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CPAWS calling for visitor use management strategy for Banff National Park

“Banff is the most visited Canadian national park. Banff should be a leader in this,” said Sarah Elmeligi, an independent consultant with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society . “Visitation continues to grow and if we’re not proactive in adjusting it, we’re just going to end up being a dog chasing it tail.”

BANFF – A prominent national environmental group is calling on the Town of Banff to work together to lobby Parks Canada to implement a human-use management strategy for Banff National Park.

The number of visitors to Canada’s flagship national park has increased by almost 30 per cent over the past eight years to more than 4.4 million people a year, with hot spots like Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Bow Lake and Johnston Canyon congested and crowded.

With Banff National Park’s management plan under review, and as the park reopens after being closed during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic for more than three months, CPAWS argues there’s never been a more opportune time to work on a visitor management strategy.

“Up until three months ago, we had a lot of people visiting Banff. I know that they are all going to come back; it’s just going to take a little bit of time,” said Sarah Elmeligi, an independent consultant with CPAWS, during a recent presentation to Banff town council.

“We see an array of issues associated with this increased visitation, so we need to find ways to more effectively manage this dramatic increase in visitation. The solution to our prolific visitation is to actually manage people.”

CPAWS points to congestion, declining visitor satisfaction, development pressures to address the sheer volume of people and increased risk of human-wildlife conflict as some problems and challenges with ever increasing and ineffectively managed visitation.

“We also have reduced ecological integrity at some sites because there’s just simply a higher volume of people visiting them,” Elmeligi said.

As COVID-19 restrictions continue lifting and Banff begins to welcome visitors back to the tourist town and surrounding national parks, CPAWS wants to work with the Town of Banff to improve the visitor experience and ecological conditions.

“This is an important opportunity for us to look at visitation in a new way and find strategies that ensure the visitor experience and the ecological integrity of lands surrounding Banff are enhanced,” Elmeligi said.

“We’re not alone in dealing with this challenge of having really high visitation in ecologically sensitive areas. Many parks around the world are struggling with how to address this prolific visitation while adhering to management plan objectives.”

Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said she has connected Elmeligi with Randall McKay, who is the Town of Banff’s point man on the management plan review work with Parks Canada.

She also said the recently struck economic recovery task force has been working to immediately relaunch Banff’s economy, but will soon engage in a broader conversation about tourism in the park.

“Now the task force is looking forward to more engagement, more community involvement, more conversation around what the town of Banff and the destination looks like,” she said.

“There is a bigger discussion around what we as a destination … I think there will be lots of opportunity to have great discussion.”

Councillor Peter Poole said the concept of people management is not new.

“The idea of spacing people out over time certainly happens with a lot of businesses, with cultural organizations,” he said.

“Museums give people different time slots, golf courses give people different time slots, dining guests are used to different time slots, so we may see that with some of our public spaces too as we go forward.”

Elmeligi has been working to understand how protected areas around the world from Africa and Australia to the Unites States, including Yosemite and Acadia national parks, deal with high visitor numbers.

She loves the U.S. model, developed through an inter-agency visitor use management council, which worked to develop a human-use management framework focused on both ecological integrity and visitor experience.

Such a plan here would consider thresholds, tactics, monitoring plans, indicators and adaptive management – and Elmeligi said consultation with all stakeholders is key to a successful plan.

“Taking a strategic approach to address visitation across the landscape is more effective and efficient than obviously considering sites on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

CPAWS is recommending the landscape units that are already defined in the current 2010 management plan act as a place to start for human-use management, with an overarching strategy that trickles down to each location.

“I also recommend we start with the most highly visited ones, which include the lands around the town of Banff, town of Lake Louise and Sunshine ski hill,” Elmeligi said.

According to CPAWS, the necessary tools to manage human use would depend on the landscape management unit, its existing facilities, and its visitation objectives.

Examples include limiting the number of people, such as quotas, facility planning by using infrastructure to naturally direct human use, and public transit to get people to areas that are prepared to handle the highest levels of visitation.

“Although we often think of carrying capacity or setting visitation thresholds as a tool to manage visitation, a human use strategy is so much more than just thresholds and saying, ‘there’s only 100 people allowed here and that’s it,’ but it’s also more than a transportation study,” she said.

“When we take a big picture approach there is room for creative and innovative solutions that work for visitors, businesses and residents, as well as wildlife and the ecological attributes of the park. Visitation is managed through good planning that involves facilities, infrastructure, programming, activities – and some restrictions.”

Visitors to the mountain national parks are already familiar with some of the tools used to manage visitors for various reasons, such as the reservation system to Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park.

Backcountry camping is inherently managed because a permit system is in place, while Parks Canada also makes some trails off limits to people in order to protect wildlife such as bears and wolves.

“The pieces that are missing are really around day-use management,” Elmeligi said.

“How do we manage people who don’t need to register in advance to partake in whatever activity?”

Elmeligi said a human-use strategy is unfortunately outside the scope of the current Banff management planning process.

“I’m not suggesting Parks Canada draft this strategy in the next two months and include it in the draft plan,” Elmeligi said.

“But it would be great if the draft management plan contained goals and direction on how to get us there to create some kind of visitor use management strategy for Banff.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Parks Canada’s consultations on the draft Banff National Park management plan are suspended, but there are plans to resume when it is considered safe to do so.

Justin Brisbane, Parks Canada’s public relations and communications officer, said it’s encouraging that the management plan is the subject of discussion, noting Parks looks forward to hearing ideas and perspectives when public engagement resumes.

“It is too early to say exactly what will be in the next management plan, however, we can say that the concept of human-use management has appeared in a number of management plans,” Brisbane said in an email statement.

“The first step in preparing a new draft management plan is to consider which strategies remain relevant and necessary for the successful management of park resources into the future.”

During earlier phases of community consultation on the management plan, which has been summarized by Parks Canada in a What We Heard document, visitation was a hot topic.

While perspectives varied significantly, the prevailing view was that Banff is overcrowded, with experiences on park roads and parking lots, in and around the communities of Banff and Lake Louise, at popular day-use areas, and on front country trails in the summer cited as examples. 

In the opinion of some, high levels of visitation increases the pressure for more development in the park, while others indicated current visitation levels are already damaging to the environment or have the potential to, and further increases are not ecologically sustainable. 

In the feedback, members of the public encouraged Parks Canada to identify both ecological and visitation thresholds and to develop strategies to actively manage visitors within the identified capacity. 

“Numerous tools or tactics for managing visitation levels including: caps, seasonal-area restrictions, differential fee structures, reservation systems, lotteries, etcetera were also mentioned,” according to the What We Heard document. “However, other respondents stated that there were already too many restrictions in the park and users’ right to free access should not be further impeded.”

Elmeligi said a human-use management strategy would be precedent setting in Canada’s national parks.

“Banff is the most visited Canadian national park. Banff should be a leader in this,” she said.

“Visitation continues to grow and if we’re not proactive in adjusting it, we’re just going to end up being a dog chasing its tail.”