Canadians have been telling Parks Canada they don’t want new thrill-seeking activities or special events in the country’s flagship national park – but Ottawa chose to ignore them.
Parks Canada last year approved national policy that paves the way for adventure activities such as via ferrata, zip lines and hang-gliding in a bid to boost visitor numbers in parks across the country, including Banff.
But, according to an internal letter obtained through Access To Information, there was virtually no support for such thrill-seeking activities during Banff’s controversial management plan review.
The letter was written by Banff superintendent Kevin Van Tighem to high-ranking officials, including the agency’s boss, Alan Latourelle, and indicates people are looking for wildlife and wilderness, not adventure activities.
“Mostly we are hearing concerns about crowding and commercialization, plus predictions that these sorts of initiatives risk pushing some of our ecological integrity accomplishments backwards,” said Van Tighem in his December 2009 letter.
“The key point to me is not so much the negative feedback as it is the absence of positive feedback… nobody is pushing for new activities except for individual proponents.”
Last September, the federal government announced national policy direction that would allow new recreational activities in national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas.
Activities listed included mountain biking, kite-surfing, kite-boarding, hang gliding and paragliding. They also include guided interpretive tours, which can mean canopy walks, zip lines, via ferrata and elements of aerial parks.
Under the new policy, special activities could be introduced into certain national parks – or not – at the discretion of the superintendent of individual parks.
Special events like dragon boat races and bike races have generated huge controversy in recent years.
Although he doesn’t specifically name an event, Van Tighem’s letter notes these larger competitive special events are mainly proving popular with the tourism industry.
“It does seem that people are looking at this place as being defined by its wildlife and nature, its alpine beauty, its mountain culture and its wilderness adventure – and worrying that we could be drifting from those defining elements,” he wrote.
In Banff at least, Van Tighem said Parks Canada might need to focus on refreshing what exists and promote it more effectively, rather than reinventing the park experience around new attractions.
In his letter, he said Parks may need to be canny about the fact Banff National Park’s “loss of market share” may simply mean the public has more choices than three decades ago.
“If they think Banff has gotten strange or is becoming an unpleasant place to be, they can just go somewhere else,” wrote Van Tighem.
“If that is the case, then further confusing our brand identity with things that people don’t associate with their concept of a park experience could cost us further loss of market share, not gain us increased market share.”
Van Tighem said he is convinced, though, that Parks Canada is heading in the right direction with visitor experience and marketing.
“But I am beginning to think that too much focus on new recreational activities and special events could become a cul de sac off the side of the road we really need to be centred on,” he said. “That seems to be what we are hearing from our public consultations.”
The Outlook asked to speak with a high-ranking Parks Canada official about why Van Tighem’s suggestions appear to have been ignored by the federal government, but Van Tighem was the spokesperson.
He said his letter – dated just two days before the public review period closed for the management plan – was just one piece of an ongoing dialogue with Parks Canada decision makers.
He did not believe the federal government had ignored his suggestions, saying this was “just one bit of my advice” in a lengthy process.
Van Tighem said he believes the management plan for Banff, approved last year, clearly reflects what Parks Canada heard from the public.
“The important thing is these are the kinds of policy discussions we have all the time and we should be having all the time,” he said. “When we make decisions, we take into account what we hear from the public.”
In this particular case, Van Tighem said Parks Canada needed to have a clear way of figuring out how to respond to those wanting to introduce new recreation activities.
“We need to develop policies around that and that’s what we continue to be in the process of doing,” he said.
Banff National Park is presently contemplating allowing via ferrata, a mountain path of fixed cables, steps, ladders and bridges that make tough terrain accessible to harnessed climbers.
Banff Mount Norquay wants to add this adventure attraction to its ski hill operation.
“We’ve identified conditions under which we might look at via ferrata, although we haven’t landed that at a mountain park scale,” said Van Tighem.
“You don’t get there without having these kinds of discussions. It would be unfortunate if people think we made decisions lightly.”