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Parks Canada forming expert panel to advise on long-term visitor management plan

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

BANFF –  Parks Canada will strike an expert panel to look at how to deal with soaring visitation in Banff National Park.

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,” said Rick Kubian, superintendent of Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay. 

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

While COVID-19 saw visitation to Banff National Park decline about 15 per cent this summer over 2019,  more than four million visitors on average come to the park every year to hike, bike, ski and camp – and shop and dine in town.

Over the past 10 years, vehicle  traffic in the park has increased 30 per cent, with some specific locations such as the road 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.

A terms of reference for the expert panel will be completed in the coming months, with input from the public, key stakeholders and Indigenous groups. 

Following that, Parks Canada will choose panel members with expertise in many fields, including protected area management, transportation innovation, technology and tourism. 

The plan is to have the panel established by spring to begin its research. Parks wants an interim report by the end of the first year.

Dave McDonough, superintendent of Banff National Park, said a new approach to the way people move through the Bow Valley and access the park will serve as an example of how big picture thinking, comprehensive planning and green transport can help secure an environmentally and economically sustainable future.

He said the panel 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. 

“How do we manage so that we can have a great experience for visitors while protecting our ecosystem? How do we move them around? How do they access key sites? What techniques are out there in the world that we could employ to better manage people?” McDonough said.

“We recognize that there are places around the world that are facing similar problems, similar challenges and we want to learn from them.”

Leslie Bruce, president and CEO of Banff and Lake Louise Tourism, welcomed the initiative.

“Banff and Lake Louise Tourism is excited about these important next steps,” she said.

“This planning and big picture thinking will help ensure that Banff remains environmentally sustainable while welcoming visitors from around the globe.” 

Prominent local environmentalist Harvey Locke said the increasing number of visitors to the Canada’s first national park is unsustainable.

“We’ve got to start thinking in terms of absolute numbers of people in certain places to maintain quality of experience,” he said.

Locke points to examples of visitor management strategies at other world-class locations.

“At Alhambra of Granada in Spain, you book online a time to go see it before you get there,” he said.

“At the Forbidden City in Beijing, they have an absolute cap on the number of visitors a day; people book online to get in.”

Locke said Parks Canada has to move to a system like that in places like Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.

“People know when football stadiums are full that they don’t get extra tickets to get in,” he said.

“At a certain point things are full and we’re going to have to look at those kinds of questions as well as mobility.”

Locke said he is encouraged that Parks Canada is taking a comprehensive look at transportation in the valley – but that should not include Liricon Capital’s push for a gondola from the townsite to Mount Norquay.

“That does not need to include and should not include this euphemistically described aerial mass transit, which is just an effort to build a new gondola,” he said.

Last December, Parks Canada said there would be no further consideration of the proposed gondola, proposed Grizzly Pavilion and boardwalks, which would be located on lands outside the Mount Norquay leasehold.

The company has since revised its proposal, and has been in preliminary talks with Parks Canada.

“We provided a response to their last proposal. There hasn’t been another proposal since,” McDonough said.

The Town of Banff is keen at the prospect of an expert panel developing leading-edge ideas on green transportation for Banff National Park.

“We consider transportation of people to Banff and throughout Canada’s first national park as the ‘missing link’ to making this special place a truly sustainable community and park,” said Mayor Karen Sorensen.

Parks Canada will look to the panel to provide diverse options for the way visitors and residents get around the park.

For example, the closure of the eastern portion of the Bow Valley Parkway to vehicles this year proved extremely popular with cyclists.

“That is a good example of how Canadians are wanting to use and enjoy their park,” McDonough said.

“The Bow Valley Parkway was closed largely to mitigate potential risk of COVID at Johnston Canyon and it then provided an opportunity to promote cycling. It turned out to be very popular.”

The federal agency also wants to make sure it’s on top of advancing technologies, such as e-bikes for example.

“If you think about e-bikes for example, a new technology that may not be that revolutionary in itself, but it really had a revolutionary impact on how people enjoyed the park and how popular it is,” McDonough said.

“That’s a small example of how there are technological advances that are happening quite quickly and why we are looking to have experts help us predict what might be coming going forward.”