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Parks hopes to strike expert panel by spring

“We have seen steady increases in terms of visitation to the park. We have certainly heard from Canadians that they would like to look at how we best manage this iconic place into the future.”

BANFF  – With more than 4.1 million visitors a year putting pressure on the environment and degrading people’s experiences at certain tourist hotspots, Canada’s flagship national park has reached a pivotal point.

With that, Parks Canada is looking at a fundamental top-to-bottom overhaul of the way people access, experience and move around Banff National Park to sustain the area’s reputation, environment and visitor experience.

The federal agency has accepted public feedback on a draft terms of reference for a 10-member expert panel, which will be asked to come up with a new park-wide people-moving system.

The committee, to be struck this spring, will also be tasked with thinking beyond transportation modes to demand management strategies, such as reservation systems, access restrictions, quotas, or timed and paid parking, for example.

Parks Canada officials say the expert panel will look at best practices around the world, including new technology and green transportation to reduce the impacts of climate change.

“We have seen steady increases in terms of visitation to the park,” said Dave McDonough, superintendent of Banff National Park.

“We have certainly heard from Canadians that they would like to look at how we best manage this iconic place into the future.”

Banff’s visitation is about 4.1 million people per year; with only 7.2 per cent, or 287,000 of those people arriving by mass transit such as private bus tours. The rest arrive in private vehicles.

Over the past 10 years, vehicle traffic in the park has increased 30 per cent overall, with some specific locations such as the road leading to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, showing increases of up to 70 per cent.

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

Within the park exists a mix of public transportation, such municipal transit, and private transportation like taxis and ski shuttles  – each is planned and operated independently.

While transit continues to grow, it is not displacing private vehicle use.

Research has shown that building more infrastructure such as road lanes and parking lots is, at best, a temporary solution.

Additional capacity, especially if it is free, encourages more personal car use and is quickly used up.

Parks Canada says as a result, park infrastructure is stretched to capacity at certain times, resulting in road congestion, parking shortages, air pollution, noise disturbance, and impacts to the park’s treasured wildlife.

“This negatively affects the ability of Canadians to access certain parts of the national park and detracts from their experience,” the agency outlines in a report linked to the terms of reference for the expert panel.

“Additionally, building new infrastructure requires use of undeveloped park lands, which means the long-term loss of the ecosystem services and wildlife habitat that would otherwise be provided by those lands.”

The Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN) has been pushing for limits to visitor growth and development in Banff National Park for more than 50 years.

Reg Bunyan, BVN’s vice-president, said the group conceptually supports the framework, but is concerned that developing a transit strategy without a human-uses strategy in place first, is “putting the proverbial cart before the horse.”

He said the emphasis in the terms of reference for the expert panel is clearly on the efficient movement of visitors, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and supporting the tourism sector.

“This is also reflected in the committee structure, with only one ecosystem scientist identified out of the 10 positions on the committee,” Bunyan wrote in a letter to Parks Canada president and CEO Ron Hallman on behalf of BVN.

“We believe the terms of reference should either be strengthened to reflect Parks Canada’s ecological integrity mandate, and obligations under the Species at Risk Act, or a better ecological balance needs to be reflected in the committee structure.”

For the last decade, several environmental groups have been pushing Parks Canada to adopt a human-use strategy, or at least some basic concept of how many visitors when and where.

Bunyan said this is a strategy that either at the park or corporate level, Parks Canada has been very reluctant to embrace, leaving “us feeling guarded about the downstream impacts of a mass transit system.”

“Visitation numbers have both visitor experience and ecological implications,” he said.

BVN acknowledges that parking lot size, parking restrictions and transit capacity and frequency, managed holistically and with an ecological perspective, have the potential to limit and better manage visitation impacts.

“But without a clear human use strategy and a lack of relative ecological emphasis, we remain concerned that a mass transit strategy will be used as an additive mechanism to squeeze more visitors into already pressured areas,” Bunyan said.

BVN is also concerned by the omission of any reference to potential visitor capacity or visitor capacity management issues at popular visitor hotspots.

Bunyan said the implication is that parking capacity is the limiting factor at popular destinations and greenhouse gas emissions are the primary ecological impact.

“We are not convinced that more visitors can actually be funnelled into popular Banff National Park destinations,” he said.

“And if not there, then where? We are already seeing significant displacement of visitors to less busy, but potentially more ecologically sensitive areas.”

Given the history, complexity and tug of war between visitation, ecological integrity and development, Bunyan said the potential lack of local representation on the panel is a concern.

“We feel it is extremely hard for an outside panel to fully grasp the complexity of the issues, and in particular, the ecological issues,” he said.

“Our concern is that with the relatively minor input from one ecosystem scientist, it will be extremely hard to build ecological understanding among the remaining nine committee members, all of whom have been selected for other non-related expertise.”

Parks Canada anticipates the expert panel will be in place in spring 2021.

The goal is then for the panel to produce an interim report by the end of 2021 for input from local Indigenous groups, stakeholders and the public.

A final report, including a suite of recommendations, is anticipated from the panel no later than March 31, 2022.

Parks Canada will develop a framework following receipt of the panel's advice and recommendations in 2022.

McDonough said the panel will be made up of a broad range of experts.

“We want to take a step back and engage experts in visitor management and transportation so that we can be leaders internationally,” he said.

“We want visitation and use in a way that ensures ecological integrity of this place and ensures that people have a great and memorable experience when they’re here."