Parks Canada has outlined a series of targets designed to mitigate climate change and traffic congestion in a handful of the country’s premier mountain destinations, including Banff National Park.

The federal government recently tabled management plans for seven national parks and one national historic site in British Columbia and Alberta. The plans are reviewed every decade and the latest iterations, with new strategies for climate change, moving people sustainably and bettering Indigenous relations, reflect Ottawa’s broader policy aspirations.

But accommodating – and encouraging – a growing number of visitors to national parks comes at an ecological price. The management plans seek to balance the popularity of the parks with protections for wildlife and their natural habitat and some of the goals, such as rolling back existing trails and limiting parking, could create tension between Parks Canada and the millions of people who access the destinations each year.

Parks Canada expects to have a “comprehensive people-movement plan” in place for Banff National Park by 2024. By then, it must also have a program to make “efficient and effective use” of existing parking infrastructure during peak periods, according to the management plan. By 2030, Parks Canada expects visitors will be able to book “green transportation to and within the park” through an online portal. Bike parking and electric vehicle charging stations will be available at key locations by then, too, according to the plan. Further, by 2030, Parks Canada will solicit expressions of interest to pilot small- and-medium-scale “sustainable or self-propelled transportation solutions” in the park.

“Once implemented, the people-moving system in Banff would be an example of how big-picture thinking, comprehensive planning and ‘green’ transport can help secure an environmentally and economically sustainable future for the park, and solidify Parks Canada’s reputation as a leader in environmental protection and a provider of heritage experiences,” the management plan said. “This goal is strongly connected to and supported by other strategies and actions related to reducing impacts of climate change on park resources, and true-to-place visitor experience.”

Roughly 8.3 million vehicles travel to Banff National Park annually, with about half of these carrying passengers who will visit the park and the other half driving through. The number of vehicles and visitors in Banff National Park have both increased by about 30 per cent over the past decade, according to Parks Canada. Banff National Park accounts for roughly 26 per cent of visitors to all of the country’s 47 national parks.

The management plans for Banff, Yoho National Park and Kootenay National Park call for officials to identify each area’s respective carbon sequestration capacity by 2023. A number of the plans also demand Parks Canada’s light-duty vehicle fleet purchases shift to zero-emission or hybrid vehicles.

Scores of targets are designed to limit interactions between people and wildlife by limiting or rerouting park access. The Yoho and Kootenay plans, for example, reclassify some trails as wilderness routes, limiting maintenance. By 2030, Parks Canada wants informal trails – those that are neither authorized nor maintained by the government – near the town of Banff reduced by 20 per cent of 2019 levels, according to the management plan. In Jasper National Park’s plan, off-road bicycle use is not to be expanded beyond existing parameters.

Further, the management plan for Banff National Park said the “developed footprint” of the parks is to be maintained or reduced from 2021 levels, noting the “developed area” for ski resorts includes approved plans that have not been built. This target did not come with a timeline.

Parks Canada said it engaged with more than 30 Indigenous organizations during the three months the draft plans were posted for review. Some of the plans include incorporating Indigenous knowledge into strategies for prescribed burns, which help prevent wildfires from mowing down mountain forests, and cataloguing culturally significant sites.

The Globe and Mail, August 22, 2022