UCP government reverses direction on trail fees for OHV users

An election promise made by the United Conservative Party to charge off-highway vehicle owners a fee to access trails on public lands appears to be off the table. 

NDP calls switch a 'broken promise' and political pandering

The Kananaskis Conservation pass — which will cost users $90 annually, or $15 per visit — won't include the McLean Creek area. Those who fight for conservation say that's a mistake. (CBC News)

An election promise made by the United Conservative Party to charge off-highway vehicle owners a fee to access trails on public lands appears to be off the table. 

The Alberta Trails Act, introduced Tuesday in the Alberta legislature, is silent on a user fee, even though Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said it would be introduced this fall.

At a news conference prior to the bill's introduction, Nixon said OHV users are already paying money to the province through their vehicle registration fees. Work is underway with Alberta Finance to ensure those funds can be directed to conservation efforts.

"There already [are] ATV fees for user groups that are being paid to the Crown, and we need to be able to make sure that those are being appropriately used for conservation purposes in line with our platform commitment," he said. 

"Right now, off highway vehicles pay about $4.5 million for registration fees on all of their ATVs, which originally was to be designated to be for conservation purposes."

Nixon's statements Tuesday are contrary to what the United Conservative Party promised in its 2019 campaign platform.

The document, which is still posted to the party's website, promised a UCP government would "apply a mandatory $30 trail permit fee to Off-Highway Vehicles (OHV) and camping trailers." The money would go toward restoring and creating OHV trails and hiring more enforcement officers. 

Earlier this year, Nixon introduced user fees for Kananaskis Country. As of June 1, 2020, people who want to access the popular area west of Calgary must pay $15 per vehicle a day or purchase a $90 annual pass. Nixon said the funds would be reinvested in the area. 

Users of McLean Creek, a popular area for with trails for OHVs near Bragg Creek, were exempted from the pass, much to the dismay of conservation groups. The area has sustained considerable damage to trails and waterways from unregulated use of motorized vehicles.

At the time, Nixon said users of the area would soon have to purchase an OHV pass. 

'Broken promise'

Edmonton-Gold Bar MLA Marlin Schmidt said the minister is reneging on a commitment that he restated on social media in the spring when people expressed frustration over the McLean Creek exemption. 

"That's a broken promise," Schmidt said on Wednesday. He said Nixon is pandering to a group of people who tend to vote for the UCP. 

"The minister is clearly playing politics favouring one group over another. And I think it's really unfair that hikers and campers are … asked to pay more but OHV users are let off the hook." 

The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) is also unhappy with Nixon's change of direction. Devon Earl, a conservation specialist with the group, said OHV users should not be let off the hook. 

"These are the users who are creating the most environmental destruction through their recreation, and they should be paying that fee and they shouldn't be exempt from paying fees," she said. 

AWA is also unhappy with the content of the Trails Act, which gives the minister power to appoint recreation groups to take over the construction and maintenance of trails on public lands. 

AWA said this is the first step toward privatization of public lands. Earl said the government needs to complete regional and subregional plans, which consider cumulative effects of industry and recreation, before moving ahead with new trails.