BANFF – Parks Canada is shutting down public access to national parks, including the backcountry, day-use areas and trails, to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Effective Wednesday (March 25), the federal agency will be temporarily suspending all motor vehicle access to national parks, heritage sites and marine conservation areas.
Parks Canada officials say this means that all parking lots, vehicle services, trails, washrooms, day-use facilities, showers, visitor centres, and all camping facilities, including oTENTiks, yurts and 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.
“Anyone considering a visit to a Parks Canada location should cancel their trips.”
Highways and roadways that pass through Parks Canada places will remain open such as the Trans-Canada Highway through Banff and Yoho national parks.
Parks Canada will limit its activities to basic critical operations.
Wilkinson said the good weather on the weekend drew many people to spend time outdoors in national parks.
“We saw visitation rates soar. This, however, is an issue as our trails and day-use areas were suddenly quite crowded,” he said.
“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 welcomed the move.
“I think this is an appropriate step to take at this time,” she said.
“I would say 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.”
With the national parks and other areas shut down to public access, Avalanche Canada will also issue its final forecast for the season on March 28, which is about a month earlier than normal. The final three-day forecast will remain in effect until 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 healthcare 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 BC 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 t we feel it is essential that we work together and do what we can to avoid putting any extra load on our healthcare system at this time.”
Follow RMOToday.com's COVID-19 special section for the latest local and national news on the coronavirus pandemic, as well as resources, FAQs and more.