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Parks Canada looking at human use limits due to explosive visitation in Lake Louise

“Visitation to the park has grown over 31 per cent in the last decade and last year was the busiest year on record and it's expected to continually rise."

LAKE LOUISE – Visitors to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake may face limits and restrictions in future as Parks Canada grapples with managing explosive tourist numbers that are placing increasing pressure on Alberta’s premier national park.

Parks Canada is developing a human use management plan and says limits or quotas for some types of use, in some areas, at certain times, may be necessary in the face of increasing visitation, which grew to almost 4.3 million last year in Banff National Park and was the busiest year on record.

Officials say visitation levels would vary in the Lake Louise and Moraine Lake region depending on location, season, and time of day, and will be set in a “fair and transparent way” as part of a visitor use management plan.

Dwight Bourdin, acting visitor experience manager for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit, said increasing traffic congestion and crowding detract from the experience of visiting, which can make timely emergency responses difficult and also impacts wildlife, water quality, facilities, and infrastructure.

“Visitation to the park has grown over 31 per cent in the last decade and last year was the busiest year on record and it’s expected to continually rise,” he said.

“Rising visitation does have impacts on visitor experience, safety and ecological integrity and those are things that we want to address through the visitor use management framework.”

Parks Canada is seeking the public’s input to help shape how visitor use and access to the Lake Louise area is managed in a way that protects nature, is safe for visitors and staff alike, and provides a positive experience when visiting.

A survey has been launched and can be found at www.letstalkmountainparks.ca/lakelouisevum. The deadline for input is July 28.

Bourdin said Parks Canada has been trying to address the complex issues caused by increasing visitation, by way of shuttles, reservations services, paid parking, and behavioural marketing campaigns – but challenges remain.

“We want to know what Canadians value in Lake Louise, what the barriers are to their connection and enjoyment, and what actions they would want to see Parks take as we see increasing visitation,” he said.

As part of the strategy under discussion, Upper Lake Louise and Moraine Lake would continue to support large numbers of visitors during daytime hours.

According to Parks Canada, visitation to the region would be managed and remain within sustainable levels. Visitation levels would vary depending on location, season, and time of day.

In addition, day use in the popular Paradise Valley would not increase from historic levels. Managed access to Paradise Valley would remain easy and convenient for visitors.

Under the plan, the health of the Fairview and Whitehorn wildlife corridors – which provide critical habitat for large carnivores like grizzly bears, wolves and lynx to travel through the area, find mates and food – would not be further compromised by human activity.

Wildlife movement through both corridors on either side of the Trans-Canada Highway would be supported by limiting human activity during sensitive periods, traffic mitigation efforts, and wildlife crossing structures.

“It’s absolutely critical to have a healthy ecosystem and protection for wildlife,” said Bourdin.

The Lake Louise region continues to attract large numbers of regional day trippers who plan their visits last minute and without reservations.

Sold-out shuttles, full parking lots, and roadway congestion result in disappointment and frustration for visitors.

Upper Lake Louise area saw approximately 9,000 visitors a day in 2023, while Moraine Lake saw about 5,000.

Private vehicles are now banned on Moraine Lake Road, but Parks Canada estimates between 1,800 and 2,500 cars are turned away from Upper Lake Louise each day during the summer months.

Traffic congestion on Lake Louise Drive can hinder quick emergency response times, as ambulances and fire trucks struggle to get in and out of busy areas.

Parks Canada says the traffic back-ups also make the safe and efficient evacuation of visitors, in the case of an emergency such as wildfire, more challenging.

“Congestion can be can impede emergency vehicle access and evacuation routes,” said Bourdin.

The strategy would look to keep congestion on roadways and within parking areas minimal, with mass transit options being the main mode of transportation in the Lake Louise area.

Parks Canada says traffic management and shuttle programs have seen significant cost increases over the years, which they say is not currently self-sustaining.

The program budget was $9.9 million in 2023/24. Paid parking fees and shuttle fares brought in $5.22 million in revenue, leaving a $4.68 million shortfall.

The report on moving people sustainably throughout Banff National Park by a Parks Canada-struck expert advisory panel recommended the closure of Lake Louise Drive and Moraine Lake Road to private vehicles.

While Parks Canada shut down Moraine Lake Road year-round to private vehicles in 2023, Bourdin wouldn’t specifically talk about whether this is also being considered for Lake Louise Drive.

“We have not made any decisions right now at all. We want to hear from Canadians through this process,” he said.

The increasing number of visitors is also putting strain on Parks Canada’s search and rescue team.

Rescuers responded to 56 incidents in the Lake Louise area alone last year, 75 in 2022, 62 in 2021, 37 in 2020, which was lower than average because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 60 in 2019 and 86 in 2018.

“Incidents ranged in severity from mild to critical, including sprained ankles, lost hikers, cardiac arrests, heat exhaustion, falls and fatalities,” said James Eastham, a spokesperson for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit.

Joel Hagen, who has lived in Lake Louise for 32 years and owns a guiding company Great Divide Nature Interpretation, said overnight capacity is managed with limits on hotel development, but day-trippers from Calgary and the region continue to boost visitation to unmanageable levels.

“What I’m really wanting to see in a plan – and it’s a difficult discussion to have – is some acknowledgement that we just can't keep putting people into this place even with the best transit system and the best intercept parking lots in the world,” he said.

“We have to start talking about the un-discussable, which is some kind of quota or cap, and I know how difficult that is given that the park is bisected by a national transportation corridor and it’s not at the end of some dead-end valley and it feels to run counter to the ideas about accessibility.”

An explosion in visitation is also affecting the quality of life for many residents of Lake Louise, which is home to about 2,000 people.

“I think everybody lives in a place in the hopes that they can go do the things that they love about the place, but you don’t have the kind of flexibility you once had,” said Hagen.

“I get that we all have to take our lumps here, but it feels like the very people who kind of make all this happen for the guests who come here are being a little bit forgotten in the planning process.”

For instance, it’s not easy for residents to go climbing at the back of Lake Louise where the parking lot fills up and costs $36.75 a day, or to paddle on Moraine Lake which is closed to private vehicles, or even go for a walk along the Bow River trail due to seasonal restrictions on some sections.

“Those are now all extremely difficult or expensive things to do,” said Hagen.

“I think the townspeople have really not factored into many of the Parks’ decisions in contrast to places like Banff and Canmore, where there is free parking for set periods of time within the downtown core or there’s free Roam bus fares within town routes.”

The lack of flexibility associated with increasing visitation makes it difficult for some residents, said Hagen.

“I remember when if you wanted to go do something after work or just even on a day off, you were able to go to the places that you sort of felt were your backyard … you don’t have the flexibility you once had,” he said.

“It just takes a lot more planning and effort now … if you don’t get a spot in the shuttle in advance or with the two day's notice, you won’t get a spot, but then if it’s a crummy day, you’re just sort of stuck with your ticket.”

As a guide and resident, Hagen said the plan should also place focus on the trail network in Lake Louise.

“In the plan, trails aren’t even mentioned,” he said.

“I’d like to see a real commitment to rebuilding and repairing trails to get them back to the level they should be at.”

Conservationists have been calling for limits for decades to deal with rising tourism numbers, and were outraged when Parks Canada’s own 2010 management plan for Banff National Park called for an increase in visitation of two per cent per year.

Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN) say while the issues in Lake Louise need future management guidance, the group’s primary concern is Parks Canada’s continued piecemeal approach to visitor use planning in Banff National Park as a whole.

Reg Bunyan, BVN’s past president, said visitor use management needs to be viewed through a wider landscape-level lens.

“When area visitation demand exceeds opportunity, the options are to either expand existing area opportunities or to directly or indirectly displace that visitation demand elsewhere,” he said.

“By not looking broadly at visitation and capacity issues throughout the entire park, Parks Canada runs the risk of resolving- site specific problems and inadvertently creating visitation or ecological impacts elsewhere.”

Bunyan said examples of unforeseen consequences of piecemeal planning decisions include parking impacts on the Town of Banff as a result of the seasonal Bow Valley Parkway car restriction, and traffic displacement into residential areas as a consequence of the Banff Avenue closure for the pedestrian zone.

“There are a number of interesting ideas proposed in the Lake Louise planning strategy and our hope is that these future planning decisions don’t occur in a planning vacuum and that adequate thought is given to the potential impact of those decisions on other areas of the park,” he said.

With an increase in visitation, Parks Canada has also reported an increase in littering, feeding wildlife and people entering restricted areas, such as fish spawning habitat at Moraine Lake.

“The opportunity for learning appropriate park behaviours may be missed due to crowding and congestion,” said Bourdin.

The visitor use management strategy will cover Upper Lake Louise and the surrounding trails, Moraine Lake and the surrounding trails, Paradise Valley, the Lake Louise park-and-ride, and the transportation corridors that link these key nodes.