed constraints in overwrought reaction to the coronavirus pushed Albertans to greater use of wilderness areas and outdoor parks. Demanding money from users now as a remedy to the strain placed on the parks is to add enormous insult to the economic and mental health injuries unleashed by the killing of their jobs and to the strangling of their businesses.
Damaging use of the parks would decrease if there were suitable alternatives, so let’s end the excessive COVID-19 restrictions. There are two strong reasons for the costs of increased usage of wilderness areas to be shouldered by the healthcare budget. It is a health matter. Physical activity and social interaction are salutary for Albertans coping with the economic and psychological hardships imposed by their government. Second, a pricing mechanism is wrong because the excess use did not issue from regular market demand. Claiming “medical advice,” the government has locked Albertans down and continues to restrict most options for essential social and physical activities. The excess costs associated with wilderness usage should therefore be medical costs.