August 7, 2017 Isaac McLellan

Free Parks – A Polarizing Topic

It has never been easier to “opt outside” in Canada. To celebrate 150 years of the confederation, the Canadian Government, in conjunction with Parks Canada, have decided to waive national park and historic site access fees for the year. This has been a highly controversial decision that has sparked debate; both camps have made convincing arguments defending and opposing the motion. Graciously, I had the opportunity to work for Parks Canada this summer (2017), which has been an unforgettable experience. Particularly working in Banff National Park – the busiest of all national parks – has been a challenging but rewarding experience. I’ll dive into the arguments that have been made from both sides after spending a summer in the thick of the Park.

The Positive Argument

It is difficult to argue with the sheer notion of allowing Canadians greater freedom to explore their country and the treasures it has hidden. Free admissions is a governmental effort to encourage, not only Canadians, but people from across the world to get out and “opt outside”. This has been reflected through my work this summer; I have had people from New Zealand, South Africa and Paraguay among many others venture to Canada to visit the Parks, citing free admission for their travel decisions. As Canada continues to grow it’s global reputation as the most welcoming in the world, free admission allows more individuals to come visit Canada and learn more about our culture and heritage – in ways some Canadians have yet to experience. Not only does having Parks free increase international visitors to the country, but allows outlets for families. Without the entrance fees, families can come together for outings into the great outdoors without footing a large bill.

With all of this increased visitation into the parks, comes an increase in revenue for businesses operating within the parks – restaurants, outdoor guide companies, and other tourism service businesses have seen large boosts to their bottom line.  With the increased visitation comes the increased need for services which in turn creates jobs for more individuals.  In addition, with increased revenue comes increased taxes, which gets reinvested in park infrastructure.

Most importantly, free admissions has provided a bright spotlight on Parks, their beauty and importance in Canada. First established in 1885, Canada’s Park system today boasts 46 national parks, one urban national park, three marine conservation sites, and over 1000 national historic sites. These parks have governmental protection and conservation, therefore the emphasis that has been placed on them in 2017 has highlighted the importance of conservation to many people. If we are being told to get out and explore the beauty that Canada has to offer, then it only makes sense that we put our best foot forward in our efforts to preserve it.  I am excited and looking forward to seeing the conversations that come from Canada 150 efforts towards conservation efforts in Canada.

 

The Negative Argument

Canada 150’s promotional efforts have not gone without criticism. The introduction of free admission has come with it’s hurdles.

The argument often made is of who goes on to bare the burden of free admission? Without Parks collecting entrance fees, the burden of preserving the Parks has fallen upon Canadian taxpayers. Individualistically, some argue they are unfairly paying for the enjoyment of others. However, not only is it a question of who bares the cost, but that fund to be collected in future years are foregone. Without funds going into park maintenance and upkeep, the Park may begin to fall into disarray.

Unbeknownst to many, is that there are people that reside in Parks. I’ve had the opportunity of speaking to residents of Banff National Park, and they have communicated their sadness at what is transpiring in their backyards. Visitors while on vacation experience a phenomena known as liminality. Simply put, they act in a way that is different to their normal behavioural patterns that they operate under in their home environments. To Parks, this means visitors treat the Park with a disrespect that they do not use at home, because it is not “their” home. After over 3 months in Banff, I have observed the general disrespect with which they treat the parks – particularly with littering.

It does not take a rocket scientist to come to the conclusion that an increase in visitation to a Park leads to environmental degradation.  Stemming off of tourist’s disrespectful attitudes and increased traffic in the Parks, Banff National Park is feeling it’s affects.  Trails are being destroyed, garbage is building up, wildlife is being harassed, and park rules and regulations are being ignored.  The mandate of Parks Canada is to preserve, protect, and present the Parks and heritage sites in Canada.  With all of the traffic to these areas, it is disregarding the first two pieces of their mandate and simply presenting these areas.

I want to be very clear here, I am not against visitors in a national park, but I believe that there are systems that can be implemented to preserve our national treasures.  Allowing free access to national parks in Canada has been an effort made to increase engagement with the public and our natural landscape.  I personally believe that it was a move with the right intentions but executed less than efficiently.  However, I do understand that there are individuals who feel strongly that Canada 150 is the best thing since sliced bread.  No matter what side of the argument you find yourself on, after over 3 months in the parks I can attest to the validity of both. I, as I suspect many of you, hope that we can protect these places for future generations to enjoy, while still being able to engage in their beauty today.