Open spaces, crowded places: Parks staff brace for another pandemic summer

At Elk Island National Park, the pandemic-inspired uptick in visitors quickly outpaced the available space inside one of Canada’s smallest national parks 

“It’s been about 48 per cent increase the last couple of years during the pandemic,” says Dale Kirkland, superintendent of the park located about 45 kilometres east of Edmonton. 

That jump from 360,000 visitors to 530,000 meant last year Kirkland had to make some tough calls. 

For the first time in park history, staff turned visitors away a dozen times between May and August based on vehicle traffic numbers.

“We had to essentially shut the doors and stop people from entering Elk Island,” says Kirkland.

You can hear more on For the Love of Parks on Monday, May 23 at 4:05 p.m. on CBC Radio One and SiriusXM.

With the May long weekend kicking off what’s expected to be another busy summer, Kirkland and his team are getting the park ready.

This year, Kirkland has spent $75,000 renting porta-potties to handle what he considers “the new normal” of when nature calls. His staff is gearing up for calls of a different sort.

He says last summer the park’s Astotin Lake was awash with kayaks, canoes and blow-up dinghies. 

“Over a 24-hour period on the August long weekend, we responded to provide assistance and rescue to 20 individuals on the lake.”

Kirkland says none of those guests were wearing life-jackets. 

People sit on the beach at Awenda Provincial Park near Tiny, Ont., in July 2020. (Submitted by Chris Lemieux)

Sandra Schwartz has been hearing stories like this from staff at national, provincial and regional parks all across the country.

“There’s certainly a trend toward loving parks to death or over-tourism in certain areas,” says Schwartz, the national executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).

“In B.C., Alberta and Ontario, in particular, there’s been overcrowding of trails and there’s been overcrowding of popular campsites,” Schwartz says. 

Overcrowding has led to littering and an increase in human-wildlife conflict.

“The trend to more and more visitation reinforces an urgency to protect natural space,” she says.

“Certainly we know from the dual crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss that urgency, scientifically, is in place.” 

An example of recent littering in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. (Submitted by Karen Burgess)

The balancing act between the ecosystem and tourism and recreation interests is what professor Elizabeth Halpenny studies at the University of Alberta.

She says more funding for current green spaces to handle the influx of visitors could be part of the solution. Using tools like social media to encouraging people to spread out and visit different, lesser-known green spaces is another strategy that can help, she says.

“Park agencies have been working hard to push users away from popular spots and elevate awareness of other similar, great spots,” says Halpenny. 

On a busy day, Highway 99 in British Columbia is host to a long line of vehicles outside Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. (Submitted by Steve Jones)

Other solutions could be free day-use passes, like the ones B.C. Parks piloted during the pandemic, or the introduction of fees in some spaces — higher for peak times and lower, or free, for the shoulder season.

But Halpenny believes the goal shouldn’t be to drive people away. 

The flip side to the skyrocketing use of public green spaces during the pandemic is creating a “really important bond with nature,” she says.

“Hopefully, this translates into a population, a next generation, that’s reconnected with nature and becomes more fierce stewards of nature going forward.”

Private vehicles aren’t allowed on the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff, Alta., and plenty of cyclists are taking advantage. (Helen Pike/CBC)

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