Managing the Crowds: Striking a Balance Between Recreation and Conservation in BC’s Provincial Parks

Written by Brittny Turner, Conservation Coordinator

The Day-Use Pass Program is returning to some of BC’s provincial parks including Golden Ears, Joffre Lakes, and Garibaldi Provincial Parks this season to reduce vehicle lineups, parking pressures, and overcrowded trails. 

BC’s provincial parks are a haven for wildlife and millions of outdoor enthusiasts across the province. They provide opportunities for us to explore, spend time with family outdoors, and connect with Nature.The growing use and enjoyment of BC’s Parks is incredible. An increase in demand for park services comes with increased pressures on wildlife, natural areas, park staff, and recreation infrastructure. 

The Day-Use Pass Program is one tool in a suite of solutions that can help manage and plan for high levels of visitation as parks struggle to keep up with visitor demand. 

This article aims to shed light on the growing pressures BC’s provincial parks are facing and the need to manage visitation and support sustainable levels of recreation so parks can continue to support Nature and people for generations to come. 

Why is a Day-Use Pass Required? 

Their close proximity to Metro Vancouver and stunning vistas have made Golden Ears, Joffre Lakes, and Garibaldi Provincial Parks three of the most popular provincial parks in BC. These parks are seeing visitation skyrocket as more and more people get outside for adventure and to connect with the lands and waters that make BC unique. Between 2012 and 2018, park visitation to these three parks grew by 75%.

From overcrowded trails to packed parking lots and cars lined up along the highway, the evidence of the rising interest and limited management capacity in provincial parks is difficult to miss. 

Cars lining up along a highway as parking lots fill up BC's provincial park, Joffre Lakes Park.
Limited parking availability at Joffre Lakes Provincial Park leads to illegal parking along Highway 99, putting pedestrians, drivers and BC Parks staff at risk. Photo: Steve Jones via CBC

The surge in visitation is challenging BC Parks’ mission to balance safe outdoor recreation with the protection of natural environments. Rising visitation is overwhelming park infrastructure and natural areas in many popular parks, leading to diminished visitor experiences, visitor safety concerns, and impacts on Nature that parks were created to protect. BC Parks staff are seeing impacts such as improper disposal of human waste and garbage, and damage to sensitive areas like alpine environments.

Overcrowding can lead to people wandering off trails, which can cause trail braiding (when multiple paths split off and rejoin the main trail), erosion, and trampled vegetation. This impacts the long-term health of the forests and wildlife in parks.

Person on the trail standing between trees and there is trail braiding on the forest floor.
Trail braiding. Photo: BC Parks

Underlying Issues

BC Parks has been starved of funds for decades. Years of chronic underfunding have:

  • Created a backlog in the upkeep of recreation infrastructure like boardwalks and trails;
  • Stalled the development of management plans, limiting the development of recreation opportunities in parks; and
  • Restricted the establishment of new parks, trails, and infrastructure such as toilets and campsites to meet the rising demand of park visitors who love to get outside. 

Recent injections of funds into the BC Parks system are welcomed, and BC Parks is now in a state of playing catch-up while facing sustained demand.

The Role of the Day-Use Pass Program

Park agencies worldwide are looking to visitor-use management as park visitation soars. The US National Park Service implemented a day-use management tool in 2020 to reduce overcrowding and protect Nature in several popular parks, including Arches and Glacier National Parks.

The planning, expansion, and construction of new facilities and trails take time, consultation, and careful consideration. As BC Parks continues to play catch-up and work to improve trails, upgrade infrastructure, and build more campsites, the Day-Use Pass Program helps reduce the impacts of recreation on Nature while also improving visitor safety and the park experience by reducing overcrowded trails, roads and parking lots.

The Day-Use Pass Program should be complemented with other tools to support the growing demand for parks and recreation. This includes increasing transit access to parks to alleviate parking pressure and investing in recreation planning and park expansion near city centres.

A Vision for the Future

The growing popularity of BC Parks and the rising loss of wildlife signal a need for continued investment in conservation and BC’s provincial parks to: 

  • Expand parks, both in size and recreation infrastructure, to keep up with visitor demand, relieve pressure off of existing trails and infrastructure, and protect habitat for endangered wildlife;
  • Increase park ranger staff to maintain infrastructure and enforce rules that keep visitors and wildlife safe;
  • Modify trail infrastructure and design to protect vegetation (e.g. installing boardwalks); 
  • Improve visitor education to mitigate impacts on wildlife and sensitive natural areas; and
  • Support BC Parks’ dual mandate to provide high-quality outdoor recreation opportunities and protect diverse natural environments for world-class conservation.

Increased funding for trail maintenance and upgrades would help protect sensitive plant and animal habitats like this sub-alpine meadow in Manning Provincial Park.

A trail is covered in rocks making it a hazardous walking path in BC's provincial park, Manning Park.
Heather Trail in Manning Provincial Park. Photo: Andy Gibb via Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC

Parks and protected areas are a fundamental part of our health care system, they provide many opportunities to get outside and connect with Nature, from canoeing to horseback riding to multi-day hiking adventures. They are also a critical ally in our fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. Increased, sustained funding will not only support people getting outside to connect with Nature, it will also support BC’s commitment to safeguard biodiversity by protecting 30% of lands by 2030

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