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With over 3.4 million discovery passes ordered since Dec. 1, 2016, Parks Canada is preparing for a busy year as the country celebrates its 150th anniversary. However, as national parks coast-to-coast brace themselves for a rise in visitors, biologists are concerned about preserving the ecological integrity of these natural spaces.

Here's who's worried about free access to Canadian parks

Leeanna McLean
Digital Reporter

Friday, March 24, 2017, 9:57 AM - As national parks coast-to-coast brace for a substantial rise in visitors this year, biologists are concerned about preserving the ecological integrity of these natural spaces.

This concern comes as over 3.4 million discovery passes have been ordered since Dec. 1, 2016, granting free access to Canadians as part of the celebrations around Canada 150.

"This is something Parks Canada has always been committed to maintaining," Natalie Fay, chief of media relations for Parks Canada told The Weather Network. "Ecological integrity of our national parks, while also ensuring that visitors are able to come in and enjoy these places in a safe and proper manner."

 CELEBRATE WITH IS:Bookmark the Canada150 page for updated content and video around the 150th birthday of our great country | Canada150

Courtesy: Chuyen Doe -- Banff, Alberta

Increased visitation

An increase in vehicle traffic is one of several concerns University of Toronto assistant professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology Becky Raboy has.

"There will be more traffic, on foot and cars," Raboy said. "This will lead to increases in noise pollution, perhaps air pollution, a potential for trampling of wildlife, more road kills, increased trash, human-wildlife conflict and disruption of animal's behavioural patterns. Animals may start avoiding areas where humans are more populous. Or conversely, they may habituate to humans and run the risk of becoming problem animals."

Parks Canada officials anticipate there will be an increase in visitors this year from last year's attendance of around 24 million.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) says they have been observing a significant shift in Parks Canada's approach to managing national parks for the better part of a decade.

According to the society's 2016 Parks Report, several trends have been noted over the years including, more behind-closed-door decision making and an increasing focus on tourism, marketing and revenue generation.

To make matters worse, a recent report from Parks Canada found that nearly half of park ecosystems remain in fair to poor condition. Of the 41 national parks and reserves measured, the report indicated 29 had at least one ecosystem rated as fair or poor.

"With almost half of park ecosystems currently in fair or poor condition, and with sky-rocketing visitation and infrastructure developments putting more and more pressure on park wildlife, we urgently need the federal government to insist that Parks Canada stop the relentless tourism marketing and development that has dominated their park management approach in recent years, and re-focus on their conservation responsibilities," CPAWS national executive director Éric Hébert-Daly said in a news release. "We also need the federal government to provide the necessary resources to reverse the 30% cut to Parks Canada’s science and conservation capacity that happened in 2012."

Courtesy: Howard Moyst -- Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland

The society is particularly worried about crowding in Rocky Mountain parks as visitation continues to soar in areas such as Banff, which has seen an increase of more than 20 per cent in the last two years, according to the CPAWS report.

"It's a really good problem to have that we're going to have a lot of visitors, Canadian and international visitors, to our parks," Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna told CBC while in Calgary for a cabinet retreat in late January. "But of course there are some parks that will have a significant increase, so we need to be working, as we are, with all parks and historic sites, to make sure that we have a plan to address the increase in visitors."

Managing congestion

One way Parks Canada manages increased visitation and vehicle congestion is encouraging Canadian families to plan their visits early and perhaps book during the shoulder season, which is anything before the May long weekend and after Labour Day, according to Fay.

Family Day and March Break are always full of fun activities and Jasper's Dark Sky Festival in October is one you certainly don't want to miss out on, Fay noted. 

"There are some sites we're not anticipating any congestion issues whatsoever. Whereas, we also have sites like Banff and Lake Louise where increased visitation is a reality that we have been living for many years now," she said.

Free shuttle service is a great tool places like Lake Louise have implemented and this will likely continue through 2017.

Courtesy: Naeem Akhtar -- Lake Louise, Alberta

"We also have additional traffic flaggers and these will be used at many of our busiest places. I know this is something we did at Banff this summer just to make sure that people were being directed in where they could go, where parking was available and to help them through their visit," Fay said.

Highway message boards will also be used throughout mountain parks and cleaning crews will be increased, according to Fay.

"This obviously makes sense if we are expecting more people to come visit our places. We want to make sure that everything continues to be properly maintained and that garbage is removed as soon as possible, so it doesn't attract wildlife and so that everything is clean and maintained up to the standards Canadians expect from us."

Families are also encouraged to follow Parks Canada on social media to find out what locations will be busiest and other hidden gem suggestions.

Human–wildlife conflict

With increased traffic, comes the concern for accidents with wildlife. However, Fay says Parks Canada has a team of resource conservation staff in the mountain parks and wildlife guardians who are out on the highways and roads to monitor wildlife activity.

"We can't directly link human-wildlife incidents or traffic incidents to increased visitation, but what we do have is many safeguards in place," she said.

Some of these safeguards include: over and underpasses on the Trans Canada highway for animals to safely cross, which has resulted in an overall 80 per cent decline in collisions in Banff National Park, according to the Calgary Herald.

Courtesy: Duane Larson -- Waterton Park, Alberta

"It's difficult to anticipate the human-wildlife interactions on any given year. There are scenarios where we have gone years without any incidents, particularly with large carnivores, but you never know," said Fay. "These are things that we really can't control, but what we do is we make sure that we have all of the information we need to do a proper job of monitoring. If we anticipate there could be any issues, we will look at all of our options and take the proper management decision as we always have."

Throughout 2017, Fay says Parks Canada will drive people to their best practices pages online and social media campaigns will be in place to educate the public on how to observe wildlife safely, camping rules and more specifically, how to properly clean a campsite to ensure visitors only leave their footsteps behind.

Preparing for a trip

Raboy urges Canadians to understand park rules before planning a trip.

"Similarly, people should put some effort into understanding about the wildlife present in the parks they are visiting before taking their trip," the professor said. "Once on their journey, they can take park arranged transit to get in and around the park, or if using their own vehicles, be very careful about where they park. Always, while in the park, they should be quiet and respectful to nature, never go off-trail, never leave trash or compost behind – preferably packing out or if not, using park-specified refuse containers."

For suggestions on equipment, kitchen gear, personal hygiene and tips for camping with pets, Parks Canada provides a checklist for visitors to follow.

The campsite reservation system launched online in January. For those who plan on visiting a park, it is advised to book a site as soon as possible, especially if you wish to reserve a campsite during a long weekend.

While discovery passes are free in 2017, fees still apply for campsites, firewood, and backcountry passes.

While there are concerns that increased visitation could harm the ecological integrity of the parks, Raboy says free entry this year could result in a renewed admiration for Canada's natural spaces.

"The chances that free entry will result in a renewed admiration for Canada's vast wildlife and landscapes is certain," she said. "However, the chances that free entry will result in renewed admiration for protecting nature is not clear. Not everyone has a well-developed conservation ethic in the first place."

Instead, Raboy says it would be effective to pair the free entry with targeted educational programs to further develop one's sense of environmental stewardship.

"This would not only be helpful for this year, but into the future," she said. "But to ensure the end balance is positive, both management and people must do their part. Increased education, signage, traffic control, cap on visitation, dispersing visitation away from tourist hotspots or increasing capacity and infrastructure for these areas to safely receive more visitors, and deterring people from entering highly sensitive areas are all important actions for management."

However, the professor says visitors themselves must play a critical role in protecting our parks.

"They must proceed responsibly and tread lightly during their stays."

Courtesy: Steve Finlay -- Bruce Peninsula National park, Ontario

Visitors from around the globe

Parks Canada has noticed an increase in visitors from not only Canada, but the U.S. and European countries such as England, France and Germany.

While the majority of visitors will be from Canada this year, Fay says she is very pleased to see that Canada's parks are being put on the map.

"They are absolutely breathtaking and there are some very unique areas whether you travel east to west," Fay said. "The number of different types of natural environments that you can run into is really quite impressive. So, I am very happy to see that other countries are recognizing the beauty that Canada has."

SOURCE: CPAWS news release | Parks Canada report | CPAWS report | CBC

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