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CPAWS calls for visitor use management plan for busy Banff

Parks Canada is reviewing a new report from CPAWS, which recommends a human use management strategy for busy Banff National Park.
20190914 Moraine Lake Overcrowding 0066
Crowds of tourists walk up the stairs of the rock pile lookout at Moraine Lake.

BANFF – A  national conversation organization is calling on Parks Canada to implement a human use management strategy, including everything from quotas to site design and education, in Banff National Park.

With a dramatic increase in visitor numbers over the past decade – with a 15 per cent dip in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic – Canada’s first national park faces increased human-wildlife conflicts and crowding in sensitive ecological areas.

This led the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) to draft a new report, which concluded the impacts of “over-tourism are becoming more acute and intense” – and Parks Canada does not have an overarching strategy to address this.

Sarah Elmeligi, CPAWS Southern Alberta’s national parks program coordinator and author of the report, said the management toolbox should be more diverse than simply quotas for a trail or site, or sending visitors to other less heavily used areas without fully understanding the ecological impacts of more dispersed visitation.

“With the increase in visitation, we start to see an array of ecological impacts, which can include vegetation trampling, trail braiding, erosion, disturbance to wildlife, human-wildlife conflict,” she said.

“But there’s also a suite of social impacts – traffic congestion, more crowding, frustrated visitors who aren’t able to access the sites they want when they want to.”

From iconic national parks like Yellowstone in the United States and premiere marine conservation areas such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, crowds of tourists are said to be ruining these destinations.

In 2010, Parks Canada in Ottawa set a goal in its management plan for Banff to increase visitation by two per cent every year – without any supporting social data and no consideration of the potential environmental impacts.

Banff has seen a 30 per cent increase in the number of visitors since around that time, to more than four million people a year coming to hike, bike, ski, climb, and camp – and shop and dine in Banff and Lake Louise.

This has meant increasing traffic congestion, overcrowding and burgeoning environmental challenges, including threats to the park’s treasured wildlife such as bears and wolves.

Over the past 10 years, vehicle traffic in the park has dramatically increased, with some specific locations such as the roads leading to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake showing increases of up to 70 per cent. 

Approximately 8.3 million vehicles travel into the park each year, with roughly half of these carrying park visitors and the other half travelling through to other destinations.

CPAWS’ 80-page report called Managing Human Use In Canada’s Rocky Mountain National Parks – Defining a Way Forward reviews approaches from other countries, such as the United States, Australia, and Central America.

Within a Canadian context, the report recommends a step-by-step approach that Parks Canada could use to work with members of the public, including Indigenous groups and tourism operators, to create visitor use management strategies.

CPAWS recommends Parks Canada approach the creation of a visitor use management strategy at the level of existing landscape management units – approximately the size of an adult female grizzly bear home range.

Currently, each of Parks Canada’s land management units has a grizzly bear habitat effectiveness and security target, which is a measure that combines habitat quality with human use levels.

CPAWS suggests starting with the four landscape management units that experience the highest level of visitor impacts – areas surrounding the Banff townsite, Sunshine/Egypt Lake, Lake Louise and Skoki.

According to the report, grizzly bear habitat security is below targeted levels in all these.

“The reality is we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here,” Elmeligi said.

Parks Canada already uses several visitor management tactics in the mountain national parks. For example, a shuttle bus to Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park that limits the number of days visitors has been in place for several years.

In addition, Parks Canada more recently began running a shuttle bus to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, and in 2020, introduced a shuttle bus reservation system in summer for the service.

Yet, Katie Morrison, conservation director with CPAWS’ Southern Alberta chapter, said little management effort has targeted day-use areas and trails where even visitation levels are not accurately measured.

She said an overarching strategy would put existing site-specific actions into the context of overall visitation and associated impacts in an area, including day-use management.

“People often think of visitor use management as being an array of quotas and limits on human use,” Morrison said.

“This report, however, shares a variety of management options from site design to education that can be defined in collaboration with stakeholders to create visitor use management strategies that are holistic, comprehensive, and enhance the overall visitor experience.”

Elmeligi said the development of a comprehensive visitor use strategy could not be more timely given the current review and update of the 2010 Banff National Park Management Plan.

“This report provides some background information to help us flush out what goals and objectives should be included in the management plan,” she said.

“From there, what kinds of measurable objectives we can include in an implementation plan to actually get a visitor use management strategy off the ground in Banff.”

In early November, Parks Canada announced it was striking an expert panel to look at how to deal with soaring visitation in Banff National Park, including transportation options.

The federal agency wants the panel to advise on a long-term framework for how visitors will get around the busy Bow Valley and experience Banff National Park into the future. 

Part of that could include human-use management actions like quotas, or caps on the number of visitors in crowded places like Moraine Lake or Lake Louise, two iconic locations in Canada’s first national park.

“We’ll be open to that from the panel,” Rick Kubian, superintendent of Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay, said at the time. 

“The panel will have the flexibility to consider a wide range of tools that are used in other protected areas and like places.”

Parks Canada officials this week said they are reviewing the CPAWS report, noting they will consider the document as input for the mountain park management plans.

“Parks Canada will continue to seek and welcome further public interest and discussion on this subject as part of the management planning process which, to date, has demonstrated a growing consensus and desire among Canadians and stakeholders of Banff National Park for new approaches to meet visitor experience and ecological integrity goals,” said Justin Brisbane, a public relations and communications officer for Banff National Park, in a statement.

Brisbane said the panel to be struck by the agency will be asked to consider transportation modes and networks, as well as other strategies and tools relating to how people access, move about and use the park – including new technologies, infrastructure changes, and systems for communication and access.

“Ecological integrity and conservation of habitat and biodiversity must be prioritized in their recommendations,” he said. 

One visitor use management case study used by CPAWS in the report is Half Dome, a well-known 8,800-foot granite rock formation in Yosemite National Park in California.

This park has a comprehensive visitor use and impact monitoring program, including a visitor management plan for Half Dome, where there is a reservation system.

In addition, park managers there have also put forward other suggestions, including trail-head quotas, pass and exit quotas for wilderness zones, and quotas that limit how many nights someone can camp in a specific zone.

“This public consultation process is still underway,” according to CPAWS’ report. “The final plan and approach have not yet been determined.”

Over the coming months, Parks Canada will resume the next phase of consultation of the 2021 mountain park management plans. Visit for the latest information on how to participate.

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