Free entry into national parks across Canada to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation is causing concern for residents of the Bow Valley.
The concern over the impact of the free entry to the iconic and popular Banff National Park came up during the recent 18th annual planning forum held by the Parks Canada field unit last Thursday (Feb. 11).
With an estimated 3.8 million visitors expected to have visited Banff in the 2015 fiscal year, local resident Paul Kalra asked superintendent Dave McDonough and Lake Louise superintendent Melanie Kwong if they are ready for a potential five million in 2017.
“I highly recommend you should do a stress test on five million plus visitors,” Kalra said. “Have you thought about that?”
In January, Parks Canada announced that, in celebration of the country’s 150th birthday, park passes bought in 2016 would not expire until the end of 2017. Essentially, park access will be free for all users in 2017.
New Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna was tasked with the plan in her ministerial mandate letter.
“Make admission for all visitors to national parks free in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation,” stated the letter. “Beginning in 2016, ensure that admission for children under 18 is free, and provide any adult who has become a Canadian citizen in the previous 12 months one year’s free admission.”
In response to the concerns brought up at the forum, Kwong said internally at Parks Canada discussions have been focused on 2017 and what free entry means, especially with the fact that visitation has been increasing over the past several years. In fact, the 3.8 million visitors Banff welcomed in 2015 is a 7.4 per cent increase over 2014, which was a 10.4 per cent increase over 2013.
“I think the important thing is to continue to work together,” Kwong said. “I do not think anybody has the magic answer and this is not to skirt the question you asked Paul, but I think we definitely have an opportunity to learn from what we have been doing.”
Specifically, Kwong pointed toward work being done to deal with traffic and congestion at Moraine Lake in fall as an example. She said over the past three years Parks has been trying various methods to get people to Moraine by bus instead of car traffic to reduce the number of vehicles on that road.
“I know what we have done to date is not going to be enough, we need to do an order of magnitude more,” she said. “I can’t say we have the answer, but we are working on it and we are not working on it alone.”
Increased visitation and how the mountain national parks are addressing issues related to it was a common theme to concerns raised at the forum. McDonough pointed out that increased visitation can really depend on what time of year it occurs. He said there is room for growth in winter and shoulder seasons, whereas summer months are already “quite full.
“If visitation does continue to increase year after year, it will put additional stresses on infrastructure,” McDonough said.
McDonough added growing demand for the national park and increased visitation expected in 2017 is something they are currently working on with stakeholders to find solutions.
“We are still working through that now to manage the potential for free entry or discovery passes,” he said. “We are working through those details at a national level, but I am confident we will be able to provide the same high quality level of service we provide now in 2017.”