The Negative Impact of Free Admission to Canada’s National Parks

Parks Canada and the Federal Government have announced that they will be offering free admission to all National Parks, National Historic Sites, Marine Conservation Areas and all nationally run canals and waterways in 2017. This generous offer is in place to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation. While some have been quick to applaud this move by the Federal Government, there are a few cynics concerned about the impact that this decision may have on our National Parks and the people who visit them.

Financial Impact:

Anything offered for free eventually costs someone; and that someone is the Canadian Taxpayer. It is estimated that the revenue lost from admission fees will be in the area of $59 million. This amount represents approximately 4.5% of the total Canadian Deficit which was projected during the last Liberal budget to be about $29 billion. Although a small amount in the grand scheme, this lost revenue does seem reckless.

This free offer will undoubtedly increase the number of visitors to Canada’s National Parks. In the 2016 fiscal year for Parks Canada (March 2015 to March 2016) there was an estimated 14 million visitors. There has been no estimate of how many visitors will be through the parks in 2017, but early indications from annual pass sales predict a record breaking year. This increased volume will require larger operating budgets to address staffing needs, resource management, repairs and maintenance and other expenses caused by additional volume without the increased revenue to offset these costs.

Compromised Parks Experiences:

Our National Parks are expected to see record breaking volume in 2017. In early December the Park’s Canada website crashed as Canadians raced to get their free annual passes. This could be a strong indicator of the experiences for visitors in the future.

Park’s Canada’s mandate is: “On behalf of the people of Canada, we protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada's natural and cultural heritage and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment in ways that ensure their ecological and commemorative integrity for present and future generations.“

The challenge for Parks Canada is are they ready to still accomplish their mandate under higher than normal volumes; specifically when it comes to fostering the public’s understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of these facilities. For example, over the past several season, as people flock from urban centers to see the fall colours of Algonquin Provincial Park, there have been numerous challenges. Most specifically parking jams, long wait times, limited parking and road rage incidents and that all result in negative experiences. During peak times, visitors of our National Parks may be in for a very similar experience.

Overuse and Destruction of Our Parks:

Many National and State parks in the United States are starting to reduce the number of visitors allowed into the park. This is done to prevent overcrowding (which can lead to negative experiences and safety concerns), and to reduce the impact on the park itself. World famous Yosemite National Park has set limits for park admission in an effort to stop the progressive destruction of the Yosemite Valley area through pollution and overuse by using implementing a lottery system to obtain permits. Zion National Park in Utah has also announced plans for similar restrictions as they too have seen year over year increases in park visits that the natural environment cannot sustain.

The unfortunate reality is that some people who visit our National Parks don’t have the experience or desire to reduce their impact on these sensitive environments. And even those that boost to be low impact visitors will still have some level of environmental impact as there is no such thing as zero impact. These impacts may not be seen today or tomorrow or even a year down the road, but overuse of our parks will eventually catch up with us.

Final Thoughts: It is easy to get caught up in the excitement and buzz around Canada’s 150th birthday. The allure of visiting some of Canada’s most gorgeous locations for free is exciting but I strongly suggest that racing to our parks may not bring about the best experience for yourself or for our treasured resources. If you are planning on visiting one of Canada’s National Parks, take advantage of this offer but make sure that you plan accordingly, pack your patience and be respectful of your fellow travellers and our parks.

I certainly hope that Parks Canada is ready.