Kananaskis visitor calls for rapid shifts to public transit and better planning

Ptarmigan Cirque is a popular hike in Kananaskis for its family-friendly loop.  (Helen Pike/CBC - photo credit)

Ptarmigan Cirque is a popular hike in Kananaskis for its family-friendly loop. (Helen Pike/CBC – photo credit)

With continued visitor pressure to Kananaskis, officials in the area are trying to build momentum to forestall traffic and parking issues and better manage Alberta’s Crown Jewel Park.

Tourists love this part of the province for its wild atmosphere, lack of structure, and myriad recreational opportunities. But tourism advocates and officials believe Kananaskis needs structures to keep it sustainable and accessible for years to come.

To stay ahead of ongoing traffic pressures, groups have come together to start talks and studies that could add public transit options to the park, which is currently only accessible to those with access to a private vehicle.

“What visitors to Kananaskis really love is the wilderness and untapped adventures that can be experienced in Kananaskis,” said Rachel Ludwig, CEO of Tourism Canmore Kananaskis. “While this is working for now, I think we need to be better positioned for growth in the region.”

When the Kananaskis Conservation Pass was introduced, former Environment and Parks Secretary Jason Nixon told reporters that the daily or annual park entry fee for vehicles would encourage people to carpool.

Dave Gilson/CBC

Dave Gilson/CBC

The fee was a way to raise cash and fund more boots on the ground and address issues like parking enforcement, overflowing trash cans and pressured rescue organizations. But there were no immediate plans to launch a transit network.

“Other parks of this scale across North America have seen incredible results by deploying different types of bus technology within the park and increasing the number of parking spaces,” Nixon said on April 27, 2021.

“The goal isn’t to get over it right away. It’s to be able to start building a foundation.”

Record visitors, record problems

The Kananaskis region saw a record 5.4 million visits in 2020 – a 70 percent increase since 2017.

“That’s 1 million more than Banff,” Nixon said in 2021.

It was both a blessing and a curse.

“It put a lot of pressure on the country,” Nixon said.

While there are plans to connect Canmore’s mass transit system to Grassi Lakes and nearby trailheads in 2024, there is currently no public transit in the rest of the Kananaskis area. The province has not announced any transit plans or funding along Highway 40, which it says is the park’s backbone.

“Actually, a private vehicle is the only way to access Alberta’s birthright,” said Darren Enns, city councilor for the Kananaskis Improvement District (KID). “I think we have a transportation issue in Kananaskis right now and I think it’s important to preempt that.”

This winter, KID council members took steps to start a conversation about public transport in the region by forming a Transit Committee. While some at the table wanted to move forward with a summer transit pilot, Enns said the advice was to step back and begin a feasibility study.

“Let’s look at service levels and destinations,” said Enns. “Funding is absolutely part of the feasibility study and a big question mark, honestly.”

Mike Seehagel/Travel Alberta

Mike Seehagel/Travel Alberta

In other regions, such as Banff and Canmore, transit is funded by public and private funds. But the tax base in Kananaskis is small, with about 280 people living there, according to the province’s regional dashboard.

But these people play a key role in running Kananaskis attractions and businesses. Tourism Canmore Kananaskis CEO Rachel Ludwig said employers are facing staffing issues, just like in Banff and Canmore.

“Due to the remoteness of the site, they’re struggling to attract staff, so having transit there would definitely help,” Ludwig said.

Alberta Parks took a look at Highwood Pass, a region in Kananaskis that has exploded in recent years for its fall attraction: larch hikes.

Helen Pike/CBC

Helen Pike/CBC

Tracking visitor patterns there, an official told CBC, will help inform future visitor management strategies for this environmentally sensitive destination.

“During the larch season, thousands of Albertans take to the hiking trails in the area to experience the scenery and enjoy nature,” said a statement from the Department of Forestry, Parks and Tourism.

“Last fall, a number of measures were taken to support public safety, including reduced speed limits, additional parking controls and more staff deployed to the area.”

In a presentation to KID council members in November, Alberta Parks outlined that there are insufficient facilities in the Highwood Pass area for current use.

Management plans outdated, says tourism group

Ludwig said many of the park’s management plans needed updating. A look at the province’s public documents reveals that many of the area plans were drafted more than 10 years ago.

“We would like to see a management plan for Kananaskis that gives us a little guidance on how we can improve the visitor experience in a sustainable way,” said Ludwig. “Currently, all Kananaskis management plans are outdated.”

These are early talks, but they are points that city councils and tourism partners want to move forward quickly.

Serving this region with transit will be a challenge, Enns said, one that may require partnership with the private sector and the provincial government.


Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button