People have embraced Ontario's parks during the pandemic, but are they loving them to death?

Ontario Parks and Parks Canada are seeing a record number of visitors during the pandemic, but such popularity can cause problems for the parks, which have a mandate to protect ecologically sensitive land and areas.

1 person walking off a trail is bad, but thousands doing it 'can create some damage': Ontario Parks

Thousands of people visit Ontario's Algonquin Park each fall to take in the changing colours. Provincial and national parks have seen a dramatic rise in the number of visitors during the pandemic, and the increased traffic is causing some parks damage, a researcher and staff say. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Chris Lemieux doesn't like crowds and it's why he'll avoid visits to provincial parks in southern Ontario during July and August.

He's watched the trend of people flocking to Ontario Parks and Parks Canada sites in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they were looking for fun ways to get out of the house, and health officials were telling them being outdoors is safer.

"Nature has substantial health and well-being benefits. So contact with nature within protected areas can provide relaxation, rejuvenation, stress relief, things like that," Lemieux, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., said in an interview. He is also the John McMurry Research Chair in Environmental Geography and director of the Canadian Council on Ecological Areas.

Lemieux noted a Nature Conservancy of Canada survey released earlier this year found 94 per cent of respondents said time spent in nature helped them relieve stress and anxiety during the pandemic's second wave.

"Obviously, these spaces are really important for physical activity where people can go swimming, walk on trails, go canoeing, you know, depending on how adventurous you are," he said.

This spring, people reported having trouble booking campsites in Ontario Parks as reservations were quickly snapped up.

Jeff Brown, a spokesperson for Ontario Parks, said they saw a record number of parks visitors last year, and that's expected to continue this year.

But this newfound or increased love for the outdoors also creates a challenge for the parks, which are there to protect ecologically sensitive lands and areas.

"This idea around, you know, loving parks to death, it's been around for a while," Lemieux said, adding there is an "uncomfortable relationship" between the dual mandate of these parks: to allow people in, but also protect the area.

Visitor etiquette concerns

This summer, Ontario Parks and Parks Canada have launched #ForTheLoveOfParks, an educational campaign to teach new visitors, and remind people returning, basically how to behave in parks.

Brown said that last year, Ontario Parks and Parks Canada saw 13 million visitors combined.

"With more people coming to our parks, we've seen an increase in a couple of kinds of behaviours that maybe will have an impact on our natural environment and that maybe will have an impact on other visitors," he said in an interview.

Brown said that includes things like a large amount of litter left behind on campsites and day use areas.

Staff also reported seeing more people going off designated trails.

That's a problem, he said, because "if you make your own trail, it can really trample habitats for some of our sensitive plants and animals that our parks are out there to protect."

He said there were also some "camper etiquette" issues observed last summer, including an increasing number of people taking firewood from nearby wooded areas instead of buying it from the park store, or washing dishes at drinking fountains.

"Our campers are great stewards and with the right information, we know that they'll be able to help us maintain our parks in a really pristine condition," Brown said.

The beach at Awenda Provincial Park near Tiny, Ont., in July 2020, enjoyed by visitors during the first summer of the pandemic. (Submitted by Chris Lemieux)

Parks Canada also reported in a news release that there was an increase in human-wildlife interactions, particularly with people leaving food out by accident or on purpose, as well as people removing natural materials like flowers, driftwood and rocks. There were also problems with swimming in undesignated areas, illegal parking and aggressive behaviour toward park staff.

"Some of these things might seem a little bit harmless on their own. You know, maybe it's one stick in the forest. Maybe it's one quick trip off the trail," Brown said.

"But what happens when we have so many people in our parks — and we're happy to welcome visitors in — is when that behaviour is repeated thousands of times throughout the summer, that's where we can create some damage to our protected spaces or create some challenges for our staff to keep up with the amount of litter that's on the ground."

Consider lesser known parks

Lemieux said while more seasoned park visitors may be familiar with phrases like "leave no trace" or "leave only footprints, take only pictures," it's always good to remind them what that actually means. He said the #ForTheLoveOfParks campaign is a good start, but more could be done. 

He said there are definitely parks that are more popular — spots like Algonquin, Pinery, Bruce Peninsula — that could actually benefit from a "demarketing" campaign.

"There's a whole bunch of other protected areas that are underutilized and can actually accommodate more visitation … these park agencies might want to consider adopting a bit of a diversion strategy."

The grotto, seen here from above at Bruce Peninsula National Park in southern Ontario, is known for its cool, clear waters. (Parks Canada)

Lemieux said he'll also keep an eye on visitor habits as the pandemic wanes and people have more options for what they can do.

In recent years, there's been an increase in "selfie visits": quick trips where people don't spend a lot of time at a location, but they take photos to show they were there. 

Some parks have even adapted to these behaviours, like the Hamilton Conservation Authority, which offers off-site parking and shuttle buses to see popular waterfall sites. That was put in place after reports from neighbours that waterfall visitors were stopping on private patios and eating their lunches, and cars were clogging nearby streets.

"This change has happened really rapidly … a lot of people are satisfied with a very short visit, take a couple of photos and then get out of there," he said.

Lemieux said he's even changed his own habits. Because of his dislike of crowds, he's found he enjoys visiting parks that are further north, like Lake Superior, and he'll go to parks in the southern part of Ontario during the "shoulder seasons" of spring and fall to avoid large groups.

User fees pay for parks

Lemieux noted the budget for Ontario Parks comes almost entirely from user fees, such as paying to enter for the day or camping.

"What the public doesn't realize is that very little public funding goes into Ontario Parks to manage the parks, despite the fact these areas provide such an important ecosystem service," he said. "They protect biodiversity, they clean air, clean water, they mitigate the effects of climate change."

The last time the province created an Ontario park for recreational use was in 1989, when four parks were established: La Motte Lake near Sudbury, Komoka near London, James N. Allan south of Dunnville and Dana-Jowsey Lakes south west of Timmins.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo asked the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks whether there were plans for any future parks, but has not yet received a response.

Lemieux said for anyone keen to see more Ontario parks, or even green spaces within their city or municipality, one of the best tools is to vote in elections.

"If you want more parks, you need to vote in the party that supports that [and] has an environmental agenda that includes expanding the protected areas network."

Rushing River Provincial Park is near Kenora in northern Ontario, and offers camping, several hiking trails and other activities. Laurier researcher Chris Lemieux says anyone looking to get away from crowded parks in southern Ontario may want to try ones in northern Ontario. (Trevor Brine/CBC)


Kate Bueckert


Kate has been covering issues in southern Ontario for more than 15 years. She currently works for CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. Email: