One day in 1883, three guys smelled Canada’s first national park. The Canadian Pacific Railway workers stumbled upon a malodorous thermal spring while prospecting on the flank of Sulphur Mountain in Alberta’s Bow River Valley, 120-odd kilometres west of the newly incorporated town of Calgary.
A natural vent at ground level opened up into a domed cavern of gypsum- encrusted travertine with a deep pool at the bottom. The phantasmagorical sight struck one of the workers, William McCardle, as akin to “some fantastic dream from a tale of the Arabian Nights,” prompting he and his companions to claim squatters’ rights to the site in the hopes of charging admission one day. That dream was short-lived: two years later, the federal government instead decreed Canada’s first nationally protected land around the spring now known as the “Cave and Basin.” By 1887, the original land allotment was expanded to become Rocky Mountain Park of Canada, which would eventually be further enlarged and renamed Banff National Park.
Though the railway workers didn’t actually discover the Cave and Basin—the spring had served as a ceremonial site for the local Stoney Nakoda First Nation for centuries—they were the first to attempt to commercialize it. Years of development would follow, including construction of a geothermally heated public pool that operated from 1916–1992, and a recent multimillion-dollar refurbishment of the Cave and Basin National Historic Site and adjacent Sulphur Mountain Gondola.
Canada’s first national park, then, didn’t come about in a pure impulse of wilderness conservation. Instead, due to the Cave and Basin’s proximity to the new town of Banff, it served as a mass-tourism destination that Canadian Pacific Railway Vice President Cornelius Van Horne saw as a necessary complement to his transcontinental megaproject. (Similarly, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant’s 1872 Yellowstone Act had established the world’s first national park in a geyser-pocked Wyoming wilderness, where the Northern Pacific Railway arrived a year later.)
In 2017, as Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the federal government will throw open all of the country’s national parks, waiving entry fees for the year. Such a gesture should provoke some reflection. Namely, how has the national park system evolved? Or is it instead devolving, beset by shrinking government funding and a private sector eager to commercialize what many believe should be left alone?
Canada’s first national park didn’t come about in a pure impulse of wilderness conservation, but to serve as a masstourism destination complementing the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s transcontinental megaproject.
Two hundred and eighty-eight kilometres north of Banff lies the town of Jasper, hub of Jasper National Park, established in 1907. At nearly 11,000 km2, Jasper NP dwarfs its southern neighbour (Banff NP covers 6,641 km2), and its interior, which includes 3,782-metre Mount Columbia and 3,363-metre Mount Edith Cavell, is better suited to bighorn sheep than humans. Together, these two contiguous national parks form the core of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site and the route linking them, the Icefields Parkway, is often billed as the world’s most spectacular drive.
Just off the Parkway in Jasper, however, at the crest of the glacier-choked Sunwapta Valley, juts the new Glacier Skywalk, a cantilevered observation platform of structural glass and steel-box girders supported by rods drilled into the cliff face. Built and operated by Brewster Travel Canada—an experiential tourism company owned by Phoenix, Arizona-based multinational Viad—Glacier Skywalk projects visitors a titillating 30 metres out into space, some 280 metres above the valley floor, and setting foot on it costs a cool $32 on top of the park entry fee.
Public interest groups roundly condemned the project from the outset, and it’s still taking heat. According to the Jasper Environmental Association (JEA), it “sets a very dangerous precedent for other businesses to apply for leaseholds along this renowned highway in a World Heritage Site.”
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) claimed that Brewster Travel Canada “…took a public viewpoint and turned it into a private pay-for-use themepark- like development.” But even environmentalists may grudgingly admit that the Skywalk—which resembles the wing of a space station that might be floating above earth’s atmosphere—taken strictly on its own merits, is a bravura piece of design and construction. Sturgess Architecture and Read Jones Christoffersen Engineering won a World Architecture Festival Award for it but we are, in the end, beset with the same question: do such colossal enhancements, however brilliantly designed, belong in our parks, or should parks exist precisely to keep them out? Although the answer is of public concern, it’s a question that the parks themselves seem most unsure of.
In 2013, Maligne Tours Ltd. (since acquired by Brewster Travel Canada) proposed a 66-room hotel on the shores of Jasper NP’s mountain-ringed Maligne Lake, a region of critical habitat for grizzly bear and threatened woodland caribou that lies east of the Parkway beyond the Queen Elizabeth Ranges. Though Parks Canada rejected the hotel, Maligne Tours came back with a revised proposal for tent cabins on the lake that was approved.
In 2015, JEA and CPAWS, represented by Ecojustice, challenged that approval in Federal Court, arguing that Parks Canada had contravened its own management plan, which pointedly prohibits overnight commercial accommodations outside the Jasper town site. (You could call such a contravention “gateway sprawl”—where commercial development in a large park isn’t restricted to the gateway community and instead brings the heavy footfalls of humanity ever-deeper into otherwise protected hinterland.)
A 2016 court decision upheld the challenge, stating that any proposals in violation of the Management Plan cannot receive final approval. Justice James Russell’s 46-page ruling also contained several strong anti development sentiments: “additional development within the Maligne Valley is not compatible with the recovery of the Maligne caribou herd and protection of grizzly bears, and the Tent Cabin Proposal poses a new risk to their habitat security,” reads one section. The ruling, however, was not an “approval decision” (it does not quash the concept approval for the project, meaning that Parks Canada can go on considering conceptual proposals that may be contrary to their Management Plan even though the ruling stated that ultimately such proposals cannot legally be approved). CPAWS and JEA believe that Parks Canada may attempt to amend their Management Plan to allow for the development.
“After Parks Canada rejected the hotel proposal they should have rejected the tent cabins for the same reasons,” says Alison Ronson, Executive Director of CPAWS Northern Alberta. “That’s why we launched our legal challenge. We don’t want to see a precedent set that management plans, which are tabled in Parliament, can be ignored by Parks Canada.”
Asked for a reaction to the ruling, Jasper NP spokesperson Steve Young responded via email that Parks Canada welcomed it. “The ruling is affirmation that the Agency has properly followed its processes… Parks Canada manages development in national parks through planning and consultation with the public and stakeholders … Management plans are the primary accountability documents for the management of protected heritage places under Parks Canada’s care and are reviewed every ten years.”
Whether this represents pure doublespeak or implies that Parks will “review”—i.e, change—the plan to allow development isn’t entirely clear, but one thing is: the waters of regulation are muddier than ever. How did it come to this—that NGOs must hold Parks Canada to account for violating their own management plan in the name of commercial development?
“The previous federal government had a policy of developing visitor experience in parks—it moved away from nature-based tourism and focused more on theme-park ideas,” says Ronson. “I can only speculate that some of the decisions made by Parks Canada over the last ten years to allow developments like these were encouraged by federal government policy.”
In spite of the Harper administration’s hostile disposition toward conservationists, she declines to criticize it directly, reiterating that CPAWS is non-partisan. “We’re hopeful that under the new federal government, Parks Canada may go back to being a conservation organization.”
Still, the facts are unavoidable: not only did the federal Conservatives shift focus away from conservation, they did so in concert with deep cuts to the Parks Canada budget—most recently, $27 million in 2015. Even with a new government in power, these cutbacks continue to resonate. Ronson is all too familiar with their effects in Jasper NP: “We’re concerned with the state of visitor facilities; I’ve been keeping track of the number of Parks Canada staff I see while I’m in the park, either hiking or in visitor facilities—it’s quite low.
It isn’t very often that you meet a warden. And I’ve heard secondhand from staff that they don’t feel able to provide quality interpretive content—they just don’t have the information to rely on anymore.”
But if wardens are scarce, visitors are not. Jasper NP saw nearly 2.1 million visits during the first nine months of 2015. The lure of roadside attractions like the Glacier Skywalk is probably bringing in some visitors who wouldn’t otherwise visit a wilderness park, particularly if it required hard-trekking into bear and cougar country. Obviously more visitors equal more gate fees in its coffers, but Parks Canada may have gone too far in regarding “extra” fees as the only way to survive in a mean little world of cutbacks.
The Agency suffered a public backlash in June 2016 when it advertised sweat lodge ceremonies—conducted by an Anishinaabe Saulteaux elder of the Skownan First Nation at the Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site—for a cost of $59.50 per person. Located near Selkirk, Manitoba, Lower Fort Garry is a former fur-trading post and site of several 19th century treaty-signings between First Nations and the Crown.
“We don’t charge for ceremonies,” Manitoba regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, Kevin Hart told the CBC, echoing a swift and severe social media reaction. “It looks like a tourism draw to me … People are being taken advantage of if there’s a charge.”
Following the uproar, within hours Parks Canada issued the following backpedal: “The fee was only intended to cover the costs associated with planning and delivering the program. However, Parks Canada recognizes that this may have been inappropriate. We have re-evaluated this element of the program and will be now providing it at no cost.”
We can be reasonably sure that Parks Canada did not intend to insult First Nations traditions. Perhaps the cutbacks have left Lower Fort Garry and other Parks Canada facilities so strapped that they can’t lay out for programming without asking the public to chip in. Or one could speculate that the sweat lodge blunder is a symptom of the change in Parks Canada culture over the last decade: a drive to enhance visitor experience (for a fee) since the parks themselves are no longer sufficient, one supposes, to entice crowds in search of new sensations.
In recent years, Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula National Park has suffered crowds greater than its 156 km2 can manage, especially since most visitors funnel down to The Grotto, a deep sea cave carved into the Niagara Escarpment’s dolostone shoreline along Georgian Bay. In 2015, an election year, the federal Conservatives doled out some strategic dollars to high-visibility targets, including an infrastructure grant to the Toronto-proximate Bruce Peninsula NP (and the adjacent Fathom Five National Marine Park).
The grant was aimed squarely at managing big visitor numbers by upgrading worn-out campgrounds, day-use areas, roadways, and parking lots. “This year  we’ve expanded the length of the season at both Fathom Five National Marine Park and Bruce Peninsula National Park to encourage visitation in the spring and fall,” said Bruce Peninsula NP Superintendent John Haselmayer in an emailed statement. The Park will hire 20 new staff trained to help disperse visitors throughout the Park, Haselmayer added, and introduce a guided tour of The Grotto in an attempt to control foot traffic. In the end, it may be Bruce Peninsula NP’s modest acreage that saves it from catastrophic overuse: when the 142 parking spots near The Grotto access point fill up, visitors will be turned away.
Established only in 1987, BPNP can be viewed as a runaway success: everyone wants to experience this piece of semi-wilderness, only a few hours from Toronto, with its white Escarpment bluffs adorned with ancient cedars and wave-hollowed caverns. But if high visitor numbers are considered success at a theme park, they’re potentially the opposite at a national park—prolonged and unchecked overcrowding could lay everything to waste.
The pressures of popularity are more forebodingly evident in Arizona’s Grand Canyon, probably the most recognizable national park geological feature in North America. Over 5.5 million people visited the park in 2015, making it the second-most visited park in the U.S. system behind Great Smoky Mountains NP. Just outside the Grand Canyon NP borders, developers have recently presented two shockingly reckless megaprojects. In another example of gateway sprawl, Italian conglomerate Stilo Development Group proposed over 2,000 housing units and extensive commercial space including hotels, a spa and a conference centre in the village of Tusayan near the park’s south entrance.
The U.S. Forest Service rejected the proposal arguing that the necessary infrastructure upgrades would threaten the Kaibab National Forest. A plan by Scottsdale, Arizona-based Confluence Partners, LLC, is more outlandish: a recreation and shopping complex featuring a tramway dubbed the Grand Canyon Escalade, lowering up to 10,000 people a day down to the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River, squarely on Navajo Reservation land. The Confluence is sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni nations and at present the only tourist activity there is whitewater rafting.
“They are serious threats to the future of the park,” Superintendent Dave Uberuaga told the Los Angeles Times in 2014, referring to both the Tusayan and Confluence proposals. “When you have that size and scope of potential development that close to the park, it will impact our visitor experience.” In 2015, incoming Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye spoke out against the Escalade (which his predecessor supported). “The Grand Canyon Escalade project… is not in the best interest of the Navajo Nation or the Navajo People,” read a statement released by Begaye’s office.
Commercial developers and their lawyers go into any approval process equipped to play a long game, aware that regulatory or other roadblocks will be thrown up—and also aware that governments and management plans are changeable.
Like Brewster Travel Canada’s tent cabins on Jasper NP’s Maligne Lake, the Grand Canyon projects may encounter organized resistance for the time being. But their proponents appear no less determined to keep trying to build them.
With the Cave and Basin, Canada’s first national park preserved a natural phenomenon geared to railway tourists. But as the park expanded around the hot spring, the Banff wilderness generated its own value—not by catering to tourists, but by protecting the greater wilderness from human encroachment. Such spaces are of incalculable worth and should exist outside the purview of technological progress, unharassed by commercial endeavour. Jasper’s Glacier Skywalk may look impressively futuristic now, but in a few decades it will become a relic of the tastes and techniques of an age passed—not to mention a safety liability and significant expense as it inevitably degrades. No one knows how long it will last, but one thing’s certain: it has a limited shelf life, unlike the landscape it overlooks.