Parks In Transition - Development Or Preservation?

Banff National Park is truly one of the great national parks of Canada, if not one of the great national parks of the world. Originally established in 1873, this park in excess of 2500 square miles is located along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains about 2 hours west of Calgary, Alberta. I have visited this park on a number of occasions and constantly marvelled at the magnificence of the mountains, its flora and fauna, its great ice fields, and its beautiful blue-green glacial lakes including, but not limited to Canada's most famous mountain lake, Lake Louise.

View of Banff National Park looking down on a lake.
Banff National Park
Looking across Banff National Park towards snow-capped mountains.
Banff National Park

A recent article in the Comment section of The Globe and Mail by Shannon Curry and Ed Whittingham, Directors of the BEAR Society pricked my interest in a problem that Banff and other national parks face today.

In the case of Banff National Park, and specifically Lake Louise, a huge seven story Canadian Pacific Hotel / Convention facility has been approved to be developed in the heart of Canada's oldest national park. This has been sanctioned by Parks Canada despite the fact that this park is one of the most heavily publicized tourist attractions in all ofthe country. This development has been given the green light despite the fact that a multi-million dollar Banff-Bow Valley Study indicated that "current rates of growth in visitor numbers and development, if allowed to continue, will cause serious and irreversible harm to Banff National Park's ecological integrity." The BEAR Society and Bow Valley Naturalists strongly disagree with the proposed course of action and it is for this reason that this subject is currently before the courts. [i]

At Yosemite National Park in Northern California, a two-hour drive east of San-Francisco, U.S. federal officials in March of 2000 released a comprehensive report that dramatically reduced the man-made infrastructure of the park. Included in this unprecedented change in the U.S. National Park Service was the removal of bridges, roads, campgrounds, hotels, cabins and parking lots at Yosemite National Park. This $343-million U.S. plan was specifically designed to reduce traffic in the park by 60% and thereby make the park environmentally cleaner for the public.

I have never visited this national park or marvelled at the Giant Sequoia (Sequoia gigantea) trees in Mariposa Grove or seen the highest waterfalls – Upper Yosemite Fall and Lower Yosemite Fall, with a combined drop of over 2400 feet. Perhaps some day I'll enter this park on foot to experience first hand where the whole national park movement was conceived.

Sequoia gigantea.
Sequoia gigantea.

Concurrent with what has happening in California, The Globe and Mail further went on to report that in 1999 Heritage Minister Sheila Copps had placed a cap on future development of the park's population centres, presumably including Banff National Park, and that Parks Canada should focus its primary energies on the "culture of conservation".[ii] This news was preceded by a high profile federal panel that reported on the Ecological Integrity of Canada's National Parks in March of 2000. The bottom line of this document indicated that of the 37 Canadian national parks listed in 1999, 22 of them were identified as being under major or severe environmental danger. [iii] The health of our national treasures should be a concern to each and every one of us.

Today far too many administrators and politicians use an "economic yardstick" to measure the value or performance of a park. Oftentimes, founding mandates of national and provincial park systems are forgotten or conveniently compromised in the interest of improving customer service and the "bottom line". In the case of Yosemite National Park, I find it absolutely refreshing that steps have been taken to preserve the environmental integrity of the park. For it is by taking bold steps like this that the future of the park will be preserved for the benefit of generations to come. To allow continued expansion of recreation / tourist facilities in parks that already resemble urban sprawl on weekends is completely inappropriate and unacceptable. A balance clearly must be achieved between preservation and development if our national and provincial parks are to survive. Herein lies the challenge for future planners.


[i] The Globe and Mail. "Leave Lake Louise Alone", December 8, 2000.

[ii] The Globe and Mail. "Proposals Look to Save Yosemite Park from Choking to Death", April 3, 2000.

[iii] The Globe and Mail. "Panel Urges Overhaul of Parks Canada", March 23, 2000.

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