The Challenging Visitation Increase to Kananaskis in 2020

Did you know that last year Kananaskis experienced the highest visitation rate in history?

In 2020, visitation to Kananaskis was the highest ever recorded in history for the area, with more than five million visitors—higher than annual average visitation rate in Banff National Park, which is typically just over 4 million.

Consistently increasing over the years, visitation numbers skyrocketed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kananaskis is a large draw for visitors from the area’s large urban centres, such as Calgary.

The make-up of visitors last year was also more varied than before, with a “new to the outdoors” group heading out. Many of these users were discovering outdoor recreation activities, like hiking, for the first time.  

“Social media played a large role in drawing additional visitors to the area, with many blogs and social media postings inspiring visitation to Kananaskis for its renowned activities, trails and experiences,” said Debbie Mucha, Kananaskis West Area Manager, Alberta Environment and Parks.

The extremely high and consistent volume of visitors, and in some cases their inexperience with the outdoors, presented several new challenges and compounded existing ones, including:

Garbage, waste, and litter

Visitors left the highest amounts of garbage, litter and waste ever observed in Kananaskis. Litter was not properly disposed, and it was often tossed in front or around bins, or simply left on trails, day use areas and around other facilities. Bins could not be serviced quickly enough to keep up with the high volume of garbage. Dog poop/waste bags (filled) littered the trails in high densities as did paper coffee cups, masks, wipes, tampons and numerous other items.

“The amount of garbage and disregard for parks facilities were a large issue. Despite our best efforts, visitors seemed to be unaware of leave no trace principles related to going to the washroom in the woods or in some cases in outhouse facilities. Toilet paper was everywhere, including at day use areas and off/on trails. When garbage isn’t disposed of properly, it can attract and endanger wildlife,” added Debbie.

Large amounts of garbage left on trails, day use areas and around other facilities.

Wildlife concerns

High numbers of visitors meant more impacts to sensitive environments, landscapes and wildlife. Conservation Officers, bear management technicians and volunteers spent a lot more time collecting garbage so wildlife would not be attracted to areas where people were recreating.

Many visitors were not familiar with wildlife etiquette and best practices, including bear safety recommendations—like effectively carrying bear spray, knowing how to use and store it—not feeding wildlife, properly disposing of garbage and keeping dogs on leash. Dogs off leash can stress wildlife, so keeping your dog on leash and under control can help keep your dog, you and wildlife safe.

 “We encourage visitors to actively discover, explore and experience nature; but at the same time to be safe and respectful around wildlife. Remember to be cautious whenever there’s wildlife present and give them space, never leave food or attractants out, properly dispose of garbage; respect area, site and trail closures, and stay on sanctioned trails where possible. We all have a role in keeping wildlife wild,” said Debbie.

 Stay in sanctioned trails and respect area, site and trail closures and restrictions

Too many visitors concentrated in one area or location and going off trails can have a detrimental impact on sensitive habitats. We encourage visitors to always stay on designated trails and respect area, site and trail closures and restrictions. Developing new “unofficial” routes and trails is not allowed, as this can cause damage to the environment and present hazards to other visitors. People should always be prepared to adjust travel plans if necessary. If a trail or site is full, we encourage visitors to have alternate plans, such as visiting another area, going earlier or later in the day, or during days or seasons that are less busy.

 “We had very high visitation to Highwood Pass, leading to significant damages to alpine and sub-alpine environment, and severe impacts to delicate flora and fauna which were being crushed or decimated in sensitive areas. We encourage everyone to always stay on sanctioned trails. These have been designed to take you to beautiful locations while at the same time keeping you safe from hazards, and protecting the environment and other visitors alike,” expressed Debbie.

Enforcement Resources

There was an increase in calls for enforcement last year, with a steep increase in calls regarding illegal camping and people with dogs off-leash. In addition, the area experienced an increase in “city like” crime, such as vehicle break-ins and vandalism, like graffiti.

The other side of this problem was that Conservation Officers had a difficult time in responding to the increased enforcement issues because much of their time was spent on public safety incidents, wildlife response, parking issues, and cleaning up garbage.

Some of the graffiti found at Ha-Ling. 

Traffic congestion, illegal parking and excessive speed

Congested parking lots and vehicles parking on the highway shoulder, roadway and ditch parking were also an issue, particularly because they limited the access of emergency vehicles to sites as well as reduced pedestrian safety.

This also degraded roadside vegetation due to vehicles parking off-road sometimes two vehicles deep. Excessive speeds from some drivers and the sheer numbers of vehicles also increased the risk for the public and wildlife.

“Probably due to the underlying stress of the pandemic, visitors were behaving in a more aggressive way with staff and contractors. We had contractors being called certain names and the public arguing if they said a parking lot was full. We received reports of negative behaviours and attitudes from the public towards campground operators and staff,” added Debbie.

Improper parking and traffic issues.

Operational Expenses

Operational expenses in the Kananaskis increased exponentially and exceeded budget allotment for summer 2020. Some of these expenses included additional personal protective equipment (PPE) and associated Occupational Health and Safety requirements, high volume of washroom use, maintenance and clean-up, firewood supply, increased helicopter budget for rescues, among others.

“We saw a high increase in costs of emptying and cleaning toilets, garbage collection, providing supplies including the cost of hand sanitizer and PPE to keep both the public and staff safe. When day use areas and washrooms were closed, visitors defecated beside washrooms and even in front of visitor information centres. A considerable amount of funds had to be spent on a contractor to clean this mess up,” expressed Debbie.

You are now in Mother Nature’s home, so be a good guest!

If you were a guest in someone’s home, would you behave in a disruptive manner? Likely not. Remember that when you head into the outdoors you become a guest in Mother Nature’s home.

Albertans are encouraged to do their part and reduce the pressure on the landscape, wildlife, and the staff that helps keep Kananaskis beautiful, healthy and safe.

Visitors who may lack experience are encouraged to learn more about best practices and proper outdoor etiquettes, by taking a course, learning from others, hiring an expert guide, or doing some reading and research prior to heading out.

“When you visit a park, come prepared and do your research in advance. For example, arrive early and have alternative options in mind if parking lots and trails are full, and think of other times seasons that may not be that busy in the area you plan to visit,” said Debbie.  

Visitors should also avoid playing loud music, dispose garbage and doggy bags properly, not do graffiti, and not park on highway shoulders. These actions will increase your chances for a safe and happy visit that does not have any negative impacts on the landscapes, wildlife and other people.

“We’re currently looking at the impact that high visitation has put on wildlife and sensitive landscapes, and at ways to minimize these impacts. After all, don’t we all want to see places like Kananaskis exist and flourish in the long term and far into the future so they can be enjoyed?,” concluded Debbie.