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Conservationists say new Banff expert visitation panel lacks 'crucial expertise'

Bow Valley Naturalists and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society concerned that new expert visitation panel lacks representation from experienced ecologists and social scientists.
20210529 Two Jack Lake 0014
With Banff becoming increasingly busy, an expert panel has been struck to look at how people travel and experience the national park. Two Jack Lake has seen increasing visitation in recent years. EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BANFF – A federally-appointed expert panel has been struck to come up with a fundamental top-to-bottom overhaul of the way people access, experience and move around Banff National Park.

The nine-member panel, whose membership was announced by Parks Canada on May 26, has a wide range of expertise in protected area management, transportation innovation, technology, and tourism.

However, the Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN) and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) – which have been calling on Parks Canada to develop a comprehensive human-use management strategy for well over a decade – say the panel lacks crucial expertise, such as representation from experienced ecologists and social scientists.

Unlike an urban transit system, they say Canada’s flagship national park with complex visitor and ecological issues requires as much first-hand biological and social science expertise as engineering knowledge. 

“Unfortunately, the visitor movement panel structure seems tilted towards engineering and tourism, lacking in local ecological depth and completely missing the social science-recreation field,” said Reg Bunyan, BVN’s vice-president and a retired Parks Canada resource conservation specialist for Banff National Park.

“Without a human-use strategy to guide it and missing these key panel members, we fear that the panel may struggle to move beyond putting yet another Band-Aid on the park's perpetual problem parking areas.”

The panel will work to advise Parks Canada on a long-term framework for how visitors will get around the Bow Valley and experience Banff National Park, including consideration of new technologies and best practices from around the world.

In addition, the committee has been tasked with thinking beyond transportation modes to demand management strategies, such as reservation systems, access restrictions, quotas, or timed and paid parking.

Banff National Park draws about 4.2 million a year; with only 7.2 per cent, or 287,000 of those people, arriving by mass transit such as private bus tours. The rest arrive in private vehicles.

Over the past 10 years, vehicle traffic in the park has increased 30 per cent overall, with some specific locations such as the roads leading to tourism hotspots like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake showing increases of up to 70 per cent.

Bunyan said a landscape level human-use strategy ideally would have been in place before even starting a panel discussion on how to best move visitors to and within the park.

“Without a full understanding of ecological capacity issues and how a wide spectrum of visitors use the park, the visitor movement panel runs the risk of formulating recommendations that may resolve an issue in one area, but create secondary issues elsewhere,” he said.

“Visitor displacement to more sensitive areas and the ability for transit to be additive to visitation levels at popular areas are very real concerns.”

CPAWS is pleased to see the diversity of expertise on the panel, but is concerned there is no one with expertise in wildlife movement and habitat use around people given Parks Canada is legally bound to prioritize ecological integrity.

“We find it troubling that there appears to be no one on the panel who can specifically speak to ecological or wildlife research in the context of park visitation in Banff National Park,” said Anna Pidgorna, CPAWS’ national senior conservation coordinator.

Parks Canada was not immediately available to address the Outlook’s question on the makeup of the committee; however, officials say panelists were selected based on their knowledge or experience relevant to protected area management or expertise related to challenges and opportunities facing the park.

Officials noted any unsuccessful panel applicants will have further opportunities to participate and provide input through future public engagement opportunities via a consultation plan to be developed by the panel.

Ron Hallman, president and CEO of the Parks Canada Agency, said the panel membership represents a wealth of experience and expertise to help Parks Canada develop a vision that will transform the way people access and move the national park.

“Together, we can better understand and prepare for changing approaches and changing preferences that will allow Parks Canada to continue delivering outstanding visitor experiences, while ensuring that the protection of the environment and ecological integrity remains our first priority,” he said. “I look forward to seeing the results of the panel’s work.”

In the coming months, the panel will attend virtual scheduled meetings to participate in discussions and work toward its objectives laid out by Parks Canada.

Engagement will include Indigenous groups and a broad cross-section of interested groups, organizations and individuals to gain an understanding of issues related to the panel’s mandate.

Bill Fisher, a Bow Valley resident and former Banff National Park superintendent and executive director of the mountain parks, has been appointed by Hallman as chair of the group.

Fisher said the panelists recognize that “one approach does not fit all.”

“Only by working together, can we help identify approaches to visitation that will support an environmentally and economically sustainable future for the park,” he said in a news release.

Joining Fisher on the panel are Dr. Tony Qiu (Associate Professor, University of Alberta), Selby Thannikary (Team Lead, Transportation Planning, Stantec), Leslie Bruce (President and CEO, Banff Lake Louise Tourism), Jamie McCulloch (Executive Director, Rocky Mountain Adaptive), Kerri Cahill (Branch Chief, US National Park Service), Jen Malzer (Transit Planner, City of Calgary), Dr. Dan Wicklum (CEO, Transit Accelerator), Dr. Emily Grisé (Assistant Professor, University of Alberta), and Kelly Gibson (Banff Town Manager).