More than half of Canada’s national parks — including Banff in Alberta, Pacific Rim in British Columbia and Cape Breton Highlands in Nova Scotia — are to reopen June 1.
Minister of Environment Jonathan Wilkinson says 29 of the 48 national parks will open for day use, and there will be access to washrooms.
“It’s an opportunity for folks, particularly those who live reasonably close to national parks, to be able to get out in nature in a manner that can allow physical distancing,” he told The Canadian Press.
All national parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas have been closed for weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Wilkinson said parks such as Banff, Jasper and Waterton in Alberta will open day-use areas and trails to visitors.
In Banff, the town and many of its businesses have been preparing to reopen on June 1.
“This has been devastating for our town that relies solely on tourism as our economy,” said Mayor Karen Sorensen, adding it was difficult to ask visitors to stay away.
“We wanted to make sure we had protocols in place to make it safe not only for our community, but also for our visitors.”
The town’s council decided Monday to close two blocks of its often-crowded main street, Banff Avenue, to vehicle traffic to make more room for pedestrians.
“If … people need to line up to get into one of our businesses on Banff Avenue, there will be space,” said Sorensen. “There will be space for some outdoor patio seating and some outdoor retailing opportunities and there will still be space for outdoor pedestrian flow.”
Banff is the country’s busiest national park, with about four million visitors annually.
Other national parks reopening June 1 include Riding Mountain in Manitoba and Grasslands in Saskatchewan.
Wilkinson said some parks, including many in Northern Canada, will remain closed to reduce travel to areas sensitive to the spread of COVID-19.
“There’s also some of the parks that are co-managed with First Nations, like Haida Gwaii, where the First Nation has asked that the park not be reopened,” he said.
Camping, he said, will still not be allowed in national parks until at least June 21.
“Camping is going to be something that a lot of Canadians are going to look at, given that travelling outside the country is going to be particularly challenging,” said Wilkinson.
The British Columbia Parks website crashed soon after it opened summer bookings for provincial campsites Monday, while Alberta Parks saw nearly 40,000 campsite bookings on its first day of offering rebookings.
Many provincial governments have reopened camping for June 1, but are only allowing their own residents to reserve spots to prevent non-essential travel.
Wilkinson said Parks Canada will have protocols in place once they allow camping, but the agency doesn’t plan to put in restrictions by province.
“We are a national agency that belongs to all people who live in this country,” he said. “We will be telling people that they need to be paying attention to the travel guidance of their respective province or territory.”
Some governments have restricted travel in and out, while others have asked people not to travel to their jurisdictions.
Wilkinson said there could be restrictions on a park-by-park basis.
“In some cases, we’ll be opening more things because we think it’s set up in a way that can accommodate physical distancing,” he said. “In others, where there are some … trails that are extremely busy, we may not open those because we can’t allow for safe usage.”
Other possibilities could include setting limits on how many people can visit at a time or closing parking lots at popular areas.
Wilkinson said he realizes Canadians have been through a lot in recent months.
“Many have stuck very, very close to home,” he said. “One of the key things for us is trying to give Canadians opportunities to get out, as summer comes, to enjoy nature.
“It’s part of what Canada is for most Canadians.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 27, 2020.