BOW VALLEY – Parks Canada has shut down public access to all national parks, including trails, parking lots and the backcountry in Banff National Park, to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The drastic measures, which came into effect on Wednesday (March 25), followed a weekend that saw thousands of Calgarians and Albertans escape to the mountains seeking time in the outdoors during this crisis.
Suspending all motor vehicle access to national parks, heritage sites and marine conservation areas across the country means all parking lots, trails, washrooms, day-use facilities, showers, visitor centres, campgrounds, including backcountry camping, are closed until further notice.
“You need to stay at home, respect social distancing practices and avoid public gatherings,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal minister of environment and climate change responsible for Parks Canada in a YouTube video message.
“Anyone considering a visit to a Parks Canada location should cancel their trips.”
Highways and roadways that pass through Parks Canada places, such as the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff and Yoho national parks, the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper and Highway 93 South in Kootenay National Park, remain open.
Commercial and through traffic is permitted on these roads, but parking is not permitted along highways or roadways and all parking lots at trailheads and day-use areas will be closed.
The Bow Valley Parkway, from its east end junction with Highway 1 to its junction with Highway 93 South, is closed, as is Minnewanka Loop, Mountain Avenue, Tunnel Mountain Road, Sunshine Road and Norquay Road.
Road barriers and signs will be set up on these secondary roads to block access and make sure people are aware of the changes. Contractors, emergency services, utilities and related services will continue to be provided with access on these roads.
“Access to the Town of Banff and Village of Lake Louise and all business and essential services will be maintained,” said Megan Damini, a spokesperson for Parks Canada, noting resident access to and from their homes will not be affected.
Parks Canada will be monitoring visitation given the temporary suspension of visitor services, the temporary closure of visitor facilities, and the suspension of visitor vehicle access.
“Parks Canada will be collaborating with local police forces or the RCMP to enforce parking restrictions,” said Damini in an email.
The warm weather throughout the weekend drew many people to spend time outdoors, including in Banff where parking lots and vehicles lined the road at popular day-use areas like Johnston Canyon.
Officials said high visitation levels led to public safety concerns – including for those heading into the backcountry who may have needed to be rescued in the event of an accident – and health concerns with the increased risk of transmission of the coronavirus.
“We saw visitation rates soar," said Wilkinson. "This, however, is an issue as our tails and day-use areas were suddenly quite crowded.
“To be clear: this is unsafe. It increases the risk of the transmission of the COVID- 19 virus and that is why Parks Canada is immediately implementing new measures to address this concern.”
Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen, who had earlier made a plea to visitors to stay home, welcomed the move.
“I think this is an appropriate step to take at this time,” she Sorensen, who has shown strong leadership as the economy crumbles and thousands of local workers have lost their jobs in the town of about 9,000 residents.
“It will help our town because people won’t be coming from other parts of Alberta to spend a day and using the the national parks as a getaway – and that means less traffic in the vicinity of the town.”
The national park tourist town typically attracts about four million visitors a year, thanks to a strong tourism marketing plan, but most businesses are now closed and Banff Avenue is all but empty.
“Sorry folks, this is not a time for a road trip … we’ve kind of reached the point where we’re saying thank you for not visiting … as weird as that it is for us,” she said.
“We have minimal to no services open in Banff and, of course, our health services in our community are needed for those that need them, you know that live here.”
The Town of Banff declared a local state of emergency on March 17 before the Alberta government did, and on Wednesday (March 25), the Town of Canmore did the same.
With the recent restriction of visitor vehicle access in Banff National Park, combined with the high volume of local and regional visitation that has persisted in Canmore, municipal officials say the town is at a “tipping point in our ability to respond to this evolving emergency.”
The Town of Canmore has installed signage at the entrances to the community to discourage visitation, and is also monitoring trailheads and parking areas within Canmore – Bow River Bridge, Quarry Lake, Cougar Creek – and will take measures to restrict access if necessary.
Mayor John Borrowman had pleaded with visitors earlier this week to stay home, noting “it’s not appropriate to stop in town at this point.”
“Driving through the mountains to enjoy the scenery is not prohibited by the government of Alberta, but we need Canmore residents and visitors to make socially responsible decisions," he said.
Borrowman said most businesses have closed or restricted services to make sure they can manage social distancing requirements.
“The hospitality and retail sector have been responding to this situation in a responsible way, following expert advice from the provincial health authorities," he said.
Borrowman said the Town is keeping in close contact with public health authorities and follows recommendations the province has put in place.
“These are every stressful times for all of us here in Canmore and around the world,” he said.
“I want the residents to know the Town of Canmore is working hard to protect our community and to address situations as they change.”
In neighbouring Kananaskis Country, thousands of people headed to the mountains, where facilities such as toilets, picnic shelters and warm-up huts were closed a week earlier to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In some areas, staff had to turn away large groups of people who were not practising social distancing in several busy areas, including Troll Falls near Nakiska. At one point there were more than 200 cars parked at the Goat Creek trail near Canmore.
Unlike Parks Canada and national parks, Alberta Parks has not yet closed down public access.
Alberta Parks staff made a plea to visitors to pack out everything, noting visitors left behind garbage, used tampons, diapers, and even human feces next to many of the facilities in K-Country.
An Alberta Parks spokesperson said, as with many other jurisdictions, staff noticed provincial parks are a very popular escape during this challenging time in light of COVID-19 and requirements around social distancing.
“This past weekend brought to light some disturbing trends in our provincial parks, including extreme overcrowding, lack of social distancing and litter such as diapers, human feces and garbage near closed parks facilities,” said spokesperson John Muir.
“While we understand the need to get outdoors, now is not the time to congregate in large groups in our provincial parks. Many services in and around our parks have been closed as a direct result of recommendations from the chief medical officer of health.”
Conservationists raised some concerns, noting they understand people want to get outside during this global pandemic, but people must pack all garbage so as not to attract bears emerging from hibernation.
“It’s very frustrating … this certainly isn’t the time to be asking others to be picking up after you,” said Adam Linnard, Alberta program manager for Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative.
“Unlike us, bears are following pretty normal routines and starting to wake up from hibernation, so this is a really important time to be careful and not leave things that attract bears and other wildlife into places – that’s dangerous for bears and for us.”
On Sunday (March 22), Kananaskis Country Public Safety urged people to practice social-distancing.
The group’s Facebook post said lots of people were in the backcountry Saturday, many in groups at the trailhead, or groups of people travelling together in a vehicle.
“If you choose to go, travel in separate cars and stay at least six feet away from other people. If a trailhead looks packed or overly busy, then don’t go there,” according to Public Safety.
“The skiers we saw out there weren’t pushing it too hard, or into big terrain, and were practising the art of nice meadow walks.”
Meanwhile, Avalanche Canada will issue its final forecast for the season on Saturday (March 28), which is about a month earlier than normal. The final three-day forecast will remain in effect until Monday (March 30).
The organization’s forecasts rely primarily on data from a network of avalanche professionals across western Canada, but the early closure of backcountry operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic has cut off much of that data stream.
Officials say the warning service is no longer receiving enough information to issue accurate forecasts, adding this decision to end forecasting early is also prompted by concerns for the health care system during this epidemic.
“We do not want to provide a service that promotes recreating in mountainous terrain, where there is often significant hazard,” said Gilles Valade, Avalanche Canada’s executive director in a news release.
“Both B.C. and Alberta have declared a state of emergency. Our health authorities, as well as our prime minister, are urging people to stay home. This is clearly not the time for taking any sort of risk.”
In addition to the early end of the forecasts, Avalanche Canada will also shut down the Mountain Information Network (MIN).
This online platform allows backcountry users to submit trip reports and observations from the field. In normal times, the MIN is a highly successful strategy for exchanging real-time information.
But, as with the forecasts, Valade said Avalanche Canada does not want MIN reports to serve as encouragement to go into the backcountry.
He said Avalanche Canada takes its responsibilities very seriously as the national public avalanche safety organization.
“We do not take these steps lightly,” said Valade. “But we feel it is essential that we work together and do what we can to avoid putting any extra load on our health care system at this time.”
At the Outlook’s press deadline, there were 358 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alberta. Two people have died.
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