Banff National Park plans for influx of visitors when entry is free in 2017

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As concerns about congestion in Banff National Park grow, officials are exploring ways to deal with an expected influx of tourists when entry is free in 2017.

The country’s busiest national park has had record increases in visitors in each of the past two years.

It’s expected to get even more crowded next year when entry to national parks is free to mark the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation.

Banff residents, including its mayor, have blasted Parks Canada for failing to come up with solutions on how to handle the growth in visitation.

“There are logistical challenges,” Dave McDonough, superintendent of Banff National Park, said in an interview.

As a result, he said they are working closely with the Town of Banff and Banff-Lake Louise Tourism to develop a plan that includes:

Mayor Karen Sorensen, who first raised her concerns about traffic congestion at a town council meeting last month, said they are now making some headway on a strategic plan for 2017.

“Time is tight, which was my biggest concern,” she said. “Certainly, by working collaboratively, we’ll be ready to welcome all Canadians to their park next year and really make sure they have a very safe and positive experience.”

Sorenson said 2017 will be an interesting year due to the free entry, but noted they need long-term strategies.

“This isn’t about visitors; it’s about vehicles,” she said. “The townsite is not full with people, but on peak days the townsite’s main vehicle corridors are overcapacity. That’s our biggest concern.

“We’ve seen extensive growth in numbers coming into the park and coming into the town in the past two years and based . . . on factual data that we’ve been collecting, our projections are that there will be a larger growth in 2017.”

Sorensen said regional transit is working, but she would also like to see additional ‘intercept’ parking lots created within the town’s limits to address the congestion.

“We need people to be out of their cars,” she said, noting shuttle services could be offered to get people into town.

Banff conservationists said they don’t think building more parking lots in town or at other high-demand locations such as Johnston Canyon or Lake Louise is the solution.

“That’s been one of our biggest concerns all along,” said Reg Bunyan, vice-president of Bow Valley Naturalists, who lives in Banff.

Yet, he said having parking along roadsides such as the Bow Valley Parkway and Sunshine Road creates “a wall of steel” for wildlife movements and causes pedestrian safety issues.

“BVN is a strong supporter of improved transit and trying to better inform people before they get here,” said Bunyan.

McDonough said Parks Canada will work with the town to let people know about capacity in existing parking lots and provide alternate destinations for visitors.

“We’re really working on that messaging side,” he said.

Once visitors come into the park, he said they’re looking to expand regional transit options in Banff and Lake Louise and have parking attendants at some of the popular areas.

“We’ll also take action to prevent issues associated with inappropriate parking along narrow roadways,” he said. “For example at Johnston’s Canyon, because it’s so popular, people are parking on both sides of the Bow Valley Parkway. It does create safety issues.

“Lake Minnewanka is a similar issue, so we’ll take action there.”

Parking will also be prohibited along the Sunshine Road during the ski season, starting in the fall of 2017.

“We addressed the major concerns around avalanche risk earlier,” he said. “We also have public safety concerns associated with congestion.”

McDonough said the overall strategy for 2017 is comprehensive, but it will require timely communication with visitors.

As a result, the entry gates will still be staffed and visitors without a pass will still be expected to stop.

“We still want people to receive a park pass because that allows us to talk to those people and get a sense of how many people are coming,” said McDonough. “It’s important, even though it’s free, to have that contact with people.”

cderworiz@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/cderworiz

Article source: Ottawa Citizen

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