Why you still need a parks pass this year despite free entry

Even though they are free in 2017, Parks Canada still wants everyone to pick up a parks pass. We'll tell you why.

Influx of visitors concerns some critics of free national park passes

A view of Two Jack Lake in Banff National Park. Parks Canada is preparing for an increase in visitors this year as people across the country and around the world request free annual passes to explore the nation's natural treasures as part of Canada's 150th birthday celebration. (Travel Alberta/Canadian Press)

Entry to Canada's national parks is free this year, but you still need to order a pass.

"It is important that Parks Canada understand how many visitors are planning to visit national parks and national historic sites in 2017," said spokeswoman Meaghan Bradley in an email. 

"By distributing passes, the agency will be able to anticipate and monitor visitation to better serve visitors and make sure they have the best experience possible. It will also help the agency ensure these special places continue to be protected to the highest degree possible."

She said if someone is found in a park without a pass, Parks Canada staff will provide them with one.

The free pass initiative has drawn some criticism. 

With almost one million Canadians signing up for free national park passes, critics of the plan to celebrate Canada's 150th birthday in the great outdoors say there are minimal plans in place to mitigate the potentially huge influx of visitors and the impact on wildlife.

Alison Ronson of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, a conservation group, said there are numerous potential problems with the free pass program.

"Banff and Jasper national parks are two of the most visited parks in the country and they are already at capacity," Ronson told Alberta@Noon this week.

"Banff saw something like 3.8 million visitors last year and with those visitors come problems like traffic on the highways, which leads to increased collisions with wildlife or bear jams, when you see people stopping on the highway to view wildlife, which then can result in human-wildlife conflict when people get out of their cars to take photographs," she said. 

"It could also put a strain on existing infrastructure, things like washrooms, trails and facilities."

The mayor of Banff said better planning needs to be put in place for the potential increase.

"We are at our road capacity when we have 24,000 vehicles coming in and out of Banff," Karen Sorensen said.

Lineups not a great visitor experience

"It doesn't mean that we can't accommodate more vehicles. The traffic does move, it is just more difficult to move and people end up in lineups and that is not a great visitor experience."

Some businesses that rely on tourism, however, are welcoming the move.

Shawnee Wilson, general manager at the Best Western Jasper Inn, said it's potentially good times ahead for many national park businesses.

"So far, we are looking very busy and I can see ongoing things in the town that people are preparing, not only Parks Canada, but all the hotels and also the retailers, everything. Everybody is preparing," Wilson said.

A well-known Rocky Mountain author, guide, speaker and instructor is not a fan of the idea.

"The one thing we don't need more of in any of these national parks is people," Ben Gadd said.

"The wildlife are barely coping as it is."

But a Parks Canada spokesman said there are plans to mitigate the potential boost in visitors with planning and volume programs, although he admits little forecasting has been done to estimate hard numbers.

"We can't speculate on numbers like that," Greg Danchuk said.

People should expect it to be busy

"Here in Banff we have seen an increase in visitation over the last few years, we anticipate that to continue."

He said tools like the agency's website will give people a sense of volume from one national park to another.

"It will be busy. It is a celebration of Canada and people should expect it to be busy certainly at peak times, weekend and summer periods," Danchuk said.

"We are planning to be able to provide people with more information ahead of time, in real time, about what the situations are in the park so they can better plan their visit. Time of day to arrive, places to go in the park, if some places are very busy, we are going to try and tell people that in advance so they can plan to go to other locations."

Still, Ronson isn't convinced the parks are equipped to manage the free pass program.

"We have seen a decline in the management ability of Parks Canada over the last 10 years because of continued budget cuts," she said.

"What we really need are more staff to help people safely enjoy the park and take photographs and leave less than footprints if possible."

With files from Alberta@Noon and the Homestretch