Smother Nature: The struggle to protect Banff National Park

In Banff National Park, Alberta, as in protected areas across the country, managers find it difficult to balance the desire of people to experience wilderness with an imperative to conserve it

  • Published Jul 29, 2021
  • Updated Jun 03, 2022
  • 3,507 words
  • 15 minutes
A crowd of tourist swarm on a lakeside beach in Banff National Park Expand Image

Waking up at 5 a.m. is what mountaineers call an alpine start. The early rise gives climbers time for a challenging day in the mountains — or to travel before rising temperatures increase avalanche danger or thunderstorm risk. 

Harvey Locke’s early wake-up was for a more humble and troubling reason. He just wanted to hike with his son and daughter on one of the world-class trails near Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, Alta. Locke is no stranger to the park and the world’s natural wonders: a longtime Banff resident, he is also founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, a plan to connect protected areas from Wyoming to northern Canada, and the past chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas.

It was July 2019, and Canada’s oldest and most popular national park was crowded. With its snowy glaciers, turquoise lakes, flower-filled meadows, jagged skylines and abundant wildlife, the park nestled among the iconic Rocky Mountains had always been a popular draw: Banff accounts for about a quarter of all visitors to Canada’s 48 national parks. But in recent years, visits surged to a record 4.2-million people each year. Locke had seen the congestion of cars and people increase dramatically. He knew if his trio wanted a parking spot at the lake, they would have to get there early. Like alpine early. 

It wasn’t early enough.

Crowds at Lake Louise. (Photo: Dan Leeth/Alamy)
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“At 6 a.m. the parking lot was already full,” says Locke. The family turned their backs on Moraine Lake’s iconic view of the Valley of the Ten Peaks and drove 14 kilometres to Lake Louise and its 500-stall parking lot. They snagged one of the last spots.

A little shocked, but no less entranced by the beauty, the three set off along the lakeshore trail, admiring the teal waters backstopped by the weeping white walls of Mount Victoria. They turned uphill on the popular path to the Lake Agnes Tea House, a cosy café snuggled against an alpine tarn.  

It’s a short, 3.5-kilometre hike and they arrived before the tea house opened for breakfast at 8 a.m. — but not before a line up had formed as if it were a trendy bar in downtown Calgary. Locke’s party got the last table. The wait for the toilet was already 15 people long.

“Banff is bursting at the seams,” says Locke. “There’s a sense of overwhelming demand for the place, and it’s ruining the visitor experience.”

In the last decade, the number of people enjoying Banff has increased by 25 per cent, from about three million to four million people a year. The crushing growth of visitors is a phenomenon mirrored to varying degrees across the country and around the world. Popular trailhead parking lots fill early, and guests line up to snap selfies at bucket-list viewpoints and attractions. At the same time, the managers of these special places are struggling to balance the impact of so many boots and cars, garbage and toilet flushes on wildlife and their habitats. 

Impressive park vistas like this are often ovelwhelmed by crowds. (Photo: Paul Zizka/Banff & Lake Louise Tourism)
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The global COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns gave some tourist destinations a respite. But in many parks, the symptoms of overcrowding only increased, as seemingly everyone rushed outside to trails and protected areas to soak in the mental and physical benefits of time in nature.

The pressures are especially pronounced in Banff: a cross-country rail line and highway run through it, a town and three ski resorts sit inside its boundaries, and 1.5 million people live on its doorstep. (In 2020, despite the park being closed for two months and almost zero international travellers, staff recorded 3.2 million visitors.) And as a UNESCO world heritage site and the country’s oldest national park, Banff is often seen as setting the standard for Canada’s parks system. If Parks Canada can figure out how to deliver a visitor experience worthy of a national park while still balancing the protection of wildlife and the conservation of habitat in Banff, it will be closer to managing parks better everywhere.

 Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the park attracted huge crowds. (Photo: Hecke61/Shutterstock)
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The Banff National Park townsite saw similarly large crowds. (Photo: Cheng Feng Chiang/Istock)
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Banff’s Growing reputation for crowds is something Parks Canada and tourism businesses in the park are working on. To help calm things, Banff & Lake Louise Tourism stopped promoting the summer season in 2016, shifting to encouraging visitors to come during the quieter shoulder seasons. And rather than recruiting new tourists, staff at Banff National Park are focusing their message on how they want visitors to behave when they get to the park. They know it’s not just the visitor experience in danger. 

“More humans in the parks increases the number of wildlife conflicts and visitor safety issues,” says Steve Michel, the national human-wildlife conflict management officer for Parks Canada. “It’s concerning. The pressure is rising, and it’s putting ecology at risk.”

The bump in Canadian visitors during the pandemic coincided with an increase in people walking off trails, getting too close to animals, littering and improperly disposing of garbage, says Michel.

The consequences played out in Banff last July when conservation officers had to euthanize two wolves within one week. Both had become habituated to humans. The park worked with tourism organizations, media and other sources of visitor information to coordinate a consistent message about the potential impacts of visitor behaviour and how to interact safely with wildlife. But Michel says understanding the motivations of people and how to steer them to good behaviour is one of Parks Canada’s weaknesses.

“We have a good handle on habitat and wildlife,” he says. “We struggle with the human dimensions and psychology issues.” 

Banff National Park is popular with visitors for a range of wilderness experiences. (Photo: James Anderson)
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Sports and recreation activities draw large crowds. (Photo: James Gabbert/iStock)
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Plus, the park system has focused resources on ecology over social sciences for decades, and particularly since a major round of budget cuts in 2012, says Michel. But today’s pressures are helping the park evolve.

Take for instance, a solution at the Lake Minnewanka Lakeside Trail, the scene of a number of recent serious incidents between mountain bikers and grizzlies. The easy answer could have been to ban the cyclists. But hikers who also use the trail had had fewer conflicts. So, the park took a closer look at the altercations and saw that they were concentrated around the summer berry season. That allowed for a more targeted solution: restricting the Minnewanka Trail to just hiking during July and August.

It’s an example of the balance that defines Daniella Rubeling’s job.

“We’re always looking for creative ways to host people without an unnecessary strain to the ecology of the park,” says the visitor experience manager for Banff National Park. “A lot of the work I do is looking ahead. How do we address the issues we have now with a future audience in mind? How can we support ecological integrity and high-quality visitor experience? We have a lot of tools at our disposal.”

For example, in prime grizzly bear habitat, hikers have to travel in groups of six or more. Bears are less likely to interact with a larger group of people, and the presence of bears alone is enough to discourage some hikers. In other areas, parks prohibit dogs, and in some areas, no one is allowed.

Banff isn’t the only place dealing with overcrowding, so Rubeling says they are looking at what works elsewhere for more ideas.

The wilderness activites at the park include wildlife encounters. (Photo: Tim Nokes)
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 Some wildlife experiences prove dangerous. (Photo: Robbert Bouwsma/Alamy)
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Technology will definitely play a role. A free hiking trails app in Colorado reduces overcrowding on trails and overflowing parking lots with live web cameras and trail traffic counters. In the future, smartphone notifications could suggest alternative destinations and pass on info such as trail closures, campground status and traffic congestion.

To limit numbers, Parks Canada already uses reservations to control the number of people on Pacific Rim National Park Reserve’s West Coast Trail and in the Lake O’Hara area of Yoho National Park, B.C. This strategy works well to maintain the wilderness feel and preserve ecological values, but the demand is so high it’s often difficult even for locals to get a reservation.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. On weekends and holidays, crowds used to inundate Muir Woods National Park near San Francisco, Calif. The park’s only parking lot would overflow, people trampled vegetation to find a moment of solitude among the park’s towering redwood trees, and neighbouring residents complained about the congestion. In 2018, the park adopted a mandatory reservation system. It didn’t change the total number of visitors; it just spread them out more evenly by limiting daily numbers.

Now, Cassie Anderson, the park’s supervisory ranger, says on peak days there are thousands fewer people in the park. Nearby residents say they’ve noticed a big difference in congestion. Visitors, meanwhile, report a quieter and calmer experience. And staff are less harried and stressed, giving them more time to connect with visitors. Says Anderson: “We decided that we didn’t have to accept that having lots of people meant degrading the attraction of the place.”

Banff has had some success mitigating human-wildlife conflict through seasonal limits on biking near Lake Minnewanka.(Photo: Paul Zizka/Banff & Lake Louise Tourism)
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Banff is bursting at the seams….There’s a sense of overwhelming demand for the place, and it’s ruining the visitor experience.’

Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo; Map Data: Spending from Parks Canada financial statements 2019-2020; Visitor stats provided by Parks Canada
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Park Canada’s mandate, coincidentally, is to manage national parks to protect the attractive natural and cultural heritage for present and future generations, while fostering understanding, appreciation and enjoyment. But how do you protect a place as it is at the same time as encouraging people to come?

That conundrum didn’t exist when Banff was founded as a tourist attraction in 1885 following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The original 26-square-kilometre park, Banff Hot Springs Reserve, focused on the Sulphur Mountain seeps of warm, mineral-rich water near the present townsite. Most of the early tourists were wealthy and from the east coast of the United States. When not soaking in the purported healing waters, they started venturing through the wilderness on horseback. They found glacier-carved hanging valleys hiding lakes stained stunning shades of blue and green. They climbed into vast alpine meadows where they spotted grizzly bears and bighorn sheep. And they scaled craggy summits to find a sea of more glacier-capped peaks beyond.

In those early years, the focus of growing the national park network was promoting tourism, says Ted Hart, the author of several books on the history of Banff and national parks. “The only way the parks system survived and expanded was for it to pay its own way,” says Hart. “The preservation aspect was barely mentioned.”

Banff’s managers have long recognized the challenge of balancing human use and ecological integrity. (Photo: Christopher Becerra/Shutterstock)
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That changed in 1930 with the passage of the National Parks Act. The threat of hydroelectric dams and resource projects in Banff and other parks motivated a mandate shift to maintaining them “unimpaired for future generations.” Since then, Parks Canada’s conservation focus has continued to grow, largely powered by opposition to tourism development proposals in Banff. It started in the 1960s with a plan to build roads and visitor facilities in many of the pristine valleys, progressed to two failed bids to host the winter Olympics and included a major expansion of the village of Lake Louise led by oil company Esso. By the 1970s, public opposition to these proposals led to the birth of a fledgling environmental movement in Calgary (including the establishment of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, now a national non-profit) and a pivot by Parks Canada to focus on the idea of ecological integrity.

One of Kevin Van Tighem’s first jobs came out of that shift in focus. Now an author of 15 books on wildlife and conservation, he spent 34 years working in conservation management, including a stint as superintendent of Banff from 2008 to 2011. His career began as a Canadian Wildlife Service biologist in 1977 as part of a team conducting a wildlife inventory in Banff. Managers used the resulting information to divide the park into five zones, each allowing different levels of use and infrastructure development, mostly dependent on the importance of the habitat for wildlife. It remains largely unchanged, with only two per cent zoned for hotels, roads, trails and other infrastructure.

We’re always looking for creative ways to host people without an unnecessary strain to the ecology of the park.

“Zoning was always a compromise,” says Van Tighem. “The best areas for wildlife are in the valley bottom where the town and highway are. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good.”

It helped control the impact of people in the park for a while, but by the early 1990s visitor numbers were spiking as both domestic and international travellers came flocking to the park.

“National parks represent who we are as Canadians,” says Van Tighem. “And Banff is the epitome of the park system. Visiting Banff makes Canadians feel more Canadian.” Outside the country, Banff’s mountains, rivers, glaciers and wildlife represent the iconic image of Canada, he says. For foreigners, visiting Banff is visiting Canada.

Torn between tourism promotors and environmentalists, the park system commissioned the Banff-Bow Valley Study in 1994. The independent assessment found that “unless we take immediate action, the qualities that make Banff a national park will be lost.” Its 500 recommendations shaped the future of Banff and the park system, says Van Tighem. The study led to fencing and wildlife overpasses along the Trans-Canada Highway, both firsts in Canada. And it pushed back at development pressure. The park bulldozed a cadet camp and closed the airport to create a wildlife corridor, limited the size of the Banff townsite and restricted future expansion at the three ski resorts.

“Overall, they did a pretty darn good job balancing intensity of human use and protecting ecological integrity,” says Van Tighem.

The number of people coming to the park stayed fairly flat for more than a decade, then started to decline slightly. In 2010, Van Tighem was tasked with writing the decade-long management plan for the park. He says he talked to Canadians from every province before presenting his proposal to bureaucrats in Ottawa. “Canadians said they wanted us to fix the park up but not add new activities or developments,” he remembers. But the national executive body of Parks Canada was concerned about declining park use.

Under the Parks Canada Agency Act, services are supposed to be paid from visitor fees. Most parks fall short. But Banff is a cash machine, producing more than it uses and thus subsidizing less-visited parks. “There was always a very strong emphasis on marketing and promotions in order to increase visitor numbers,” says Van Tighem.

In the end, the executive inserted a target goal to increase the numbers of visitors by two per cent annually. The plan called for wooing day trippers and the less adventurous with the likes of biking trails and learn-to-camp programs. 

What they didn’t see coming was growing interest in what parks were already selling, says Van Tighem. Hiking, rock climbing and backcountry skiing were gaining in popularity. Social media apps, such as Instagram, were taking off, adding particularly photo-worthy locations, like Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, to lists of the “10 most beautiful places on Earth.” Meanwhile, a little more than an hour to the east, Calgary was booming; the population grew from 880,000 people in 2001 to 1.3 million in 2019.

Visits to national parks throughout the country climbed steadily for a decade, reaching a peak of 16.8 million people in 2017 when Parks Canada eliminated entry fees as part of the nation’s sesquicentennial celebrations. Elsewhere visitor numbers plateaued or dropped slightly after that, but in Banff they kept going up — to 4.2 million in 2019.

Although Parks Canada closed all national parks in April and May of 2020 as part of COVID-19 lockdowns (which reduced visitors across the country by 28 per cent compared with 2019), in Banff, the total number of people in the park from June to December was off by only a few percentage points, despite no international tourists, who normally make up half the summer visitors. If pre-pandemic trends continue, it’s estimated Banff could welcome five million people by 2030.

Moraine Lake, Banff National Park. (Photo: Paul Baby)
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Parking lots, both existing and new, may contribute to crowding in Banff. (Photo: Stephen Dorey/Alamy)
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To handle those kinds of numbers,  something’s got to give, says Joe Pavelka, an ecotourism and outdoor leadership professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University who has studied visitor management in Banff and other protected areas globally. But he doesn’t think limiting the number of daily visitors as in California’s Muir Woods National Park would work.

“Banff is Canada’s darling park,” he says. “It would be politically difficult to tell people they can’t come visit.”

Instead, Pavelka is an advocate of getting visitors out of their cars. Banff does have a shuttle service from Calgary and throughout the park, and ridership was growing quickly. Within the park, it increased 21 per cent between 2018 and 2019. (Unfortunately, it fell dramatically during the pandemic.) Pavelka would like to see shuttles become the only way to access the park’s trails, just like in Utah’s Zion National Park. There, visitors leave their cars outside the park and ride shuttle buses to trailheads. Pavelka is part of the group Banff National Park Net Zero 2035, which advocates for something similar: a high-speed train from Calgary’s airport to Banff townsite’s train station, a large intercept parking lot nearby and free shuttle buses running throughout the park. It’s a solution, he says, that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also relieving congestion and parking headaches.

“In Banff, the tipping point is not the number of people; it’s the number of cars,” says Pavelka. And if you dramatically reduce the number of vehicles, you subsequently reduce the number of people.

But at a certain point, too many people is still too many people.

Research on grizzlies in Banff found that as trail use increases, bears move around to avoid the people, which means they’re expending more energy and eating less. Increase trail use beyond 17 groups per day and the bruins start avoiding the area all together. A recent study in the Bow Valley by Parks Canada and Alberta Environment and Parks staff and researchers from the University of Montana and the University of British Columbia found development and recreation reduced the highest-quality habitat for carnivores by 14 per cent. In Jasper, Alta., the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society blames Parks Canada’s failure to restrict human use as the main impetus for the extirpation of a mountain caribou herd in Jasper National Park. And mass transportation will do nothing to reduce crowding on trails.

“Just jamming more people onto shuttle buses is not going to protect ecology or make the quality of the experience of hiking at Moraine Lake better,” says conservationist Harvey Locke. 

With increasing demand to visit, the only way to preserve ecology and improve the visitor experience, says Locke, is with more parks. 

A new parking lot under construction. (Photo: Harvey Locke)
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One potential solution: more transit. (Photo: Damian Blunt/Banff & Lake Louise)
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That approach worked in the 1970s when the Alberta government started creating a series of provincial parks on Banff’s southern and eastern borders. Kananaskis Country, as it’s known, acted like a release valve for Banff. Fifty years later, those new parks are as popular as Banff. In 2020, a record 5.4 million people visited Kananaskis Country (Banff recorded 3.2 million visitors in just 10 months).

“Banff and Kananaskis are full,” says Locke. “We need more protected places for people to enjoy.”

New parks along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains would provide a destination for residents and a diversion that might shorten the time visitors spend in the national park, says Locke. Creating parks would also fit with the federal government’s pledge to protect 30 per cent of the country by 2030. But even with more parks, Locke thinks Banff will still need quotas and reservations to maintain the quality of the visitor experience in particularly busy areas such as Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.

Whatever Banff decides to do, the rest of the nation is watching. Because Parks Canada is better funded, the people managing provincial and regional protected spaces and parks look to the national organization for leadership on everything from climate change to managing visitors says Sarah Elmeligi, the national parks coordinator for the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

The COVID-19 pandemic might have given them room to experiment. As it reopened in June 2020, Banff National Park kept part of the Bow Valley Parkway closed to vehicles. The empty scenic road was popular with cyclists. In the townsite, parts of the main drag were made walking-only to provide more social distance. The simple, inexpensive and popular moves improved the visitor experience without any impact on ecology. Both will continue in more limited forms in the future.

These are the kinds of innovative ideas Pavelka thinks Canadians want to see.

“Parks Canada needs to take some chances,” he says. “I think they’re going to find Canadians understand they have a tough job, we’re going to support them. We’re going to forgive a few mistakes. I think they’re going to find Canadians really love their parks.”


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