Are we surprised? You start with a get-in-free promotion, celebrating Canada’s 150 years as a nation.
You add a long weekend — the busiest one of the year — with the hope of escaping a little of the summer’s heat.
And then you factor in the news that smoke and fire are chasing people from some of the Rockies’ larger national parks.
So the result was predictable: So many weekenders drove to once-quiet Waterton Lakes National Park, officials had to close the gates. The park’s developed areas were full and then some!
And quite apart from the fact there was no accommodation available, and no place to park, that overcrowding created a danger. How could an ambulance or a fire truck get past highway gridlock?
No doubt that was one of the issues Parks Canada officials were considering when they ordered — for reportedly the first time in the park’s 100-plus years — that no more people could be admitted. Indeed, they had likely planned for such a possibility.
If our national parks officials were hoping their free admission offer would attract more visitors, they must be pleased. Not only Alberta’s national parks, but their counterparts across Canada have been reporting record crowds.
So what’s next? Now that so many Canadians are visiting or revisiting many of our national parks and historic sites, what plans are there to respond to these growing numbers?
Our national parks system, surely the most geographically diverse in the world, is one of Canada’s great achievements. Now we need a vision of how they’re going to be promoted yet preserved. How do we keep them accessible to all Canadians, while protecting their environmental integrity?
Is this an issue for parks bureaucrats to address, or should the federal government open a broader dialogue with the many millions of Canadians who cherish their parks and all they symbolize?
With our growing population and our major tourism industry — particularly in Alberta — it’s obvious the parks’ visitor numbers will steadily increase. After enjoying them for free this time, not many Canadians are going to balk at paying $10 or $20 for the privilege next year.
What will discourage visitors, however, would be recurring “closed” signs. Now is the time to decide how we’re going to manage this year’s success story.