The Freedom of the Hills?
Read this if you belong to a club

Take a look at an article written recently by Jim Dennis, Permit Director for Kananaskis Country Parks Division for the Calgary Area Outdoor Council titled Size Does Matter! Group Use in Backcountry Areas of Parks in Kananaskis Country. It can be found at the COAC web site or downloaded as part of their Outdoor Update December 2008.

Most of the article explains how Kananaskis Country uses a permit system to manage large commercial groups hiking/skiing in the backcountry.  Fair enough. Most people would agree that encountering large groups of people on the trails takes away from the experience. However, at the recent TUG meeting Jim dropped a bombshell by announcing that henceforth this would apply to non-commercial outdoor clubs as well. Such was the immediate outcry the government immediately backed off. 

So now there is talk of applying this system only to outdoor clubs who have group sizes exceeding 15 and that the permit system would be purely voluntary, whereby organized, non-commercial groups that inquire about doing trips into the backcountry may be issued a “no fee” Letter of Authority.

Pay attention to the wording of the last two paragraphs — reproduced in italic below. I have highlighted a number of pertinent words or phrases that raise questions or are cause for alarm to any club who might think of participating in this not terribly well thought out scheme.

“Non-commercial groups who use backcountry areas of Kananaskis Country Parks to recreate are not required to obtain a permit other than for camping in a designated backcountry campground or for a special event. As part of an education process, organized non-commercial groups that inquire about doing trips into the backcountry may be issued a “no fee” Letter of Authority. Conditions are placed on the Letter of Authority to advise and educate the group about group size guidelines, safety, ways that the group can reduce their impacts on the environment, and ways to reduce conflicts with other users. Notifying the Parks Division about the activities of groups of this type is voluntary and therefore gathering data on backcountry use can be very challenging for the Parks Division. Information that is gathered provides the Division with important data for making management decisions about use of the park and what facilities may be necessary to accommodate this use.”

 “The Parks Division of Kananaskis Country encourages organized non-commercial groups which are greater than fifteen persons to let us know of your planned outings in to backcountry areas. Larger groups are encouraged to break up in to smaller groups or choose a variety of different trails when going in to backcountry areas. Issuing a Letter of Authority allows our staff to be informed of a large group’s presence and provides an opportunity to educate and inform users on issues including trail closures, safety hazards or other features about the areas that the group plans to use. The information you provide to us on the number of people in your group helps us in making more informed management decisions about these important backcountry areas.

I have a number of questions:

  • Why does K-Country need to issue a Letter of Authority if not to mandate something? 
  • What do they mean by “Conditions are placed on the Letter of Authority to advise and educate…”
  • Like the commercial groups, you will likely be told which trails you can hike on,  which are mostly Designated trails. If you notify K Country of a hike on a non-designated trail will you be told you can’t go? Quite possibly.

Now there are not that many clubs who hike in groups of over 15, so you may think this a non-issue. But there are a few, such as seniors clubs, who must hire a 30-seater bus to get everyone to a trailhead. As one senior said, they are either not going to go out, or will completely ignore the regulations at the risk of paying a hefty fine.  

Our advice at present is to do nothing, because if even one club starts participating in the process it could very well change from voluntary to mandatory. And then what? There is also a load of paper work involved and the information you give will possibly be used against you.  

While we are certainly willing to support an education process to encourage organized groups to reduce group size on all K-Country trails in some way, we question the rather high-handed way that K-Country is tackling this issue. K Country needs to have more discussion with clubs before implementing this scheme.

Your thoughts on this issue?

4 comments… add one
  • B. Nov 29, 2014, 9:30 pm

    Re Jorg: *but certainly not during the week*. I happen to do almost all of my hiking on weekdays and it is extremely irritating to encounter large groups.
    Second, experience is a relative term. The fact is that a large group plodding through the woods will certainly cause disturbance, not so much to the environment as to the animal population. The levels of interaction taking place in X ecosystem are much deeper and more fragile than most people realize (see Jon Young’s book What the Robin Knows) and a large group of people will disrupt it.
    One day in August when we didn’t have much time we went for a plod round Fullerton Loop. At the south end pf Ranger Tidge we encountered a crowd of about 40 schoolkids. No respect for their surrounds at all. Major disturbance!
    I agree with Gil that the restrictions are not the problem its the wording.

  • Jorg Stuwe Mar 27, 2009, 10:55 am

    Anonymous appears to have the inside track on Government thinking and is likely anonymous for just that reason. Being part of a seniors hiking club who venture out with a bus in the middle of the week, I can honestly say that none of the concerns expressed by anonymous apply to us.
    1. During the week there is literally no one else on the trails. Large groups may be an irritant on week-ends but certainly not during the week. So the notion that we present a large group that some may feel imposed upon is a non-issue.
    2. We are respectful of the environment and know how fragile much of the growth is at higher levels. We always draw attention to this during our outings.
    3. We always inform ourselves on conditions prior to leaving for our designated destinations. Additionally we are lucky have someone within our group who provides indepth geological and environmental information about the area we are visiting.
    4. We are one of several seniors hiking clubs who spend time grooming and repairing trails in Kananaskis which are then used by the hikers who feel awkward about meeting the occasional large group.
    5. Contrary to the implied assertion by anonymous, we are not inexperienced, do not pose a significant or any risk to the environment or fragile eco-system. But I would venture to say that the massive crowds that populate the mountains and trails on week-ends, leave their garbage, which we incidentally pick up are often ignorant of their impact on the environment.

    Here is a suggestion:
    If you want to make the mountains a place to be and to be enjoyed by all, try to find ways to tap into hiking groups for additional environmental maintenance and support. We love to do that because we know that we all ultimately benefit. And the Government will as well, you save money and staff because you have the certainty that the eyes, hands and support of the many will keep the environment safe for all. I would invite the Government to come and speak to us on those terms and you would find us more than cooperative.

  • Gillean Daffern Jan 6, 2009, 1:14 pm

    Thanks for the comments.

    As stated earlier, I am completely in favor of keeping group size to a minimum. But you know, there are friendlier ways of going about this. What I didn’t like was the way the government approached the issue. I believe the term used in government circles is called “floating a trial balloon.” And I don’t like their choice of wording which implies that club members/leaders are ignorant of the outdoors. I have asked Jim Dennis to elucidate on some of these areas of concern to the general public.

    If the paperwork required by commercial groups is any indication, I think it unrealistic to expect clubs, and particularly seniors clubs, to deal with all the paperwork that is needed. Who is going to volunteer? This is definitely not in the same league as getting permits for backcountry camping.

    You and I have different ideas about what “The Freedom of the Hills” means. Most people I know go there to recuperate from the constraints of everyday living, and what is happening is that bureaucracy is following us in there in an increasing number of ways.

    I will leave the “keep K Country wild” as a topic for another time, unless someone wishes to raise it now?

  • Anonymous Jan 3, 2009, 3:54 pm

    In response to your write up concerning Jim Dennis’ article, I am unclear of the issue you are taking up with it. It seems to me that you disagree, quite obviously, with K-Country’s efforts to manage the parks and protected areas so that they might remain in tact for those non-recreational users such as Bears, Wolves, Cougars, Pikas, Martens etc… As I read through Jim’s article I was impressed, and thought this one of the many reasonable strategies that could indeed keep this special area so special. I am not in disagreement with you about wanting everyone to have access to the outdoors and all of the opportunities it provides, but we can all see what kind of impact people, especially in large numbers, can have on a delicate environment. What I gathered from your response is that impact is not one of your main concerns. I am a hiker/skier and I love this place. I have seen it become busier and busier every year for many years. And no doubt, I love to take my friends and family out into the back country as well. But surely, as a hiker and author yourself, you can understand the need to know, study and react to the numbers of people recreating in K-Country. K-Country managers seem to be doing all they can to provide exceptional outdoor experience while still protecting one of the most important ecosystems in the world. So, based on my own opinions, I have my own answers to your questions:
    It seems to me that the reason K-Country may need to issue a no-fee letter of authority is simply so that K-Country staff may have an idea of where larger groups are going in the backcountry (especially if venturing into more environmentally sensitive areas), the nature of their activities, and how many larger groups are using particular areas. This may assist parks staff in studying the impact that is caused by increased people pressure, possibly relating it to large groups, and thus having the knowledge to be able to better protect the area.
    Based on Jim’s article, the conditions that may be placed on the letter would be there as reference, as there is on the back of Back country permits for individual users, about safe travel, less impact, and proper back country etiquette. I have been issued my fair share of back country permits, and have no issue with the couple of pointers on the back. Same idea. This is extremely important for large groups of hikers that may not be particularly familiar or comfortable in the back country.
    Lastly, I am surprised that you would make this statement in your final question. First of all, who wants to encounter groups of thirty up at Three-Isle Lake when you are trying to have a peaceful retreat? We have all experienced that, and it is very fortunate to sometimes be warned by visitor center staff of large groups, so that one can choose a different, perhaps less busy location. Second, if a large group does not inquire about a certain location, they may miss out on valuable information regarding safety, wildlife sightings or delicate environment that may not withstand a large group at once. Third, there is no law that says you may not travel on un-designated trails, although they are indeed not maintained for very good reasons, such a providing very good bear habitat, and large groups can cause an irreversible disruption to these areas. So large groups may be educated as to the reasons they are perhaps not advised to enter an area, and if they choose to do so it is at their own risk, and it is their own conscience that they must deal with. Apart from education and common sense, there is nothing stopping a group from inquiring for safety’s sake, receiving a letter, and going on an un-designated trail.
    So in conclusion, I was extremely surprised that you read Jim Dennis’ article as a threat to your freedom in the hills, and I sincerely hope that you might look at it another way. The sole reason for implementing such strategies is to keep this place that we all love so much (and would miss dearly if it got trashed by huge bus loads of people) wild.

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