Accounting for Nature: The Kananaskis Conservation Pass

Accounting for Nature: The Kananaskis Conservation Pass

Accounting for Nature:
The Kananaskis Conservation Pass


In 2022, the Environmental Law Centre (“ELC”) will be releasing a report about the funding of conservation. For our purposes, conservation funding broadly refers to all the means through which financing and revenues can be generated for investments in nature.[1]  This report will focus on three overarching ways that we can account for our impacts on the environment: our water, air, land, and biodiversity. The first will look at how we might price for resource use, whether that is a water licence or timber due.

As an organization, the ELC is a strong proponent of the polluter pays principle or the principle that those who impair or degrade the environment should pay to monitor, mitigate, and restore those harms. One concept nested within the polluter pays system is “user pays.” This concept is simple in theory but often fraught with challenges: how do you ensure equity of access to environmental resources? How much should be paid if the impairment of different users differs? Should hikers pay less than those on mountain bikes? Should OHV users pay more?

The goals of a user pay policy include to provide for the conservation of the resource being used and to account for the damage done by public use. Today we will focus on one example of this – charging for the use of public land. More specifically, we will be highlighting an Albertan example of user fees for public land access – the Kananaskis Conservation Pass (the “Pass”).

On June 1, 2021 the Government of Alberta implemented the Pass.[2] It is a yearly fee required to access the Kananaskis boundary area. This is an area made up of provincial parks, provincial recreation areas, wildland provincial parks, public land use zones, and public land recreation areas – a virtual tapestry of land use types. You can see the map of the area below:


This variety of land use types is important because while the term ‘conservation pass’ may suggest that the area covered under the pass restriction is protected land, this is not necessarily the case. Rather, the Kananaskis boundary area represents a wide variety of land use types and designations including protected area designations, public land use zones, commercial and resource dispositions, power generation facilities, residential areas, and an urban village.[3]

To ensure payment, the Pass is tied to a vehicle and a person must not operate a vehicle in the Pass Area unless they have obtained a Pass and registered their licence plate.[4] Personal vehicles cost $15 for a daily pass or $90 for an annual.[5] The Pass applies to everyone entering the area, with some exemptions including for certain government vehicles; those living and working in the area; and the recipients of Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, Income Support, or the Alberta Adult Health Benefits program.[6]

The Pass initially came into force under Ministerial Order 51/2021, which was enabled under section 13 of the Provincial Parks Act, section 43.1 of the Provincial Parks (General) Regulation, section 9.1(1)(a)(i.1) of the Public Lands Act, and section 33.1 of the Public Lands Administration Regulation.[7] Prior to the passing of this Order, the government also made amendments to the Public Lands Act.[8] Specifically, they amended section 9.1 of the Public Lands Act giving the Minister the power to prescribe a fee for the occupation of public land.[9] Additionally, amendments to the Provincial Parks (General) Regulation, authorized the Minister to impose access fees on provincial parks.[10]

Now, just shy of 6 months later, the government has announced the sale of 253,000 passes resulting in $10 million in revenue.[11] An October news release stated that revenue from the Pass has gone to hiring conservation officers, reopening two visitor centres, grooming cross-country ski trails, and increased public safety through incident response services and traffic management.[12] A specific accounting of the funds has not been provided.

This announcement is consistent with previous statements on the Pass website which stated that revenue generated from the Pass will be used for ‘public safety, and services and facilities.’[13] However, while this represents a clear connection between revenue generated from the use of a resource – public land access – back into the resource, there are a few important qualifications.

First, it is interesting to consider whether visitor centres or grooming are should be properly considered conservation funding. It would likely be more conservation focused if the revenue generated was used to pay for habitat restoration or species protection.

Second, it is important to note that there is no mention of the use of revenue in the Ministerial Order.[14]  This means that while funds have been injected back into the area so far, doing so is not mandatory and the current, or future, government could shift this priority. Overall, this represents a general lack of oversight and accountability to ensure the money raised is spent as promised.[15]

Third, and finally, even if the funds continue to be used for the maintenance and improvement of the Kananaskis area, it is still important to highlight some of the potential issues that may arise when we rely on user fees. Particularly, while proponents of user fees claim that these fees can recover costs and provide revenues efficiently, there are equity concerns that should be considered.[16] Even if charges seem nominal to middle and upper class individuals, many people of differing income brackets rely on public spaces for vacation, exercise, and recreation and “no matter how nominal the fee, there is always someone right at the edge.”[17] In light of this, we must consider whether the implementation of the Pass makes sufficient allowance for lower income Albertans.

One way that it does so is through the use of free days. Free days are listed on the Pass website as: June 21 – Indigenous People’s Day; July 17 – Parks Day; September 22 – Kananaskis Country’s birthday; November 11 – Remembrance Day; December 21 – First day of winter; and ‘Wilderness Wednesdays’ – the first Wednesday of every month.[18] However, none of these days are included in the Ministerial Order. This is important because policy can change much more easily and quickly than legislative requirements.

Further, exemptions for lower income Albertans, including those on Income Support, the Alberta Health Benefits program, and Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped are available. However, they must be approved by an Exemptions Officer who may limit the number of vehicles to which the exemption applies, determine the time period of the exemption, and add any other terms or conditions.[19] The discretion given to these Exemptions Officers may make it more difficult for all those who need an exemption to get one. This approach may also attach some degree of stigma to those who are forced to provide proof of income before getting an exemption and having to do so repeatedly. Perhaps, a better approach would be to proactively provide exemption passes on an annual basis to all those qualified.

It is also interesting to note who is not exempt including non-profits, schools, seniors, and those low income families who do not qualify for one of the listed programs.

On the other hand, in the case of our protected areas, visits have increased significantly and user fees may be a necessary response.[20] Research has found that the equity concerns associated with user fees shift when we are dealing with issues of resource overuse in part because overuse will likely lead to resource degradation.[21]Regardless, efficiency and accountability to ensure revenue is being properly used to fund conservation should be a priority. It has been found that the most successful programs ensure that the revenue from collected fees are secure from borrowing and held separately from general fund revenues. [22]

Stay tuned to this space for our upcoming report!

[1] Smart Prosperity Institute, “Invest in Nature: Scaling Conservation Finance in Canada for a Nature-Smart Economy” (May 2021) at 6 online:

[2] Government of Alberta, “Kananaskis Conservation Pass” online:[Kananaskis Conservation Pass Website].

[3] Shaun Fluker, “Kananaskis Conservation Pass” (7 June 2021) ABLawg online:[Shaun Fluker].

[4] Kananaskis Conservation Pass Order, Ministerial Order 51/2021 at s 3 online:[Kananaskis Conservation Pass Order].

[5] Ibid at s 8(a); Kananaskis Conservation Pass Website, supra note 2.

[6] Kananaskis Conservation Pass Order, supra note 4 at ss 11-14; Kananaskis Conservation Pass Website, supra note 2.

[7] Kananaskis Conservation Pass Order, supra note 4.

[8] Bill 64, Public Lands Amendment Act, 2nd Sess, 30th Leg, Alberta, 2021.

[9] Public Lands Act, RSA 2000, c P-40, s 9.1.

[10] Provincial Parks (General) Regulation, Alta Reg 102/1985, ss 43.1- 43.4.

[11] Minister of Environment and Parks, News Release, “Kananaskis Conservation Pass on track for success” (18 October 2021) online:

[12] Ibid.

[13] Kananaskis Conservation Pass Website, supra note 2.

[14] Shaun Fluker, supra note 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Thomas A. More, “A Functionalist Approach to User Fees” (1999) 31:3 J. of Leisure Research 227 at 227- 228 [Thomas A. More].

[17] Ibid at 232.

[18] Kananaskis Conservation Pass Website, supra note 2.

[19] Kananaskis Conservation Pass Order, supra note 4 at s 16.

[20] Ibid at 234.

[21] Thomas A. More, supra note 16 at 234.

[22] Kelly Pohl & Megan Lawson Ph.D., “State Funding Mechanisms for Outdoor Recreation” (August 2017) Outdoor Industry Association at 12 online:



The Environmental Law Centre (ELC) has been seeking strong and effective environmental laws since it was founded in 1982. The ELC is dedicated to providing credible, comprehensive and objective legal information regarding natural resources, energy and environmental law, policy and regulation in Alberta. The ELC’s mission is to advocate for laws that will sustain ecosystems and ensure a healthy environment and to engage citizens in the laws’ creation and enforcement. Our vision is a society where our laws secure an environment that sustains current and future generations and supports ecosystem health.

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