A Roam transit bus drives along Banff Avenue in 2021.File Photo/Rocky Mountain Outlook

A What We Heard report on moving people sustainably in Banff National Park challenges Parks Canada to be open-minded, embrace bold ideas and work with partners to tackle traffic and congestion woes.

Recommendations by the Parks-struck Expert Advisory Panel on Moving People Sustainably in the Banff Bow Valley drew comments from nearly 200 respondents over a 60-day survey period that ended in February.

Many respondents emphasized a need to act sooner than later.

“I think the overriding theme was that Parks Canada really needs to get to work and to start now to work on future sustainable people movement strategies,” said Michael den Otter, senior strategic advisor with Lake Louise, Yoho, Kootenay field unit.

Respondents also want Parks to be “adaptable and nimble, and to not over-commit to anything too big to start with but build systematically on what we’ve done,” he added.

In the panel’s December 2022 report, it made recommendations to create mobility hubs, improve public transit, promote active transportation – including more cycling paths and road closures for non-motorized travel, or portions of road closed to private vehicles – and to reduce private vehicles entering Banff National Park.

The What We Heard report found most agreed with key objectives outlined by the panel. Of those responding through online engagement on Parks’ Let’s Talk Mountain Parks platform, 30 per cent said they were residents of Banff, 52 per cent identified as Bow Valley residents and 18 per cent said they live elsewhere in Canada.

Asked about recommendations that will be most effective, most positive feedback supported the idea of low-cost, mass transit from Calgary to Banff with a strong “last mile” network of public transit within Banff.

“Most commenters expressed that increasing transit services from Calgary to Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise, including daily year-round service with more frequency during peak seasons, was critical,” states the report.

Roughly 8.3 million vehicles pass through Banff National Park annually, with an estimated half stopping in the park. Between 2010 and 2019, there was a 29 per cent increase in visitation.

Overcrowding and congestion in the national park reached new heights this year when, on July 22, the Minnewanka Loop was shut down for two hours due to parking being full and significant traffic backups.

The panel suggested, and survey respondents agree, Parks Canada needs to focus attention on site specific research to best manage people visiting increasingly popular areas in the park, especially at peak times.

“This is one area we sort of picked out that we thought could be advanced more rapidly than other [recommendations],” said panel chair, Bill Fisher, who is a former superintendent of Banff National Park. “With social sciences, you get a good handle on visitation and trends, but also on a satisfaction level of people going to different areas of the park and whether they find it’s too much of a hassle to get to, or the quality of the experience has been degraded because there’s no parking or poor transit – more of that kind of research is needed.”

Many survey respondents noted timed entry passes – like what is used in Glacier National Park and other U.S. destinations – would be helpful for managing visitation to busy areas in the park. This could also include Lake Louise, which was shut off to non-residents and guests not staying hotels Aug. 6 and Sept. 2 due to overcrowding and limiting access to emergency vehicles. Or, Moraine Lake, which beginning in 2023, Parks restricted most private vehicle access, requiring visitors to book a shuttle of commercial bus.

Respondents also encouraged a unified transit booking system between Parks and Roam.

“Parks Canada must be willing to be open to conversations and active partnership with both Roam and the Town of Banff to seek new solutions and more effective transit options. These organizations have been very pro-active, and Parks Canada needs to catch up,” the report states.

Banff council previously voted to have a consultant prepare a study for an intercept lot at the east entrance of the park that would address parking and vehicle congestion issues within the town by trading or swapping land with Parks Canada.

Parks Canada, however, has insisted there will be no swap with complexities of environmental, policy and legislative challenges protecting the area.

Den Otter, who was also secretariat for the expert panel, said Parks is looking at intercept lot and mobility hub options and is currently focused on improvements at the Lake Louise Ski Resort, where it stages its shuttle system to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.

“We are definitely looking at those hubs,” he said. “But it’s more challenging in the Banff townsite area where a parking lot like that doesn’t exist right now, so that comes with different challenges. We still need to make sure we’re consistent with the Banff Management Plan and the Impact Assessment Act and being very cautious about development guidelines in that area.”

Survey results show respondents are supportive of a multi-pronged approach involving buses and further investment in regional services like On-It, expanded opportunities for active transportation and improved service to Lake Louise, which has also been a request of some proponents of a Calgary to Banff passenger rail.

An Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP) for Banff’s train station lands which calls for a multi-modal transportation hub and visitor arrival centre, passed first reading of Banff council Dec. 11 and is set to go to public hearing.

On this, the What We Heard report noted “another theme that emerged was a recognition that rail is not the sole focus and that existing bus systems could be expanded, or other modes considered.”

The ARP, presented by Liricon Capital which leases land on the north and south sides of the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks, includes a terminus to pave the way for a future gondola to Mount Norquay ski and sightseeing resort, also owned by Liricon.

Parks Canada has repeatedly raised concern on the gondola proposal for various reasons, including that it could threaten the national Park’s UNESCO world heritage designation if it obstructs viewscapes and goes against existing policy and legislation.

The report stated there were few comments raising concerns about gondolas, in general, and the footprint and facilities required to operate them.

“These could also have visual and aesthetic impacts. Several comments encouraged a slow approach to implementing these to ensure they are well designed and researched,” it stated.

There were other respondents to the panel which said they felt recommendations would increase barriers to people accessing the national park by limiting parking areas and having more of a focus on “tourism near the road for people planning one -off vacations and overlook[ing] local residents and backcountry user groups.”

Before potentially limiting parking areas, comments noted shuttles and other modes of transportation must be well established and effective.

“Communication with visitors and locals will be key in most of these strategies,” the report states.

Where respondents felt the expert panel was lacking was in Indigenous engagement. Though part of consultation, the report said there was not enough and Indigenous businesses were not considered, nor were opportunities for Parks to undertake reconciliation measures like featuring Indigenous place names and signage.

Fisher said panellists reached out to the Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3 and all Treaty 7 First Nations, however, some weren’t interested in discussing the work of the panel.

“I can’t comment on why certain groups weren’t maybe as interested in pursuing this,” he said, noting the panel did have conversations with Tsuut’ina Nation, members of the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Métis Nation.

Some also noted they felt the panel’s report did not centre on or discuss ecological integrity. 

Fisher, who resides in Banff, said this was outlined in the panel’s terms of reference as a first priority under the Canada National Parks Act.

“That was made pretty clear to everyone on the panel. You can take a look at our suggested actions and I’m not sure that they don’t consider that. There’s a requirement to consider environment assessment, of course, but we didn’t think that was necessarily our purpose as a panel to pursue that.”

Parks will be using feedback from the panel and the public to continue forming its Sustainable People Moving Strategy, expected by 2026.

“We’re taking the advice of the panel, we’re looking at what’s written and what we’ve committed to in the management plan that’s been well consulted on by Canadians and we’re going to use that information and continue to work with experts to create that strategy within a couple years,” said den Otter.

By Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Dec 22, 2023 at 13:41

This item reprinted with permission from   Rocky Mountain Outlook   Canmore, Alberta

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