Parks Canada painstakingly prepared for deluge of Canada 150 visitors

CALGARY — From avoiding burned out workers to ensuring washrooms have enough toilet paper, documents show how Parks Canada painstakingly prepared for a record number of visitors this year.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, Ottawa has made admission to Canada’s national parks and historic sites free in 2017.

Presentations and memos obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act cite traffic snarls, run-ins with wildlife and visitor safety as some of the challenges officials flagged in the months leading up to a projected deluge.

“While many Parks Canada places have the capacity to comfortably host more visitors, some of the most popular places are already heavily patronized at peak times,” Parks Canada CEO Daniel Watson wrote in a November 2016 memo to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

“The possibility of increases during peak visitation has the potential for congestion, visitor safety and ecological impact risks. Parks Canada is preparing plans and measures to manage these risks.”

The memo noted a potential increase in human-wildlife interactions, especially on roads and highways.

“Furthermore, increased visits by non-traditional audiences who may be less familiar with national parks may lead to entry through unauthorized points, use of unofficial trails or behaviours that may require safety interventions, such as visitors getting lost on trails.”

One strategy was to try to spread out the crowds by promoting some places with greater capacity more heavily while reducing the profile of others through the media.

“Situations where overloads are occurring or can be expected will be clearly communicated, complemented by suggestions of alternative destinations,” the memo said. “Shoulder season activities and events will be given greater priority.”

It said staffing and training would be increased, particularly among janitorial and front-line staff. Seasonal staff were to start their jobs earlier.

Parks attendance had already been rising by around six to seven per cent annually in recent years, said Joel Reardon, a spokesman for the agency’s Canada 150 plans.

There were 23.2 million visitors in 2015 and 24.6 million in 2016.

As of July, Parks Canada was seeing a nine per cent increase from the same time last year across its network, Reardon said.

“Some places are busy without a doubt, but nothing out of the ordinary and everything is manageable at this point,” he said.

“I can tell you all of our planning going into this summer, going into 2017, is paying off.”

This year’s visitor increase to date isn’t far off from the 27.3 million Parks Canada was forecasting for 2017-18 in an undated draft report on how the free admission would be implemented.

“There is no precedent for free admission at Parks Canada, which creates unique challenges for forecasting 2017 visitation,” the agency said in the draft.

“While Parks Canada believes that visitation forecasts and planning ranges are reasonable, the agency is nonetheless preparing contingencies for exceptional levels of visitation in 2017.”

A chart accompanying the draft delved into how the agency would be affected if visitation exceeded estimates.

For instance, if there were to be 50 million visitors, it could result in ”significant negative media coverage and reputational impacts, staff burnout, and radical measures to deliver services.” It also noted the possibility of “increased costs for facilities and all services.”

Public washrooms were an area of concern. At Lake Louise, the picturesque Rockies tourist hotspot, the report said there would need to be 25,000 additional industrial-sized toilet paper rolls — a 25 per cent increase. It also mentioned a “new janitorial rapid response team” and a bolstered vacuum truck operations schedule.

A document outlining communications initiatives in 2017 touched on the well-being of Parks staffers.

“Information on employee support services would be frequently disseminated to assist employees dealing with added stress, longer hours and potentially challenging public interactions.”

Banff National Park, Canada’s busiest, had just over four million visitors in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

A slide show presentation on Banff’s preparations said the park was bracing for as much as a 25 per cent increase in 2017-18.

But Greg Danchuk, the Banff field unit’s visitor experience manager, said as of the end of July, the park is seeing just a five per cent jump from the same a year ago — in line with the annual increases it’s seen in recent years.

Banff has been offering shuttles from Calgary and between various points within the park to deal with congestion, boosted its staffing levels and encouraged visitors to book campsites early.

“We’ll be able to ensure that people have a really safe experience, but an outstanding experience as well with lots of opportunities to enjoy this wonderful place.”

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