EDMONTON - Conservationists are worried a push by the federal government to attract more city slickers to Rocky Mountain national parks will hurt the wildlife and fragile ecosystems the parks were created to protect.
Parks Canada released management plans last fall that propose non-traditional activities to lure more visitors. Some of the ideas include a new gondola in Banff, dogsled rides in Jasper, a teepee campground in Waterton and more playgrounds for children.
But there are few details on how the parks would make sure that extra visitors wouldn't lead to more deaths of wild animals or the destruction of important habitat, says Nigel Douglas of the Alberta Wilderness Association.
"The draft plan proposes increasing visitor numbers without any apparent attempt to emphasize principles that protect the highly valued ecosystems within a national park that must have priority over all other activities," Douglas says.
"It reads like a plan for a holiday resort, not a national park."
The mountain parks include Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Glacier, Mount Revelstoke and Waterton. They are so renowned for their wildlife and natural beauty that they have been declared a United Nations World Heritage Site.
The tone of the proposed management plans, which will govern the way the parks are run for the next 10 to 15 years, is a marked departure from the wording of the 2001 Canada National Parks Act, Douglas says.
The act states that maintaining and restoring natural resources in the parks should be the federal government's priority.
So why the new emphasis on attracting more visitors?
Attendance numbers at national parks are down across the country compared with peak rates in the 1980s and 1990s. Parks Canada figures show an overall attendance drop of nine per cent between 2007 and 2009. Part of that decrease can be blamed on the economic downturn, but Parks Canada says there are other reasons as well.
Canada's demographics are changing. About eight out of 10 Canadians now live in urban areas, and about 20 per cent of those people are recent immigrants. Many of them have never gone camping or haven't visited a national park or historic site.
The future of the parks depends on getting more people to actually visit and appreciate them, says Greg Fenton, superintendent of Jasper National Park.
"We really need to continue to be relevant to Canadians," Fenton says.
"People need to continue to visit and understand what national parks are all about. We have to be successful at enticing people into the parks."
Jasper park recorded about 1.86 million visitors last year, a drop of almost nine per cent from the year before. The proposed plan for Jasper calls for increasing attendance by two per cent a year for three years.
Parks Canada can meet such targets without hurting the parks, Fenton says.
Friday is the deadline for the public to respond to the proposed plan for Jasper National Park.
Katherine Thompson of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association says her group will be sending its official response to Parks Canada and federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice this week.
Thompson says there is nothing wrong with encouraging more people to visit, but Parks Canada is making the wrong pitch.
Ottawa should be encouraging people to develop a love of nature and instill an ethic of environmental stewardship, she says.
The association is calling on Parks Canada to include in its plans clear recovery strategies for threatened wildlife species. It also says wilderness zone boundaries in the parks should not be changed to cater to more visitors.
"These management plans by Parks Canada are quite vague. We see increased attendance being pushed, but we see it more as a misguided step that will create a playground for the rich at the expense of our parks, sensitive wildlife and ecosystems."