BANFF – The long-awaited new management plan that sets direction for Banff National Park over the next 10 years has been approved.
The 2022 management plan, which was tabled in parliament on Aug. 17 and officially released on Aug. 22, is silent on Liricon Capital’s proposed aerial gondola between the Banff townsite and Mount Norquay ski area.
Parks Canada officials say that means a gondola is off the table once and for all.
They pointed to a decision against an aerial tramway following a feasibility study that came out of direction in the 2010 management plan, which determined the proposal was against Parks Canada’s policies on development limits and ski area management.
“That’s correct… that’s our position,” said Sal Rasheed, the superintendent of Banff National Park in response to a direct question that no mention of a gondola in the management plan means it is not an option. “The proponents were notified, and so from Parks Canada’s perspective, that work we identified in the 2010 plan was assessed and completed.”
Parks Canada has been publicly silent on the proposal by Liricon-Plenary for a passenger train between Calgary and Banff, however the new management plan does not appear to close the door on that idea.
The plan raises challenges around wildlife mortality on the existing Canadian Pacific Railway tracks.
“Proposals for twinning the rail line for passenger rail between Calgary and the community of Banff, and for expansion of the rail sidings in the park may, if they come to fruition during the life of this plan, augment these challenges,” states the management plan.
At the heart of the new 58-page Banff park management plan are nine high-level key strategies, including climate change targets and moving people sustainably in the face of skyrocketing visitation to more than four million tourists a year – 30 per cent more than a decade ago.
Visitors make up about half of the 8.3 million vehicles travelling into the park each year, with the other half travelling through to other destinations. In some of the busier areas, such as Lake Louise Drive, vehicle traffic has increased by 70 per cent over the past 10 years.
To help deal with rising visitation that is putting increasing pressure on Canada’s first national park and degrading visitor experiences, the new management plan directs a comprehensive people-moving strategy be developed by 2024.
The comprehensive people-movement plan would also be informed by the Parks Canada-struck expert panel, whose recommendations are expected to be publicly released this year.
Rasheed said visitation continues to increase post-COVID-19.
“Our numbers in Banff are rebounding really, really well. July was the busiest July that we’ve had in the history of Banff National Park,” he said, adding 600,000 people visited the park that month.
“We continue to encourage all Canadians of all different backgrounds and interests to come and experience this place, but it’s become apparent that we need to take a more robust and rigorous approach in terms of how people move.”
Mass transit will continue to be a component of the comprehensive people-movement plan, but the strategy will also use a variety of approaches, including shuttles, timed length of stay in peak periods, and parking space management.
Rasheed said paid parking is one of many tools that is “fair game” throughout the park.
“All options are available to us,” he said. “We certainly have paid parking in Lake Louise… it’s just really getting a right fit to where they’d be best applied.”
The intercept parking lot at the Lake Louise ski hill will continue to be trialed, however, new intercept lots near the Banff townsite – which the Town of Banff has been lobbying for many years to help ease congestion in the tourist town – are off the table.
The management plan indicates that building new parking generally requires use of undeveloped park lands, which may mean permanent loss of wildlife habitat and potential loss of cultural resources or places of cultural significance.
According to Parks Canada, research has shown that additional road and parking capacity can be quickly taken up, and can even encourage more personal car use, leading to more traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
Rasheed said the federal agency is not interested in opening up discussions with the Town of Banff on new intercept lots, adding the the townsite’s boundary is fixed in federal legislation.
“I think there are some hard lines… Parks Canada really isn’t interested to open those discussions up again because it would stray away from our core mandate,” said Rasheed.
“We’ve been fairly consistent on that, that we’re not interested in talking about that.”
Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno said the Town of Banff and Parks Canada are in agreement on mass and micro transit as the way of the future, and while she respects Parks’ position, she was disappointed to hear intercept lots were off the table.
“I also understand the language in the plan around the pros and cons around building an intercept lot on undeveloped park land, but that being, an intercept lot doesn’t have to be a Town of Banff initiative, it can also be a Parks Canada one,” she said.
“That’s why I am really looking forward to learning what the expert panel will be recommending and see how Parks Canada will respond to their advice.”
DiManno said the train station parking lot is an essential piece of Banff’s transportation puzzle, noting visitors need a place to park before taking transit around the townsite and other popular places in the national park.
The mayor agrees Banff cannot build its way out of a traffic volume challenge, but said this summer and last summer showed the intercept lot at the train station can help decrease traffic on Mountain Avenue - which leads to popular tourist destinations like the gondola and hot springs on Sulphur Mountain.
“We only have about 550 stalls at the train station, and when you do the math on what they’re saying is about four million personal vehicles a year coming into the park, even with a mass transit solution in place from Calgary, we will need more intercept parking during peak times,” she said.
The new management plan also directs development of a strategic plan for a sustainable public transportation system in Lake Louise, guided by emergency preparedness and response considerations, as a component of the park’s broader sustainable people-moving system.
In addition, Parks Canada will also take a closer look at the Lake Minnewanka area, which is another tourist hotspot jam-packed with private vehicles and under pressure from increased visitation, even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the introduction of public transit to the area in recent years, most of the roughly one million people who visit the area still drive in their personal vehicles, leading to a 50 per cent jump in traffic volumes over the past 10 years.
The region, which includes Johnson and Two Jack lakes, contains some of the park’s rare montane ecosystem, which provides significant wildlife habitat and contains the Norquay-Cascade and Two Jack wildlife corridors.
One of the biggest ecological concerns in the area for Parks Canada is the potential for the introduction of invasive aquatic species into one of the lakes or streams through recreational use.
A plan and strategic environmental assessment will be developed for the Minnewanka region, which Rasheed said will involve comprehensive public and Indigenous consultation and review.
“Over the last number of years, it’s become widely popular … and it really necessitates a need for a holistic plan for that entire area,” said Rasheed.
“Everything is on the table, whether it’s changing traffic patterns, changing visitor use patterns, the way we use the lake – it all is open for discussion.”
One of the biggest changes from previous management plans is the call to apply a climate change lens to the national park’s management approach. A climate change action plan will be developed by 2024.
Rasheed said feedback from more than 5,000 comments on the draft management plan and input from 30 Indigenous partner organizations, the Town of Banff, businesses and local stakeholder groups helped inform the plan.
“The final draft is a reflection of that input,” he said.
Management plans for Jasper, Waterton Lakes, Yoho and Kootenay national parks were also released on Monday.