A city of waterfalls tries to downplay its biggest draw

Raised fees are just the latest attempt by conservation officials to try to curb overcrowding at popular Hamilton sights Webster and Tews Falls.

Hamilton conservation and tourism officials raise fees and try to downplay a popular Hamilton waterfall

Webster Falls (Adrienne Sharp)

Hamilton conservation and tourism officials are "formally downplaying the Webster Falls/Spencer Gorge" experience to try to combat overcrowding at the nature hotspot.

The city of waterfalls is finding out its biggest draw just can't cope with the influx of visitors prompted by that very marketing slogan.

Over-capacity exponentially increasing over the last couple of years.- Chris Firth-Eagland, CAO for Hamilton Conservation Authority

"We've done pretty much all we can find to take it off our websites," said Chris Firth-Eagland, chief administrative officer at the Hamilton Conservation Authority.

The impacts: Gridlock in the neighbourhoods from people circling to park when lots are full. Damage to the environment from litter and trampled ecosystems. Safety for people on the packed trails. 

Now they've gone a step further, announcing they'll raise fees to visit Spencer Gorge, home of waterfall wonders Webster and Tews. A vehicle will cost $10 and each occupant will have to pay $5 beginning May 21. Walk-in visitors will also be charged $5. A family of four will have to pay $30 for a view of the falls.

Torontonians visit the waterfalls

The decision inflames a conversation around a simple question: 

Should nature be free? 

And it doesn't ease any nativist public sentiment about the effects of GTA residents trucking in to see Hamilton waterfalls.

"It's a spine trail with fragile ecosystems and steep cliffs," Firth-Eagland said. "And it's becoming one of our No. 1, if not our No. 1 draw for out-of-town visitors."

"It's a tenuous situation," he said. "There's no real easy solution and no single silver bullet."

Read a selection of what you and your neighbours have been saying about the fee change.

'Fragile ecosystems and steep cliffs'

Tews Falls (CBC)

How did we get to this point?

"Over-capacity exponentially increasing over the last couple of years," Firth-Eagland said. 

The planet didn't leave a lot of room for thousands of gallivanting humans when these natural gems formed.

Firth-Eagland said the more modest actions in recent years — parking increases, security guards — haven't worked.

In 2013, the Spectator reported that neighbours and falls fans were up in arms over a drop-off in visitors to the park. That was in response to an increase to $10-a-day parking. 

Then, he said, "area residents were complaining that we'd driven everyone away, that we were too heavy-handed and driving away the people," he said.

But that didn't last.

"Last year, the park was slammed; the neighbourhood was slammed."

'Centuries-old trees on the edge of the escarpment'

Firth-Eagland said the paths themselves won't collapse, but they can't be widened.

When people go off-path, they might trample "the very rare and the very susceptible ecosystems" that are along the escarpment ridge, he said.

"You can see some of these centuries-old trees on the edge of the escarpment are not looking so good," he said.

Competitive social media may be playing a role, too.

"A lot of times we're trying to get that better and better shot than the one we saw our neighbor take," he said. "We're becoming our worst enemy."

What you're saying about the fee increase

On mobile? See the conversation here