Conservationists concerned about impact free entry to national parks will have on environment

Moraine Lake

Conservationists are concerned about how an influx of visitors to Canada’s national parks could harm the very treasures the country is trying to celebrate.

Last year, the government announced free admission to all of the country’s national parks in 2017 to honour Canada’s 150th birthday. 

In theory it seems like an excellent way to celebrate the country, but some are skeptical.

Ben Gadd, a retired nature guide and author of Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, told CBC News that he’s worried about crowded attractions, trash, and more people feeding wildlife. He’s also concerned about an increase in vehicle traffic.

“When you have that situation and animals trying to cross, there are going to be more accidents, more animals killed,” he said.

When the passes went on sale in December, Parks Canada’s website was overwhelmed with visitors, and according to reports, more than 900,000 people ordered one in the first two weeks they became available.

The government is predicting that this, combined with an increase in media attention, will lead to even more visitors than the average 24.5 million that come to the country’s national parks, historic sites, and marine conservation areas each year. 

That could be a problem for certain parks, like Banff, that are already stressed by the number of visitors they receive. The popular Rocky Mountain Park has long been a favourite, attracting more than 3 million people each year. It was also recently named one of the world’s top travel destinations for 2017. 

That’s why Banff mayor Karen Sorenson expressed concern about the number of people that would be visiting the nearby town this year, telling reporters that they wouldn’t be prepared to handle any more vehicles than they did in 2016.

The good news is that the number of maintenance crews working within the parks has been increased to help keep facilities clean and ensure excess garbage doesn’t attract wildlife.

Parks Canada is also trying to draw outdoor-lovers’ attention to some of the country’s less popular parks, including Mingan Archipelago National Park reserve in Quebec, L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site in Newfoundland and Labrador, and Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. 

Although our national parks are meant to be “a haven, not only for plants and animals, but also for the human spirit,” the tension between providing access to these places and protecting them is becoming increasingly strained. Eric Hebert-Daly, national executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, told CBC that this might be the year we truly realized how overstretched our parks are. 

When the United States National Parks Service turned 100 in 2016 and received a record number of visitors, it prompted similar concern and led publications like The New York Times to ask: “Are we loving our National Parks to death?”

But Ed Jager, Parks Canada’s director of visitor experience, doesn’t think it’s possible.

“We can’t actually love our parks to death—I think the death of our parks is when nobody wants to come to them and when they don’t care about them anymore,” he told CBC.

“We would much rather be in this place than in a place where nobody is showing up.”

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