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What the Free Admission to Canada's National Parks in 2017 Means for Wilderness Conservation

An open call to Canadians and globe-trotters alike to visit Canada's Parks for free in 2017 could do more harm than the good it initially intended.

By: Jacalyn Beales + Save to a List

Earlier in 2016, Parks Canada issued an announcement that all National Parks across Canada would be open to the public, free of entry, in 2017. The government branch opened reservations for Park passes in January of 2016, causing bookings to increase up to 20% from 2015. Known for some of the most beautiful camping, canoeing, hiking and outdoor destinations in the world, Canada's most popular Parks, such as those common ones found in British Columbia and Alberta, will suffer from overcrowding as adventurers and outdoors enthusiasts - not to mention tourists from the USA and beyond - flock to these Parks for their chance at observing nature, cheaper. 

In a groundbreaking move to celebrate Canada's 150th birthday, the free entry into National Parks across Canada is anticipated to be a game changer - whether it's a positive one is still left to be seen. One could easily surmise that the abolition of admission fees offers a tantalizing incentive to generate more global and national tourism to (in addition to revenue for) Canada. Already, notorious Parks such as Yoho, Banff and Jasper National Park see daily visitors and tourists come rain, shine, sleet or snow; in fact, it's no secret that hitting the hiking trails in popular Parks such as these is already difficult without seeing numerous walkers, runners, cyclists, campers, portagers and more. During the warmer months, when visitors and tourists can camp in and hike through Parks in Canada in kinder weather, most reach capacity (and exceed it) within days of opening to the public; free admission for the entirety of 2017 will only up the ante more for Canada's cherished Parks. 

The overcrowding of Parks could be good news for Canada if you're interested in the economy, politics, and all of that other fun stuff which so often lets important matters of conservation and environment fall to the wayside. But if Canada's Parks reach capacity and suffer from overcrowding, what does this mean for the conservation of the Parks' flora and fauna? Their natural habitats and protected areas?

The general theme concerning the admission-free status of National Parks in 2017 for Canada appears to be a more rotund effort to increase access to popular destinations which could cost tourists (both national and international) hundreds of dollars to visit in entry and camping fees. Because Canada is so often characterized by its natural beauty and plethora of wilderness-rich areas, allowing free entry to virtually everyone celebrates Canada in a way many already do, by giving people the opportunity to explore the country's natural spots. But overcrowding can lead to a number of detrimental risks and very real issues which put the ecological integrity and preservation of Canada's wild areas in jeopardy. 

It is unlikely that many tourists, be it Canadians themselves or those from outside of the country, will visit those National Parks which are lesser known and, perhaps, less accessible than, say, Banff National Park or Pacific Rim. You may not consider visiting Auyuittuq National Park (Nunavut), for instance, Canada's only National Park north of the Arctic Circle. And though Parks Canada has mentioned promoting these lesser known Parks in an effort to take some of the "heat" off of more popular Parks, it's clear the influx of visitors and the rumoured lack of planning and strategy to accommodate said influx is indicative of one key problem: conservation management. 

In December 2016, Parks Canada experienced issues with its website when it crashed due to the overwhelming number of requests for passes to National Parks following the positive response to its announcement that entry fees will be waived for all of 2017. Chalking it up to a celebratory move for Canada's 150th birthday this year, many conservationists have expressed concern that wildlife and ecological landscapes inherent to these Parks will be put in danger, especially in regards to wildlife which live in these Parks. Highway and road access, for example, is already congested near National Parks, where wildlife such as moose, bears, deer, elk, goats and other species are so often found crossing, walking along or weaving in between vehicles. The congested roadways and highways could pose serious threats of injury or death to wildlife and people who may hit wildlife or be attacked trying to get up close and personal with animals which are simply trying to avoid humans by getting back to their own habitats. 

Similarly, the Parks' flora, some of which contain plant and botanical species existing nowhere else on Earth, could be at risk of destruction. More visitors means more risk of tourists and hikers going off the beaten path, where they can easily run, walk or cycle through areas where plants, botanicals, young trees and other flora are meant to live and grow undisturbed. The lack of staff and wildlife experts able to monitor tourist activity may result, as conservationists fear, in negative ecological impacts. Litter, pollution and other waste will easily and inevitably make its way into the natural habitats of flora and fauna indigenous to these Parks. 

As far as conservation is concerned, National Parks in Canada as well as those around the globe have made news more often in recent years due to irresponsible tourist activity, such as when hikers attempt to get up close and personal with wildlife for selfies or photos, only to be attacked by wild animals. Some tourists have even died due to outdoor-related injuries, when their safety is put at risk after they ignore signs, warnings and Park regulations and leave indicated hiking trails or paths and end up falling into geysers, lakes, or over cliffs. Sometimes satirical and comical articles poking fun at tourists who have removed wildlife from National Parks to "save them," or who bring food along to feed wildlife in order to get closer and pet or interact with them, highlight a more serious issue; that being, too many people taking advantage of the wild, natural and protected areas easily accessed by trails, hiking routes and, ironically, free admission to Parks. 

In October of 2016, Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen fired back at Parks Canada regarding their lack of foresight and preparedness when it comes to offering the free admission for 2017. According to Sorensen, no real thought was given to the logistics and reality of increased tourist activity and visitation to popular parks like Banff or Jasper, common Parks that gain serious attention (and attendance) from Canadians and globe-trotters alike. Apparently, Parks Canada has taken a lazy approach to working with many major cities where tourism success revolves around keeping a National Park pristine, safe, clean and free from ecological harm. With tourist numbers expected to exceed 2016's 24.5 million in 2017, it's no wonder Sorensen and others are concerned. 

The thought of free admission to Canada's National Parks is nice, but the reality is less than peachy. The ecological impacts which will undoubtedly result from overcrowding in popular Parks means natural flora and fauna will be at higher risk of harm than they already are, adding to the worry that these Parks may be unable to sustain the damage they'll take from tourist traffic. It appears that in opening the country's National Parks for free, Parks Canada and the Canadian government failed to anticipate the overwhelming response, taking what seems to have been a lackadaisical approach to the role conservation must play in keeping these Parks healthy, beautiful and thriving. Parks Canada has failed, for instance, to truly consider how over-stretched some Parks will be versus others which, at any given time, may see far less tourist activity than the bigger, more popular Parks. The lack of staff, experts and scientists available to monitor such activity means the Parks will struggle to keep afloat when the inevitable damage and detriment ensues. If Parks across Canada already experience their fair share of conservational issues, specifically at the "hands" of tourists (local and beyond), have we really considered what an influx in activity could do to the preservation of our parks?

Surprisingly, there doesn't appear to be a flurry of activity regarding the education of tourists and conservation goals. When the free-entry announcement was made in 2016, it was quite obviously followed by a flutter of activity and excitement, especially from those avid outdoors enthusiasts who now have an incentive to travel and visit their favourite Parks. But Parks Canada has dropped the ball where conservation education is concerned, and those worried about the ecological integrity of Canada's National Parks will likely see their worst fears confirmed. Oddly enough, Parks Canada has made it clear that this free-entry does not include the actual cost of camping and accommodations, reservation fees, hot springs, moorings...you get the picture. When these destinations become overcrowded, where will people choose to camp, start a fire, park their vehicles, or dispose of their garbage and waste? And will the Parks be suitably prepared to handle the fall out and consequences of over-reached capacity? 

If you are planning on taking advantage of this free admission and exploring one of Canada's National Parks in 2017, please consider visiting these beautiful, natural areas with the leave-no-trace approach. Help celebrate Canada by preserving the natural integrity of its protected areas and be an ethical, responsible tourist. Below are a few quick tips to help you responsibly visit Canada's National Parks this year: 

  • Regardless of the duration of your visit, ensure you avoid littering by properly disposing of trash, waste and other garbage in designated areas; if you cannot find a disposal area, take your litter with you. This helps to ensure that wildlife do not consume human litter. 
  • As tempting as it may be, do not wander off the indicated paths or trails in National Parks as regulated by the Park itself; these tourist rules and regulations are in place for your safety as well as the safety of the flora and fauna. 
  • Avoid getting up close and personal with wildlife; no matter how stellar of an Instagram picture it may make, attempting to interact with wild species in Parks not only puts your safety at risk, but also the safety of the wildlife itself. You can avoid injury and fatalities by respecting the wildlife in Parks. 
  • Consider carpooling or taking a shuttle service (or similar) to the National Park you plan on visiting to help cut down on traffic going to and from these Parks.

~ Cover photo courtesy of Ezra Jeffrey-Comeau

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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