Officials say they’re trying to mitigate the human impacts, but conservationists fear not enough is being done

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The country’s most popular national park is expected to welcome a record number of visitors this year after reaching a new peak in 2023, say Parks Canada officials.

While those officials say they’re working towards mitigating the rising human impacts on the mountain jewel, conservationists fear not enough is being done.

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“We’ve been concerned about the degradation and fragmentation (of wildlife habitat) and it’s what you’re seeing in Banff National Park,” said Chloe Hahn, conservation coordinator with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s (CPAWS) southern Alberta chapter.

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In 2023-24, the park welcomed 4.288 million people, an increase over the 4.181 million visitors recorded in 2017-18.

In 2010, about 499,000 people visited the park in the peak month of August, a number that’s since climbed by more than a third.

Canada’s next-busiest national park is Jasper, which in 2022-23 saw 2.4 million visitors.

“We saw a record-breaking May, June and July (last year in Banff) and we expect it to increase this summer,” said Daniella Rubeling, visitor experience manager for Parks Canada.

“Commercial and international visitation is rebounding and with still strong regional visitation, we expect to see that.”

Though cold, sometimes even snowy, conditions reduced potential traffic in the park over the May long weekend, campgrounds and attractions were still busy, setting the tone for the coming peak season, she said.

In response to the swelling crowds, Parks Canada last year ended private vehicle parking at Moraine Lake and substituted shuttle bus service and has nearly doubled from last year the parking fee at Lake Louise lakeside to encourage the use of bus transport, which has also been expanded.

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Bus-only visits to spectacular Moraine Lake were down slightly in 2023 from the previous year, to 5,100 per day from 5,500, said Parks Canada.

One change meant to better handle crowds has been the recently expanded Peyto Lake lookout north of Lake Louise.

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But Rubeling said the demand for shuttle buses has sometimes left visitors behind, who’ve expressed frustration over the challenges of reaching scenic destinations.

“We’ve seen people get disappointed when they don’t plan ahead (with alternatives). They’re under the assumption things are like they were 20 years ago,” she said.

“Planning ahead means not a day-before plan but well ahead.”

With more challenging access to some mountain amenities and higher parking rates, some Albertans have voiced concerns access to Banff National Park has become elitist and geared increasingly towards international travellers.

Rubeling said a priority remains ensuring access to Canadians but that comes with a need to balance that with the health of the park.

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“It’s very important that our parks remain accessible to all Canadians but there are challenges,” she said.

Parks Canada should be credited for some “really important” steps in mitigating the impacts of growing visitation, said CPAWS’ Hahn.

But she said those measures are too often done in isolation rather than in a comprehensive, unified manner.

“We’re looking at something that ties those strategies together,” said Hahn. “If you don’t limit visitors at other areas and don’t have ways to ensure they’re not harming the ecosystem, it’s a problem.”

One example of an inconsistent approach, she said, are moves to increase private vehicle parking in the Banff townsite area.

Banff traffic
A line of slow-moving traffic enters Banff in June 2019. Postmedia file photo

Parks Canada’s Rubeling said the agency is constantly reviewing the need for changes to visitor management and added the expansion of parking fees to heavily used destinations like Johnston Canyon aren’t imminent.

“Each area might take a slightly different approach and paid parking is one thing used at Lake Louise,” she said.

But Hahn said some of the issues facing Banff National Park and its wildlife habitat lie outside its boundaries.

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“You also have to look at things in Canmore and the (impending) Three Sisters development that have a huge cumulative impact on how wildlife is moving through the area,” she said.

She said her group isn’t opposed to public access to national parks like Banff but rather “figuring out where in the park you should have more people.”

“And you have to make sure solutions like those in transportation are sustainable, like its fuel source.”

A Banff-based company is pushing for a hydrogen-powered passenger rail link from the Calgary International Airport that would stop in the city’s core and continue to the mountain town.

But Liricon Capital says the province’s failure to approve in a timely fashion the plan that would reduce vehicular traffic threatens to doom it.

Banff Lake Louise Tourism has said it’s aware growing crowds in the park are threatening its reputation as a destination and is working to spread more of that visitation to the quieter months while enhancing visitor experience.

Conservationist Hahn said she wonders if relentlessly ballooning human pressure on Banff National Park might some day lead to a cap on visitation or other restrictions.

“That’s the million-dollar question that people don’t have an answer for yet. When do you get to the point when there are too many visitors?” she said, adding more study is needed on the park’s ecological capacity.

“It’s a topic most people don’t want to talk about, but you have to consider it.”

X: @BillKaufmannjrn

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