The Battle Over Banff

Millions of tourists may be threatening a treasured national park

DALE EISLER August 4 1997

The Battle Over Banff

Millions of tourists may be threatening a treasured national park

DALE EISLER August 4 1997

The Battle Over Banff


Millions of tourists may be threatening a treasured national park


It was an idyllic sunny summer afternoon on Banff Avenue, the main artery running through the scenic community in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. But for an instant, things looked like they could get ugly just outside The Hard Rock Cafe. On the traffic-clogged street, where empty parking spots seem more rare than wild elk wandering through the town, one nimble driver zipped into a vacant spot before another could back into the same space. Sud

denly, the warm July air turned chilly: the jilted driver rolled down his window to shout profanities and the other driver responded in kind. But most pedestrians seemed oblivious to the brief curbside conflict. Their attention was focused on something more important: shopping in one of the 200 stores that have turned the town into an outdoor mall in the mountains. Welcome to Banff, where the collision of commerce and nature has unleashed a bitter debate

over the future of both the town and Banff National Park.

The sight of Banff Avenue congested with tour buses, campers and tourists represents the town’s dilemma in an intensifying debate over the future of Canada’s most treasured national park. In fact, the ambience of the alpine community and the magnificence of the park are in jeopardy from the sheer pressure of humanity: up to four million visitors arrive in the park annually, swelling the town of 7,600 by upwards of 8,000 at pedí periods. How Banff deals with the concurrent demands of tourism and the need to protect what the United Nations declared a world heritage site is of great interest to a wide variety of onlookers. “The issues we face here and how we resolve them will be looked at by other protected areas in the world,” says Mike Mclvor, longtime Banff resident, ardent environmentalist and president of the Bow Valley Naturalists Society. “There’s no question this is a test.”

The responsibility for reconciling nature with commercialism falls squarely on the shoulders of Heritage Minister Sheila Copps. In April, Copps announced a new 15-year management plan for the

park, adopting roughly half of the 500 recommendations outlined by the 27-month Banff-Bow Valley Task Force, which was heralded by environmental advocates as a landmark study when it was released last October. The park plan set out clear initiatives to protect the natural environment, but stopped short of putting strict limits on the number of people using the park as suggested in the Bow Valley study. Aside from capping the town’s population at 10,000, its emphasis on protecting wildlife habitat is evident in plans for the closure of the Banff grass airstrip, an army cadet camp, horse corrals and bison paddock near the town as a means to open a critical wildlife corridor between the town and the foot of Cascade Mountain. Known as a “montane,” the grassy flatland area is where animals forage for food in the winter and migrate to other areas in the park and beyond. Park superintendent Charlie Zinkan concedes that the town has become “the cork in the bottle” that is blocking the migration of wildlife through a critical wildlife corridor in the heart of the park.

But the park management plan is only half the equation—the easy

half. Copps has yet to approve or reject a controversial community plan passed by town council in June. The Banff town site, governed by Parks Canada since the park was officially founded in 1885, gained municipal status in 1990—but because the community is in the park, the town’s five-year plan must be endorsed by the minister. And with the clash of commercial and environmental values converging most starkly within the town, the community plan has proved to be far more contentious than the overall park management plan, which has been widely accepted.

The proposed town plan calls for an additional 24 per cent, or 76,500 square metres, in commercial development. But the increase, which will allow for 378,000 square metres of development, is still 66 per cent less than the 522,000 square metres allowed under existing development laws. “What people don’t seem to realize is that we’re restricting development that otherwise would have been allowed,” says Banff Mayor Ted Hart. “People wanted to see less growth, less quickly, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Still, the increase approved by the Banff town council is also 18,000 square metres more than the 58,500 recommended in May by a steering committee made up of representatives from the community and council. With 3,345 rooms in the community’s 31 hotels, another 500 are likely to be added under the new plan. For opponents to further development, the decision clearly flies in the face of the popular will of town residents. In a span of 10 days after the council made its decision, a group calling itself Citizens for an End to Commercial Growth gathered 1,500 signatures of Banff residents—and more than another 1,000 from across Canada—who want no further commercial development in the community. ‘The majority of people in town want no more growth,” says Karen McDiarmid, 43, a member of the no-growth lobby and a 22-year resident of Banff “What part of ‘no more development’


By 2020, experts anticipate 19 million park visitors a year

do these people not understand?”

Such talk frustrates many in the town’s business community who argue that the interests of the park and the community are not identical. Sitting on a balcony overlooking Banff Avenue, Oswald Treutler pulls out a pen and makes a dot on a letter-sized sheet of paper. “That’s the size of the town of Banff in relation to the park,” says Treutler, who owns a downtown retail mall and a string of currency exchange outlets across Canada. “This idea of the town pushing animals back is a lot of baloney.”

This year, even the town’s Canada Day parade became a platform for the battle over the community’s future. The winning float was an entry from the anti-development lobby, which featured cardboard office towers, each bearing the name of a town councillor who voted for the community plan. Ironically, the tallest building carried the name of Norm Letnick, one of the judges who picked the winning float. “It was easily the most original float,” says Letnick. “But in spite of what they might think, I believe we have struck the right balance to maintain a healthy and viable community.”

Ultimately, the struggle is to determine a means of accommodating tourism without jeopardizing the environment that makes both the park and the community such an attractive destination. In many respects, Banff

is unique among world heritage tourist sites. Founded as a national park a year after the arrival of the railway, the 20,000-square-kilometre region boasts some of the most spectacular and ecologically sensitive areas in the Canadian Rockies. Home to a wide range of wildlife, including bears, elk, moose and

best place on earth.” The Banff-Bow Valley study warned that the park would not survive unless strict controls were put in place: it went so far as to suggest that a fence should be erected around the town, turning the community into a kind of human zoo that would separate wildlife from the shoppers along Banff Avenue. The fence idea was not incorporated in the park management plan, but

mule deer, Banff has been called “the last

the notion might not be that farfetched. With four million visitors to the park a year and another four million passing through on the Trans-Canada Highway, the Banff-Bow Valley study estimates that, without measures to curb growth, the park could have 19 million visitors a year by 2020.

One way to judge the ecological integrity of the park is through the fate of its estimated 70 grizzly bears. The grizzly population, considered a prime indicator of the overall ecosystem, has been in slow decline throughout the Bow Valley region. ‘We are at an absolutely critical balance point,” says Mike Gibeau, who has been studying grizzlies for four years as principal researcher for the Eastern Slopes Grizzly Bear Project based in Canmore, just outside the eastern Banff park gates. “This is one of the most highly developed landscapes in the world where grizzlies still survive. Depending on how we manage the landscape, we can have bears, or lose them entirely as has happened throughout the United States.”

In many ways, the challenges confronting Banff are unique. It is the only national park in Canada with a major tourist destination community that has such a high concentration of motels, restaurants and shopping. Located along the Trans-Canada Highway, the town is only a 90-minute drive for residents of Calgary or tourists landing at the airport.

“Our location means that the issues that affect protected areas arrive here sooner than anywhere else,” concedes park superintendent Zinkan.

Evidence of international tourism is plentiful along the town’s main shopping streets. Store windows carry signs in Japanese to accommodate the estimated 160,000 visitors a year from Japan. For a time, some of the town’s major hotels were owned by Japanese investors, but with Japan’s economy in recession many of the investments have been sold off and the number of Japanese tourists has also been declining. Still,

Japan represents a lucrative portion of the town’s retail market, with the average Japanese tourist spending $1,000 in Banff—more than double that of American visitors. But as a place people want to visit, the park must offer a balance between accessibility and protection of nature, serving the needs of those who want to climb off a tour bus or climb a mountain, hike the wilderness trails of Johnson Canyon or wander through the aisles of boutiques and souvenir stores.

“Some of the recommendations in the Banff-Bow Valley study might be academically pure from a biological point of view,” says Zinkan, “but the public’s preparedness to accept them was not taken into consideration.”

For many environmentalists, the argument of balancing interests is bogus because additional growth always comes at the expense of the environment. “Look,” says Mclvor, “whether now or five years from now, we’re going to hit the wall in terms of development.

Let’s not hit the wall at a dead run.” In a bid to assist the wildlif e movement, Ottawa is spending approximately $4 million to construct two wildlife overpasses across the Trans-Canada highway, which is being divided into four lanes west of the town to help ease the traffic congestion from almost three million vehicles that pass through the park a year.

But the idea of stopping commercial expansion makes no sense to many in the business community. Linda Charlton, 49, who

along with her husband, Gary, owns two motels in Banff and another in Jasper, has lived in Banff for 33 years and argues that the proper controls already exist. The town’s current boundaries are fixed by an act of Parliament, no new land can be zoned for development and the town’s land-use bylaw, which is being revised as part of the new community plan, already restricts buildings to a height of no more than three storeys.

“The business people have been getting a bum rap,” says Charlton. “We’re just as interested as anyone else in preserving the integrity of the town and the park. Without it, no one would want to come here.”

Certainly, the town has long been under strict development limits, including a “need to reside” regulation allowing only those who work in Banff to live in the community. But such restrictions have also created a real estate market that rivals Vancouver in cost—a three-bedroom home can sell for anywhere from $350,000 to $450,000—and has forced many middle-class families to relocate 20 minutes down the highway in more affordable Canmore. As a result, quaint neighborhoods of single-family homes are being transformed into rooming houses to accommodate young, often transient people working for low wages in Banff’s retail and hotel sector. “It’s really sad,” says Maryalice Stewart, 74, who was born in Banff and now avoids the congested downtown district as much as possible. “I’ve lost all my neighbors to the crush of commercialism.”

Stewart’s lament for the town she once knew is also a realization that those days are gone. The Banff of today has become synonymous with the attempt to reconcile the natural beauty of a place all Canadians see as their heritage, with a place people from around the world want to visit. The new park and community plans are attempts at finding that delicate balance, but judging by the strong feelings they evoke, the debate over the future of Canada’s national park is far from resolved. □