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Banff 'bursting at the seams' as tourism soars

BANFF – The soaring popularity of Banff National Park has reignited a decades-old debate over limits to the number of people at certain iconic tourist hot spots like Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.
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This photo of people illegal camping at Moraine Lake made the rounds on social media this summer amid concerns that Banff National Park is struggling to deal with the influx of tourists every summer.

BANFF – The soaring popularity of Banff National Park has reignited a decades-old debate over limits to the number of people at certain iconic tourist hot spots like Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.

Some conservationists are calling on Parks Canada to set limits on the number of people, saying growing crowds and congestion are not only threatening the delicate ecosystem of Canada’s flagship national park, but ruining the experience for visitors.

Tourism officials, on the other hand, say Banff National Park is a ‘bucket list’ destination for tourists, noting visitation is being managed effectively and strict rules and programs are in place to protect the park’s ecological integrity and its wildlife.

Parks Canada officials agree certain areas in the park such as Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Johnston Canyon and Lake Minnewanka are extremely busy, but say quotas aren’t under consideration at this time.

Instead, they say they’ve stepped up communications to encourage use of an expanded pubic transit system and to urge people to visit at quieter times of the year and to choose less popular national parks like Yoho and Kootenay.

“We’re not looking at quotas right now,” said Greg Danchuk, Parks Canada’s manager of visitor services for Banff National Park. “We are doing a number of other things.”

In 2017-18, about 4.2 million people visited Banff, an increase of about 28 per cent from 3.3 million five years ago. There’s a slight decrease so far this year compared to last year when passes to the park were free.

Other jurisdictions all over the world are grappling with similar issues, including Montana’s Glacier National Park and other iconic parks such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite.

Conservation groups, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), say quotas on people for special areas, including protected areas, are not uncommon in global tourism.

Peter Zimmerman, parks program supervisor for CPAWS, said crowding, traffic, increasing human-wildlife conflict and illegal camping have become major problems.

Two summers ago, two wolves were killed after getting human food and garbage.

“Banff is bursting at the seams with both cars and people,” he said.

“Annual visitation has been edging up continuously for years, but the last five years have seen it explode.”

Iconic Canadian destinations like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, where there is standing room only on the shores during the busy summer season, are often nothing more than mere backdrops for Facebook ‘selfies’.

Zimmerman said there is no magic bullet to fix this, but the greatest effect will be made by getting people out of their cars, which will require a cultural shift whereby people willingly accept they simply can’t drive everywhere in the park they wish to go.

“Perhaps it’s time some of these options became non-negotiable,” he said.

“Rather than encouraging people to use the optional shuttle to Lake Louise, why not make it mandatory for the busy months of July and August? If you want to go to Lake Louise for the day, you take the shuttle. Period.”

Canada’s National Parks Act makes it very clear that maintenance and restoration of ecological integrity is Parks Canada’s first priority when managing the country’s treasured national parks.

CPAWS voices support for mass transit, but adds a comprehensive transportation strategy must ensure that the park as a whole remains in good ecological health, which must not be adversely affected by the numbers and activities of visitors.

Zimmerman said this almost certainly means that some areas of the park should have limits on the number of people, regardless of how they travel.

He pointed to a quota system to limit the number of visitors using the public bus service into Yoho National Park’s Lake O’Hara to protect this sensitive alpine area and provide a wilderness experience to visitors by avoiding overcrowding.

“We have done this for years in the backcountry, and even some road accessible areas have access controls,” said Zimmerman.

“Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park limits the number of visitors to the number of seats on the bus. No private cars allowed.”

But the issue is not just about how to move people efficiently.

“Any increase in efficiency cannot be at the expense of park wildlife, their habitat, soil and vegetation, water quality and flow regimes, and the myriad of other natural processes and components that are the heart of nature’s ecological orchestra,” said Zimmerman.

“We can’t just keep packing more and more people into the theatre to hear the music; at some point we will simply overwhelm the musicians and the music will turn to noise or stop altogether.”

Pro-tourism organizations like Banff & Lake Louise Hospitality Association (BLLHA) and the Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment (AMPPE) don’t believe quotas are the answer.

They point to a recent economic study that highlighted the importance of Banff to the provincial economy, noting the economic impact amounted to $1.4 billion and that more than 13,459 Albertans owe their permanent jobs to tourism expenditures in Banff.

Casey Peirce, AMPPE’s executive director, said the Canadian Rockies is a ‘bucket list’ destination for people around the world and an incredible playground for those that live in the region.

“AMPPE feels that rather than focusing on limiting visitation, we need to keep pursuing opportunities that streamline the guest experience so that this incredible destination remains world class in scenery and service delivery,” she said.

“The progress on bike-friendly access and mass transit has been remarkable in the last few years and should be celebrated as so many communities and agencies have come together to provide enhanced ways for people to get to and around Banff and Lake Louise.”

Tourism makes up 89 per cent of the local economy, said Peirce, noting it’s the way of life for almost all who live here.

“The recreation side of things reminds us that national parks were created for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people and that we are privileged to have the access to the hiking, biking, skiing, climbing, paddling, camping etc. that we do,” she said. “The future of our national parks globally relies on people experiencing them, so that they can be both enjoyed and cared for.”

Reg Bunyan, vice-president of Bow Valley Naturalists’ board of directors and a retired national park warden, said there needs to be a conversation around overcrowding in the townsite and the surrounding national park.

“Are quotas necessary for the park? Perhaps, but rather then jumping directly to potential solutions, whether it be transit, quotas or permits, we need to collectively start having a wider conversation about over crowding and limits to growth, whether it be Moraine Lake, the ski areas or the Town of Banff,” he said.

The trouble with concentrating on one simple solution is that they all have the potential to cause unforeseen downstream ecological impacts on wildlife and vegetation, said Bunyan.

“Transit may solve a traffic problem but has the potential to put even more visitors into a given area,” he said. “Quotas may reduce or cap congestion in one area, but inadvertently shift use to another area.”

Bunyan said the challenge in starting this conversation is that Parks Canada has spent most of the past decade actively promoting visitation as the salvation of the national park system.

But, he said, the federal agency is currently poorly positioned organizationally and culturally to acknowledge the problem and initiate the conversation.

“As an example, in the Parks Canada State of the Park Report, a report on the ecological health of individual parks, increasing visitation is noted as being healthy, whereas declining visitation is noted as being unhealthy,” he said.

“Without a frank acknowledgement of the issue of overcrowding and its impacts, it’s unlikely that we will see little more then site specific symptom relief and more short-term solutions.”

Banff’s town manager has reached out to Parks Canada, local conservation groups and tourism groups to have a conversation about overcrowding – or perceptions of overcrowding.

Robert Earl said he’d like to explore this issue to get different perspectives.

“I’m not saying there are areas that aren’t crowded, but my read on much of the research around tourism communities and overcrowding is that Banff has done a fairly good job protecting ourselves from such,” he said.

“There are way too many cars, but my instinct is the Town of Banff could manage an increase in visitation if it didn’t come with additional cars or the amount of cars we have today were diminished.”

Kathryn MacDonald, a resident of Canmore for more than 20 years and a tour guide, posted a photo on Facebook this summer taken by her husband of a tent campers had illegally set up for the night atop the rock pile at Moraine Lake.

“As a tour guide, I have seen the park grow in popularity, but Moraine lake this summer was the worse I have ever seen,” she said.

“A complete gong show and something needs to be done. A lottery, restricted access, buses only…”

MacDonald, who fired off letters to Parks Canada and federal politicians about the situation, said free shuttles are not the only answer, but merely a Band-Aid on a “fatal wound.”

“I appreciate that Parks Canada is trying to deal with the onslaught of tourists in our most popular national park, however I feel they are failing abysmally,” she said.

“If something isn’t done and soon paying close attention to Parks Canada Mandate we will have failed miserably having not protected our parks for future generations.”

Meanwhile, BLLHA has sent a letter to UNESCO World Heritage Centre in France and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Switzerland to highlight the good news coming out of Banff.

Officials say visitation growth in Banff National Park is not only being managed effectively, but continued visitor growth is a validation of the relevance and value of national parks to Canadians and visitors worldwide.

“What BLLHA members have observed on the ground in Banff National Park can only be described as international conservation and visitor experience leadership,” said Darren Reeder, the group’s executive director.

Reeder said significant ecological restoration initiatives have been implemented such as removal of Forty Mile Dam, prescribed burns, leading edge aquatic restoration initiatives, restoration of wildlife corridors, the nightly closure of Bow Valley Parkway and the re-introduction of a free roaming range of bison.

There are also many examples of successfully managing human use in a pro-active manner to improve habitat quality for wary wildlife, or to provide security at key times of day, or during certain seasons when carnivores are provisioning young.

Examples, said Reeder, include annual seasonal closures such as the winter closure of the Banff golf course road, restricted trail access where hikers are only allowed on trails if travelling in a group of four or more, carrying bear spray, as well as restrictions on dogs and bikes to reduce negative encounters with wildlife.

“Scientific study confirmed that the population of grizzly bears has remained stable over past 10 years, which is important for conservation of grizzly bears throughout the Rockies,” he said.

Meanwhile, Parks Canada’s Danchuk said they are doing a visitor satisfaction survey.

“We want to base future strategies and actions on real solid information that we’re getting right from the visitors,” he said.