Register Wednesday | November 22 | 2017
Tree's a Crowd Illustrations by Monika Waber.

Tree's a Crowd

When national parks become tourist traps.

On a Quiet Saturday morning at the Mount Norquay lookout in Banff National Park, a long swath of the Bow Valley in the Canadian Rockies is on display. It’s still early, and the peaks of Sulphur Mountain and Mount Rundle cast long shadows across the forested valley. At the lookout, a colony of Columbian ground squirrels lounge in the sun, popping up to whistle shrill calls of warning to one another when a hawk flies overhead. Robins hop through the grasses on the warm, south-facing slope in search of insects, and the call of a loon echoes from the wetlands adjacent to the Bow River down below. The river’s turquoise waters snake their way past the wetland and through Banff, a ten-thousand-person town on the valley floor.

I’m sitting on a log at the lookout with sixty-three-year-old Peter Duck, president of Bow Valley Naturalists. He pulls out a map and starts pointing. There’s the Fairmont Hotel, there’s the Trans-Canada Highway, there’s the high school, the Canadian Pacific Railway, the power lines. There’s the recreation infrastructure—the trails, the campgrounds, the stables.

On the map, Duck points out the montane ecoregion, what he calls the “ecological oasis”—a combination of wetlands, rivers, marshlands, aspen and conifer forests that is arguably one of the most important regions for wildlife. The montane covers just 3 percent of Banff National Park (much of the remainder is rock and ice) and is the most popular part to visit. “We’re no different from the wildlife,” Duck says. The town of Banff lies smack-dab in the middle of the montane.

Duck gestures to two nearby red plastic Muskoka chairs. Parks Canada has installed these chairs in national parks and historic sites across the country, encouraging people to share photos of themselves sitting in the chairs on social media using the hashtag #ShareTheChair. To Duck, the chairs are symbolic of how Parks Canada has evolved in recent years. “They’ve spread these red chairs all across Canada,” he says, “with very little thought of the impact it would have on the ecosystem.”

Thousands of pairs of feet have evidently made their way from their cars to the chairs, trampling the surrounding vegetation. These particular chairs, perched on a grassy slope overlooking the spectacular scenery of the Bow Valley, now sit in the middle of large, eroded patch of dirt.

Forty-seven national parks currently span the country, from the red rocks and lighthouses of Prince Edward Island National Park to the surf and sand of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve in British Columbia to the musk oxen and tundra of Quttinirpaaq National Park in Nunavut. National parks are protected from industrial developments, new suburbs and logging, and cover more than 330,000 square kilometres.

In 1921, a report on Canada’s parks noted that “the increasing strain and complexity of city life make the necessity for recreation, change, escape into a simpler environment, greater each year.” Almost a century later, that sentiment continues to ring true. The sites managed by the Parks Canada Agency across the country—including national parks and national historic sites—welcomed over twenty-three million visitors during their 2015 to 2016 season, and that number continues to rise. Attendance in the seven mountain parks, the crown jewels of the parks system, has increased by nearly 20 percent in the last five years. (Disclosure: I have previously worked for Parks Canada, most recently as a children’s educator.)

This year, however, is poised to shatter all previous records. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of confederation, the federal government made admission to national parks and historic sites free for everyone throughout 2017. The new initiative was first revealed in the Liberal party platform back in 2015, and on New Year’s Eve 2017, Parks Canada unveiled the website they’d set up to dole out free park passes. The website, overloaded with requests, crashed almost immediately, but people kept logging on. By May, Parks Canada had received 3.3 million requests for free passes.

It has been noted that national parks aren’t really “free” this year. Though nearly $6 million in taxpayer funds were allocated in the 2017 budget to offset these free admissions, it won’t come close to making up for the loss of the tens of millions the agency brings in from entrance fees in a typical year.

Though Parks Canada is legally bound to protect the wilderness as its first priority, it relies on a visitor-funded model, and has an agency-wide goal of increasing visitation by 2 percent every year. To do this, it has embarked on a multi-million dollar research and advertising campaign aimed at attracting more tourists.

Some advocates argue that because there is a thriving and influential business community in and around our national parks—nearly every visitor spends money somewhere, whether on tours, campsites and firewood or on fine dining, spas and shopping—Parks Canada might be tempted to put a greater focus on increasing visitors and their business than protecting nature. Advocates have also raised concerns that encouraging so many more visitors may in fact degrade the conditions of local ecosystems. As John E. Marriott, a wildlife photographer and author who has lived in the Bow Valley for twenty-six years, told me, “We might love them to death.”

On the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday, a crowd had gathered on the shores of Lake Louise, in Banff National Park, well before 10 am. Attendants in yellow coveralls shepherded traffic as soon as cars turned off the Trans-Canada highway; spaces were already almost full in each of the parking lots, and a shuttle was running to an overflow lot.

For tourists who come to the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise is one of the biggest draws—a picturesque, castle-like hotel on the shores of what is purportedly one of the most photographed lakes in the world. Some fifteen thousand people reportedly come here on a busy summer day. A paved sidewalk lines the edge of the lake, and people wait for a spot to open on the lakeshore, where they can smile for selfies with Mount Victoria and the vast, retreating Victoria Glacier behind them. People from across the country and around the world, holding selfie sticks and cameras, all tell me the same thing: “beautiful.” Most people don’t seem fazed by the crowds. “It’s a tourist resort,” one man from Toronto says. “We expect this!”

Curious chipmunks and whisky jacks line the walkway like hustlers, eyeing the hands of tourists for snacks. A woman armed with a bag of Planters peanuts reaches out to tempt a particularly gregarious bird. It works, and a crowd gathers almost immediately to take photos. A tour group leader pushes through the crowd and speaks into a mic connected to her group’s earpieces: “The woman on your right is feeding a bird called a whisky jack.” The “Aaahs” are audible.

It is, of course, illegal to feed wildlife in any national park, but there are no Parks Canada employees in sight. As I wander, I realize there are, in fact, Parks Canada employees here—stationed in a branded pop-up tent giving out brochures and selling tourist kitsch emblazoned with the Parks Canada logo. Racks of key chains, water bottles, umbrellas, notebooks, T-shirts and stuffed beavers are all on display, and business appears to be booming.

“Commerce and national parks are oil and water,” seventy-one-year-old Ben Gadd tells me. “You mix them together and you just get a mess.” Gadd is a retired interpretive nature guide and author of Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, a popular mountain guidebook. He has worked in the Rocky Mountain national parks for several decades, taking groups on backpacking trips, guiding bus tours and working as a Parks Canada naturalist. I visit him on a sunny June day at his home in Canmore, a town on the edge of Banff National Park. He’s wearing suspenders and boat shoes and has a neat white beard. He makes me a cup of coffee and settles into an armchair to talk about his decades working in mountain parks.

Gadd believes years of pressure from Ottawa have led Parks Canada to “put wallets before park protection.” Visitors expecting a tranquil experience in nature who enter the park gate are instead “thrust into the arms of the tourism industry.” While Gadd is adamant that entrance to national parks should be free for everyone, so no one is discriminated against on the basis of income, he argues that the mountain parks are already well beyond their ecological capacity.

A 2016 Parks Canada document revealed that nearly half of ecosystems measured in the national parks were rated as “poor” or “fair.” Banff is one of them; Parks Canada reports its forests are deteriorating. A 2016 report from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), a national charity dedicated to the protection of public land and water, criticized Parks Canada’s recent management of national parks, concluding, “developments in our Rocky Mountain National Parks pose a serious threat to sensitive wildlife and wilderness, and are out of step with Parks Canada’s legislative responsibility to prioritize ecological integrity in all aspects of park management.”

Gadd is especially concerned with the mandated visitorship increase of 2 percent per year. “Parks are finite,” he explains. “National parks are a bit like a theatre. When all the seats are filled, you don’t keep selling tickets. These theatres filled up a long time ago.”

I ask Gadd if he might be seen as anti-development and he laughs. “Yes! The definition of human development,” he says, “is the invasion of wilderness.”

Banff was Canada’s first national park, first protected back in 1855 at the behest of a man named Sir William Cornelius Van Horne. By the time the wealthy, American-born Van Horne set his sights on the Bow Valley, he was already the kingpin of a massive transportation empire—he’d sent steamships from Vancouver to Hong Kong, built a railway in Cuba to replace its mule-drawn tramways and, most famously, overseen the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Surveying the craggy peaks and bubbling hot springs of what would eventually become Banff National Park, it became clear to him that business would prosper in the dramatic landscape. “If we can’t export the scenery,” Van Horne declared, “we’ll have to import the tourists.” When he arrived at the now-renowned Cave and Basin hot springs, he announced, “These springs are worth a million dollars!”

He was right. If anything, Van Horne underestimated. By 1921, the Department of Interior estimated that “the mountain parks alone are worth $300,000,000 to the Canadian people.” James Harkin, who would become Commissioner of the Canadian Parks Branch in 1911, assigned a more specific dollar value to parkland. He estimated that parks were worth a precise $13.88 an acre, substantially more than fields of wheat, an acre of which he valued at a mere $4.91.

With so much value at stake, Canada’s first national park was quickly created. As Van Horne put it, he was looking “to protect the scenery from squatting and enable the CPR to monopolize development.” An act of parliament in 1885 to protect twenty-six square kilometres (over 6,400 acres) around the lucrative hot springs paved the way for what would eventually become Banff National Park in 1930. When Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald returned from a visit to the park, he reported back to parliament about the new park’s potential. “If carefully managed,” he declared, “it will more than many times recuperate or recoup the Government for any present expenditure.”

In 1917, a report from the Department of the Interior elaborated, “Canada needs as never before the volume of gold that accompanies tourist traffic.” The report placed a familiar emphasis on increasing visitor numbers and developing attractions to draw tourists.

With this logic in mind, the development of tourism infrastructure—hotels, restaurants, activities—was increased within park boundaries. At the same time, Indigenous people were blatantly and categorically pushed out. George Stewart, the first superintendent of Banff, didn’t mince words. “It is of great importance that if possible the Indians should be excluded from the Park,” he wrote. “Their destruction of the game and depredations among the ornamental trees make their too frequent visits to the Park a matter of great concern.”

An early explorer of Canada’s national parks, Walter Dwight Wilcox, described arriving in the recently developed town of Banff in his 1896 travelogue, noting “the traveller is confronted by a line of hack drivers and hotel employees shouting in loud voices the names and praises of their various hotels… The chorus of rival voices seems almost a welcome back to civilization.” Van Horne had succeeded in his vision—the tourists had been imported and the cash was flowing. Van Horne built his now-famous, castle-like Banff Springs Hotel, golf courses were created in Banff, Fundy, Jasper, Waterton Lakes and other parks across the country, and Banff National Park opened a zoo to guarantee visitors the chance to see wildlife. Alongside the caged wolverines and Canada geese, tourists could find some more exotic creatures: in the midst of the towering peaks of the remote Canadian Rockies, one could visit a polar bear and eight rhesus monkeys.

In the lobby of a hostel in Banff, a bulletin board helpfully details the costs of different outdoor recreational activities. Rafting is $110, a ride on the retreating Columbia Icefield is $195, “signature walks” are $35, a wildlife safari is $49. But not everyone wants to spend time in the backcountry with only birds and trees for company. On Canada Day, tens of thousands of people line the streets for an annual parade. At a bakery that sells BeaverTails, the line-up is out the door. A couple on a cross-country roadtrip from Ottawa is totally unfazed by the crowds, planning to check out the gondola and maybe visit Lake Louise. A family from Edmonton with relatives visiting from Korea is looking forward to barbecue and fireworks; a couple on a trip from Minnesota will be taking in some live music. As Tim Nokes, the general manager of a family-run business in Johnston Canyon, in Banff National Park, tells me, not everyone comes to Banff with the same idea of a wilderness experience.

“Just because you’re a business operator,” Nokes continues, “doesn’t mean you’re not a conservationist.” He’s tired of the dichotomy created between the two. Johnston Canyon, Nokes’ home base, was named after a prospector who spent a failed summer panning for gold in the area at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1927, Nokes’ grandfather started a small tourist outpost on the creek, a rest stop for horse-drawn carriages at the time. “The ironic part is my grandfather did discover gold,” says Nokes, “but it was in tourism.”

These days, the resort includes forty-two cabins, a restaurant, a café, a gift shop and an ice-cream stand. It’s in a wildlife corridor, and Parks Canada has restricted its operation to only seven months a year. “That’s absolutely fine with us,” says Nokes, whose parents now winter in the Caribbean.

A lot has changed in Banff since Nokes’ grandfather greeted trains to draw visitors into the canyon. These days, it’s also possible to paint pottery, go on a wine-and-cheese cruise, play tennis, peruse art galleries, ride a mechanical bull, attend a poetry reading or enter a wet T-shirt contest. Gap, L’Occitane, Billabong and Lululemon all have stores downtown, along with at least three separate storefronts for Ardene. Sushi, shawarma, vegan food, caribou fondue, Tony Roma’s, McDonald’s and Earls are all on offer. As I walk the streets, I stop to look at rows upon rows of solar-powered bobble heads—moose, beavers and Mounties—each wiggling and wide-eyed as they gawk invitingly from souvenir store windows.

Nokes grew up in Banff in the 1970s and has seen the changes in the park firsthand. I ask him if he’s concerned about more people coming to the park. “I don’t really feel there is as much impact in the area,” he says. “The volumes of people are all staying in the front country. They’re also seeking the attractions which are created for large industrial tourism already.” To Nokes, the biggest threat to the local ecosystem is the railway that runs through the park. He thinks Parks Canada has been doing an “admirable job” at “controlling all of the pressures of tourism, locals and conservation.”

Kevin Van Tighem, the former head of Banff National Park (who declined to be interviewed for this article), has offered a markedly different view. He has openly criticized the agency’s tourism-focused direction, telling the Globe and Mail that the parks are, increasingly, “a bundle of Disneyesque visitor attractions and marketing packages.”

“We don’t need to build tourist attractions in national parks,” says Alison Woodley, national conservation director at CPAWS. “Their natural beauty, their wildlife—that is the attraction.”

Woodley points to data that suggests Canadians do, indeed, value nature just for the sake of it. A 2011 Ipsos poll, for example, noted that 75 percent of Canadians felt that preserving natural areas is important to them—and that nearly nine in ten of us report increased happiness when feeling “closer to nature.” This sort of research, she says, demonstrates that people value the wilderness as it is.

“People come to Banff to enjoy nature, to have to the opportunity to see wildlife,” says Jim Pissot, a sixty-nine-year-old naturalist who has lived in the Bow Valley near Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies for more than fifteen years. “What they get instead is a moving parking lot, and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at the most popular sites.”

Joel Reardon, the national spokesperson for Parks Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations, doesn’t see it that way. “We’re quite pleased with increased visitation,” he tells me, saying that the more people that visit national parks, the greater ability there is for the agency to “impart a sense of responsibility” for national parks. He’s optimistic about increased visitation, saying, “it’ll be busy, but there’s lots of space.” Audrey Champagne, a Parks Canada spokesperson, told me by email that the agency has “many tools at its disposal” for handling increased visitation, highlighting investments in infrastructure for visitors, improved garbage disposal, a program to advise visitors about parking and congestion, and a new app to encourage people to visit lesser-visited parks instead.

In 2010, Parks Canada adopted what it called a “sophisticated segmentation tool,” grouping Canadians into tidy categories that they could use to focus their marketing strategy. They found that they had attracted a disproportionate amount of “middle-aged achievers” (who they describe as people “looking to stay fit and youthful” and who “can afford a range of gadgets”) and “fledgling families” (those “less interested in cultural activities,” who “shy away from learning about the world around them”). The list of carefully arranged archetypes, neatly packaged for communications and promotion staff across the country, is called “PRIZM.”

Armed with PRIZM intel, Parks Canada has embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign to target groups it doesn’t think are making enough visits to national parks—including “young metros,” “new Canadians” and “starter nests.” The latter is described as “ethnically diverse, couples and families, single parents and some singles” that “tend to not be adventurous… [and] love keeping up to date with urban happenings.” In recent years, Parks Canada has tried to be part of these “urban happenings”—they’ve unveiled online learn-to-camp how-to guides aimed at their new target demographics (advising new campers to bring cutting boards, oven mitts and pet hair brushes on their first trip) and have started renting chic cabins in place of some campsites, to add more “homey comfort” to the camping experience.

Parks Canada’s promotional efforts and brand reboot are sophisticated and extensive, comparable to any corporate entity with which they are competing. A 124-page “Parks Canada Brand Book” outlines every foreseeable facet of image control with pep and bright colours. There are specific rules on everything from tone of voice to the official font (Helvetica Neue LT, “the friendly, modern face of Parks Canada”). “Parks Canada’s previous brand personality was seen as brown, boring and bureaucratic,” the Brand Book explains. “Canadians are looking for a more extroverted, energetic and nimble personality from us.” Its clothing line, unveiled in 2014, featured the slogan “This land is your brand.” The Brand Book also includes countless declarations of the Parks Canada Brand Identity: “we are increasing the prominence of the Beaver”; “we always connect our name to our places, experiences and products”; “we will always wear our corporate signature.”

Nearly $20 million was spent on Parks Canada market research and promotion in 2014. In its 2014 annual report, the agency claimed that its “competitive position” was at risk, citing international travel and increasing urbanization, and said it would continue “to make concerted efforts to improve its position in the tourism market by actively pursuing strategies with the tourism industry and other partners to significantly increase visitation and revenues.” All of this, according to the agency, has driven an increase in attendance, and enabled it to meet its visitation increase goals. Parks Canada reports that “protected heritage places” are a “significant economic driver” that contribute some $3.3 billion to the Canadian economy each year. Reardon is enthusiastic about the effect of 2017’s free admission on local economies, and Champagne adds that national parks and historic sites “help to generate billions of dollars annually and employ tens of thousands of people.”

While visitation has been steadily increasing, Parks Canada has been continuing its focus on attracting more people to the park. With official tweets like “#Glamping your thing?” and “[T]ake a #selfie with our giant inflatable beaver!” the agency is aiming to hone in on one of their underserved demographics. Parks Canada is also turning its attention to another underserved population: research has suggested that white people are more likely to have access to outdoor experiences than people of colour, and national parks have been criticized for being largely a playground of the white and privileged. Parks Canada acknowledges it faces challenges when it comes to staff diversity, and has committed to building a “workforce reflective of the diversity of the Canadian population.” Through the development of new programs like the “Learn to Camp” initiative, the agency is addressing the underrepresentation of new Canadians and people of colour at parks. Moreover, a new partnership between Parks Canada and local municipal governments has resulted in an affordable public transit option for visitors coming to Banff National Park from Calgary. Local advocates, like Pissot, praised Parks Canada’s efforts to attract a more diverse crowd, insisting that equitable access across race and income is essential; at the same time, they were hesitant to encourage a blanket increase in visitation without regard for the effects on the ecosystem.

One ongoing threat is major infrastructure upgrades (the legacy of the Harper government), which have meant bigger parking lots and more construction within park boundaries across the country. Private companies have been able to get permits for colossal attractions, like the approved expansion of a ski resort. In Jasper, a controversial glass skywalk now curves out from a cliffside near the highway. These developments, combined with increasing tourist volumes, have led some to conclude that the towering peaks and the bears and the birds are under siege. Critics warn that bears are being hit by cars and trains, deer are being fed Cheetos and some predators in the Canadian Rockies are acting more like stray dogs than wild animals, drifting around in search of food scraps strewn across campsites and picnic areas. John E. Marriott, the wildlife photographer, has seen this firsthand. “It’s terrible,” he says. “You get to know all these animals, you get attached to them, and they end up dead.”

Ben Gadd has also noticed changes to animal behaviour. He first spotted ravens begging at car windows a few years back. “Ravens begging!” he says, “Imagine that.”

Through signs, tweets and campfire programs, Parks Canada has an ongoing campaign to encourage visitors to keep “the wild in wildlife”—don’t feed wild animals, don’t approach them, don’t touch them, don’t try to ride them. Education programs like these fall under what’s referred to within the agency as “visitor experience”: sending staff to talk to people, armed with educational messages, as well as the brochures, signs, campsites, guided hikes—and ad campaigns. According to agency data, Parks Canada spent over $200 million on visitor experience during the 2015 to 2016 season, more than double what it spent on conservation (including science, restoration, monitoring and species recovery) in the same year.

CPAWS’ analysis of Parks Canada spending shows that, since 2012, spending on visitor experience has increased while investment in conservation programs had been cut by a third. “That is a telling sign of prioritization,” Alison Woodley says. “Parks Canada’s focus has shifted away from conservation to more of a marketing and tourism development focus. We think that’s out of step with the legal requirement that Parks Canada put conservation first.”

Peter Duck, president of Bow Valley Naturalists, agrees, arguing that the Park has too often used a fun and exciting “visitor experience” as the rationale for approving a new project, with little regard for conservation. This approach, he tells me, is a classic example of “the cart before the horse.” Infrastructure and new projects, he says, should be planned to fit within conservation and education goals, not solely because they may provide revenue and a short-term visitor experience. Champagne, the Parks Canada spokesperson, says that all development proposals are subject to a “rigorous development review and environmental assessment process” that ensures the park’s ecological integrity is maintained.

According to Woodley, reductions in spending on conservation have hampered Parks Canada’s abilities to counter, or even track, the effects of dramatic increases in visitation. But she also believes there is some reason for hope: the federal government has committed to protecting at least 17 percent of the country’s land and inland waters by 2020, a substantial increase if the promise is upheld. Woodley also attended the Canadian Parks Conference in Banff earlier this year, and heard the minister responsible for national parks, Catherine McKenna, speak about the future. “I want to make sure that protecting ecological integrity is front and centre in every decision I make about our national parks,” McKenna told the crowd to much applause.

Parks Canada, Duck says, shouldn’t be focusing on bringing more people to parks at all, especially Banff. “We have a private sector tourism industry which has the skills to bring people here,” he says. He believes it’s important that Parks Canada increases its distance from business interests. When the agency responsible for making decisions about new projects and evaluating ecological impacts is also poised to profit from those same projects, he says, “it muddies the waters.”

Marriott agrees. “Of course [businesses] want to expand,” he tells me. “It’s up to Parks Canada and the federal government to be regulating this stuff. To say ‘no, sorry, you can’t.’”

I ask Duck if he’s hopeful there will be change under the Trudeau government. He pauses. “I’m skeptical,” he says. “Governments are governments.”

“The greatest charm of the Canadian parks is that they provide the opportunity of getting back, in a greater or less degree, to nature,” declared a government report on Canada’s parks in 1917. “The nearer it is to primitive nature the more pleasure [people] feel.”

One hundred years later at Lake Louise, two visitors lean against a rock, looking off into the distance toward the Victoria Glacier. Dieter and his adult daughter Martika have come from Winnipeg to camp; it was Martika’s idea to “get away from [their] busy lives.” Dieter gestures at Mount Victoria on the other side of the lake. “I feel like I belong here in the mountains, breathing the fresh air,” he says. “I just don’t know how possible it is to really feel connected to nature with all the people and cameras around.” Nearby, Parks Canada employees continue to hawk branded merchandise, and visitors are lined up with their backs to the lake, smiling for selfies in the sun.

Research for this story was supported by the Access Copyright Foundation’s Marian Hebb Research Grant for literary arts.