By Lethbridge Herald on August 11, 2017.
Waterton Lakes National Park temporarily closed its doors last Sunday after a record number of visitors filled the site to capacity. Officials say the decision was made to uphold public safety.
With an estimated 8,000 visitors entering the park, it was the busiest day on record, said Visitor Experience Manager Locke Marshall.
The park was closed just under two hours on Sunday, something they’ve never had to do before.
“We’ve never had that many people before,” said Marshall.
“We had to create a traffic management plan back at the end of 2016/early 2017 because we knew there was some potential for this. Our visitation has been increasing quite drastically every year.”
Parks Canada estimated about a 20 per cent increase in visitor traffic to Waterton, due to free entry at all national parks this year in celebration of Canada’s 150th.
However, the August long weekend is typically the busiest weekend at the park, explained Marshall. So it was one park officials were most concerned about.
“It has traditionally been our busiest weekend, and it proved to be so far,” he said. But free Discovery Passes are only part of the reason for the increased visitation.
“Over the past decade we’ve seen a fairly significant increase year by year,” said Marshall. “Last year, of course, was our busiest season ever. We welcomed quite a bit over half a million visitors here.”
Officials always keep a close eye on visitor numbers because they anticipate crowding could become an issue, Marshall explained. There is a formula they use to determine the number of people, based on averages and real-time traffic counters.
They also conduct a traffic survey about every five years to find out how many people per car as well as how many vehicles are business traffic versus visitor traffic. The last was completed in 2011.
On Sunday, there were 4,089 vehicles that entered Waterton Park. Based on an average of 2.9 people per vehicle, and factoring out a percentage for business traffic, Marshall said that’s how they determined there were close to 8,000 visitors.
“That’s just day traffic,” he said. “Remember there’s still people in the campground and in cabins and places like that in the park at that time, but that’s how many people came in during that day.”
Staff restricted access at the entrance gate and directed traffic past the park to maintain traffic flows on Highways 5 and 6. Vehicles were also not allowed to line up on the highways.
The decision was made in the best interests of public safety, Marshall explained.
“Because we have real-time traffic counters and we can look at real-time hourly numbers of cars that have come in, we plot that against what we think we can handle. And when it falls outside of that curve… that’s when it kind of sets off some alarms,” he said.
At that point they begin to rely on employees who are stationed on the ground at different locations to determine how busy it is in popular day-use areas such as Cameron Lake, Red Rock Canyon, at the entrance gate, and at the entrance to town.
All of these factors are what park officials use to determine whether to continue to grant entrance to visitors. The main goal is to avoid gridlock, he said.
“We felt that visitors might be at risk and really our number one priority is making sure that people are safe. We wouldn’t be able to move safety vehicles around or deal with rescues or injuries if there was gridlock. That’s why we made the decision that we did.”
There is no exact number to define maximum capacity for the park, Marshall admitted.
“We really don’t have a number since this has never happened before. It looks like that was close to what we think capacity would be if we want to make sure that people stay safe. But this isn’t an exact science. We do the modelling, the best we can.”
It also depends on the time of day, he said. If they hit that number early morning, when people are just entering the park for the day, it’s a concern. If it was the same number by mid or late afternoon, it’s not as worrisome as visitors are starting to leave the park in greater numbers.
“There’s really no magic number,” he said. “It has to be the combination of our traffic modelling and our people on the ground. That’s just the way we have to do it because there is no real cap, I guess.”
On Sunday, officials had posted warnings on the park’s website as well as the Facebook page. However, not everyone who made the drive to Waterton checked online. Some took to social media to express their disappointment.
Marshall said park officials are prepared to implement the same measures anytime the need arises. He doesn’t anticipate they will need to close the gates again anytime soon, but admits it’s hard to predict.
“It’s possible, but we’re hoping not,” he said.
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