Canada's national parks dance the fine line between growth and tradition

Canada's national parks dance the fine line between growth and tradition

A battle between modernization and the beauty of nature is ongoing in Canada’s national parks, as Parks Canada searches for the right balance between commercial ventures and conservancy from coast to coast to coast.

Parks Canada has undergone significant growing pains recently, as they attempt to balance the beauty of nature with the lure of commercialism. Nowhere is that balance more notable than Banff, Alta., where opponents to the over-commercialization of parkland say they are fighting an uphill battle.

“We are very supportive of the fact that there needs to be people connecting to nature and parks need to do that. There is no question that that is a key part of why you want visitors in parks,” Éric Hébert-Daly, national executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, told Yahoo Canada News.

“On the other hand you can’t have infrastructure being developed inappropriately in parks that actually undermine the very nature that people come to visit.”

In a recent interview with the Calgary Herald, former Banff National Park superintendent Kevin Van Tighem says the park was hurting itself by trying to expand its allure.

Banff, perhaps Canada’s premier parkland, has recently introduced a number of changes intended to draw larger crowds – including hosting a marathon and bike races, and opening ski facilities up to off-season activities. The park’s former superintendent said the change in focus has simply chased away traditional visitors.

“Every time you throw a special event, you inconvenience every regular park visitor who has to wait for traffic jams, who has to pay premium prices at a hotel room, (and) who can’t get a seat at the restaurant, because the place is jammed,” Van Tighem told the newspaper.

“You are not improving the effectiveness of the destination, you are reducing it.”

Van Tighem’s comments, while made about Banff, are about an issue not specific to one location.

The struggle between commercialism, a drive to modernize attractions, and the focus of natural beauty and heritage of the parkland is playing out in other areas of the grid, too.

Earlier this year, Parks Canada announced a strategy to introduce Wi-Fi to 150 sections of its secluded parkland across the country. A spokesman told Yahoo Canada News at the time it was part of a strategy to appeal to a larger base – specifically those less inclined to come for nature alone.

Previously, Banff voted to open its doors to chain stores without limitation, prompting concern about over-development and fears that it would do damage to local businesses.

Jasper National Park also struggled with plans of modernization recently, considering a proposal to build a lakeside hotel despite its contravention of park policy. It was believed the development would put a highly-endangered caribou herd at risk.

The hotel was ultimately rejected, but its developer was given the go-ahead for several other projects within the parkland.

“While the hotel itself is gone, the outlying commercial development is still on the books to go forward. And we’re taking the government to court on that very issue,” Hébert-Daly said. “It goes against the whole idea of trying to keep nature from being nibbled away from the inside.”

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has spoken out in the past about over-commercialization of Canada’s parkland. In a report released earlier this year, the group noted its concern over several developments, both commercial – such as the Jasper hotel plan – and industrial, specifically the B.C. government’s amending of park boundaries to facilitate pipeline developments and another deal between the New Brunswick government and a logging company.

More recently, CPAWS has argued that preserving nature is economically beneficial, suggesting that every dollar invested in Canadian parkland creates $6 in economic benefits – through the cleansing abilities of trees, mosses and plants, natural disaster protection and the basic draw of tourism.

Yahoo Canada News reached out to Parks Canada for comment, but had not heard back before publication. A Parks Canada spokesperson had told the Herald it was important it keep pace with Canada’s changing society.

“We can’t just stay with traditional means … Canada is changing and we are trying to find ways to meet the changing face of Canadians,” Parks Canada vice-president Jeff Anderson told the newspaper.

Parks Canada saw a decline in attendance during the early 2000s, though it has evened out somewhat in recent years.

Still, most provinces have seen a dip in attendance over the past five seasons.

Manitoba leads the way down. In 2009-10, 423,000 people visited Parks Canada sites – including national parks, reserves, and recognized historic sites.

In the 2013-14 season, that number had dropped to 323,000 – a 23 per cent decrease.

Meantime, attendance of New Brunswick sites decreased by six per cent, Prince Edward Island attendance decreased by five per cent, and Saskatchewan dropped by three per cent.

The increases seen by some provinces were limited. Alberta, British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario increased attendance by one per cent. Only Newfoundland and Labrador saw any marked improvement of four per cent – jumping from 513,000 guests in 2009-10 to 525,000 last year.

If Parks Canada is going to bring more people to its natural attractions, it will require some level of modernization. Some amount of commercialization is expected, but it is just as important to balance that will the desire of regular visitors.

“People come from Germany and other places around the world to visit Canada’s nature,” said Hébert-Daly. “They are not coming to a theme park or a Disneyland. They are coming to see the real intact nature and wilderness that Canada is known for. It is iconic, and it’s one of the things we are able to boast about.”

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