Tangle Ridge Viewpoint is a pullout stretching 500 metres along the west side of the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park. It has parking for 60 vehicles, and three viewpoints where tourists take in the spectacular mountain views. If Brewster Travel Canada has its way, that experience will be given a jolt of adrenalin with the construction of a 400-metre interpretive boardwalk and a glass-floor observation platform suspended 30 metres out over the Sunwapta Valley.

“The vast majority of people, 95 per cent plus, basically experience the park from the asphalt or within a stone’s throw of the asphalt,” says Brewster president Michael Hannan. He wants to give users an interesting and educational experience, and engage new visitors. His proposal for the Glacier Discovery Walk is in the environmental review stag (UPDATE: The project was approved by Environment Canada on Feb. 9, 2012) , and public consultations must take place before Parks Canada determines whether or not it will approve the project. Hannan says the environmental impacts associated with the proposed development are minor. “It’s really a bridge on the side of the highway, when you boil it down.” No additional water, sewage or power would be needed, and the development fits within the three per cent of Jasper National Park that’s zoned to accommodate visitor facilities (the remaining 97 per cent is designated wilderness).

But doing business in a national park means following specific guidelines, and perhaps no one knows this better than Brewster, a tourism company that has been around longer than the park itself. Doing business in a national park also tends to be emotionally charged, and the Brewster development has ignited debate. Hannan says response has been mainly positive, but people like Anne-Marie Syslak, executive director of the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), are troubled by the proposed development. Syslak is concerned about the platform’s environmental impacts, the privatization of a public viewpoint and the changing perception of what is an authentic experience in our national parks.

A similar debate is going on in Canada’s first national park and the world’s third: Banff. It’s home to three commercial ski hills, including Mount Norquay, which has 28 ski runs, four chairlifts and a snow-tube park. Like Brewster, the 85-year-old ski resort is hoping to add to its attractions. A proposal for a via ferrata – a mountain route with fixed cables, ladders and bridges to assist hikers and climbers – has brought both supporters and opponents and resurrected the never-ending debate about how much is too much.

Peter Sudermann, partner and vice-president at Mount Norquay, has spent the past five years trying to get permission to open the resort during the summer. The proposed via ferrata would be the cornerstone of summer use and allow tourists to take in breathtaking views thousands of feet above the town of Banff. Sudermann says the development takes into consideration the resort’s unique position within the Forty Mile Creek and Cascade wildlife corridors. He sees the via ferrata as a logical way to create economic activity in the summertime in a park where visitor numbers have flatlined over the past decade. “It would be a real sensory experience in that you’re doing something,” he says. “You’re not sitting on a gondola or in a bus looking at the mountains. You’re basically scaling the mountains.”

But Syslak isn’t convinced, highlighting the potential impact on the wildlife corridors and the lack of knowledge surrounding the cumulative environmental impacts of increased summer visitation to the area.

The fragile ecosystem of a national park is unlike any mall, monument or traditional tourism attraction: nature is at the core of both Jasper and Banff. As Sudermann drives into the Mount Norquay parking lot, discussing on his cellphone how the via ferrata would impact tourism, he looks to the mountain where the proposed rebar would go. “It would be incredible,” he says. “It’s not a thrill ride or anything like that. I think people are concerned about the Walt Disney effect in Banff, and that’s the furthest thing from what we want to accomplish.”

Banff is certainly no Disney World, but with a municipality, three commercial ski hills, a 27-hole golf course, a busy four-lane, divided highway and a railway, it’s also unlike any other national park in Canada. Encompassing 6,641 square kilometres of dense forests, stunning vistas, Rocky Mountains, glaciers and wildlife, Banff is renowned for its natural beauty. It’s also a place of great contradictions and has been shaped by the groundbreaking Banff-Bow Valley Study, a two-year, $2-million federal inquiry published in 1996.

The report examined the ecological integrity of the park and the impact that development and human use can and could have on it. It culminated in a 432-page technical report and a 68-page summary that included more than 500 recommendations, such as effectively capping the town’s population, curtailing development and removing an airstrip. “The days of unrestrained growth in human use and development in the Valley are at an end,” reads the report, titled Banff-Bow Valley: At the Crossroads. “We really believed, unless changes were made, there would be very serious decline in the ecological balance in Banff National Park,” says Bob Page, chair of the five-person task force behind the study and dean of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design at the time. The conclusion? “Unless we take a new path, Banff cannot remain a national park.”

In Favour: Julie Canning, president and CEO of Banff Lake Louise Tourism, hopes new developments around Banff proceed. Photograph by Ewan Nicholson

The two-year process behind the report included intensive public consultation. Ultimately, Parks Canada enacted many of the report’s recommendations. Trails were closed and development was slowed, all decisions that continue to be cause for debate. “The Bow Valley Study was groundbreaking for its time but now we still continue in the national parks to pay the price for some of those decisions that were made back then,” says Monica Andreeff, executive director of the Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment (AMPPE), an organization that represents the voice of skiers, hikers, bikers, businesses and municipalities in the mountain parks.

Former Banff Field Unit superintendent Kevin Van Tighem says the report helped find the desperately needed balance between commerce and conservation. Van Tighem has worked in Banff and Jasper for 34 years and has witnessed major changes since the study. “Suddenly, people realized that we could indeed kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” he says. “This place is too important and represents too much … to get it wrong.”

But did limiting growth and controlling development amount to getting it right? Redevelopment and repurposing has increased in Banff because it’s all that is permitted. But there are those who think that forbidding development in Canada’s oldest national park and its townsite makes it impossible for the region to compete in today’s tourism industry. “I think there is room for carefully thought-out development,” says Brent Ritchie, who served on the Banff-Bow Valley Study task force and holds a professorship in tourism management at the University of Calgary. “We have to do things prudently and wisely, but I just think to stop development entirely is unreasonable.”

One of the most visible examples of redevelopment began in 2007, when former mayor John Stutz spearheaded a project that modernized the town’s century-old streetscape and replaced portions of the town’s underground infrastructure. Stutz views the rejuvenation, which included wider sidewalks, new lighting and additional crosswalks, as a logical redevelopment. Another example of recent redevelopment in Banff is Bison Courtyard. The mixed-use building blends retail, residential and restaurant space and surrounds the Old Crag Cabin, one of Banff’s original buildings. “If you’re going to do anything in the national parks under the current limits, can you do something that’s fabulous?” asks Peter Poole, principal at Arctos & Bird Management Ltd., the company behind the redevelopment. The answer, at least for Poole, is yes: Bison Courtyard opened in 2005 and is both a green building and a community hub. Poole says an environmentally friendly building is a logical step, as is involving tenants by offering rent rebates for environmental and community participation.

While staying modern helps the park stay competitive, Van Tighem says the park can increase visitation numbers without new developments. “People coming through the gate does not equate to development,” he says. “There are many ways to accommodate a lot of people in a landscape without actually having to fill it up with concrete and asphalt and steel.” Van Tighem says the biggest reasons tourists come to Banff National Park are to rest, relax and see the scenery and wildlife, activities that don’t necessarily require a lot of infrastructure. “It’s important to recognize that the park does not exist for business,” says Van Tighem. “The businesses in the park exist to help Canadians connect to it.”

Fair Warning: Businessman Ron Warner says people should know the rules and follow them. Photograph by Ewan Nicholson

Ron Warner, owner and operator of Warner Guiding and Outfitting, started working in Banff in 1960 and, like many business operators in the park, has made a living introducing tourists to the natural landscape. “I think if you choose to live in a national park and go into business in a national park, there are a lot of things you have to be aware of,” says Warner. “You don’t come to a national park and then get upset about the things you can’t do.”

But as Canada’s oldest national park gets older, businesses feel the need to offer up new experiences in order to attract visitors who may have already paid it a visit. Sudermann says Mount Norquay’s proposed via ferrata would be a unique experience for tourists and something Banff has never offered before. Julie Canning, president and CEO of Banff Lake Louise tourism, believes developments like the via ferrata would allow the park to continually evolve and engage so Banff stays relevant with today’s tourists. “There are certainly models that would indicate if we do nothing, we will be at a point of decline,” she says.

Tourism numbers in Banff are not nearly what they were in 1996 when it had almost five million annual visitors. The Banff-Bow Valley study projected that the park would have as many as 19 million visitors by 2020. “Clearly that is never, ever going to happen,” says former mayor Stutz. In 2010, approximately 3.5 million tourists visited Banff, a number that has remained fairly constant over the past decade. Canning says the tourism industry across Canada, and the world, has been through difficult times in recent years. “I would love to tell you that there has been substantial growth, but there hasn’t,” she says. “The industry as a whole across Canada has very much been struggling, really since SARS, 9/11, the recession. When we talk about development or growth in the tourism industry, right now we’re talking more about recovery.” Darren Reeder, executive director of the Banff Lake Louise Hotel Motel Association, says declining tourism numbers can also be attributed to the fact that both Japanese tourists and the UK winter ski market have dropped over the past decade. The most current numbers, comparing 2011 attendance within the park to 2010 statistics, show declines. Year-to-date independent visitors to Banff were down 6.2 per cent as of March 2011. Year-to-date highway counts on Highway 1 also show declines, although hotel occupancy in Banff is up 3.9 per cent over the same period in 2010.

Flatlining or declining tourism numbers are causing concern for many. Tourism is big business for those living within the park. A “need to reside” clause states that one must own and operate a business in the park, or must work in such an establishment, to have the right to live there. “There is only one industry in the town of Banff and Banff National Park, and that’s tourism,” says Canning.

Another proposal being considered for Banff comes from Harvey Locke, who wants to reintroduce bison to help the park’s ecology and attract tourists. Locke is a conservationist and a trustee with Banff’s Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation, which is behind the proposal to reintroduce bison. Seeing wildlife is a major reason why people visit national parks, yet, Locke says, during the summer months most animals are not visible to tourists because they graze high up mountain slopes. Bison will stay in the valley bottom year-round. “The magic of seeing a young bison calf running around on a spring day is moving,” says Locke. “It’s something that can add to the quality of the Banff brand and it’s entirely authentic.” He says reintroducing animals to national parks has proven to be successful in the past and has boosted tourism, citing the example of wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

Turning Banff back into a home where the buffalo roam may help the local ecology, but will it bring in tourists? Van Tighem says Banff’s big challenge in the 1990s was to restore ecosystems. Today, the challenge is preserving ecosystems while addressing the growing disconnect between Canadians and their national parks. Hannan, the president of Brewster, says when people have profound experiences within national parks, they have a desire to protect them. Hannan believes that national parks need to be protected for Canadians, not from Canadians. “We see ourselves as stewards of these places and want to make sure they’re there for the generations that come after us,” says Hannan. Business owners like Sudermann believe new experiences, like his proposed via ferrata, will attract new tourists and leave visitors with a different appreciation for the park.

“It really is true that once people connect with these places, it can be transformative,” says Van Tighem. “That experience can become a part of who you are for the rest of your life.” He receives letters from passionate Canadians every time a controversial decision is made within the park, letters he will no doubt receive when a decision is made about Mt. Norquay’s proposed via ferrata, and letters his colleagues in Jasper will receive if the Glacier Discovery Walk goes ahead. Van Tighem says such letter writers derive their passion for Canada’s parks through their personal experiences with them. “They’ve backpacked here, they’ve hiked here, they’ve seen wildlife here, and it’s become a part of who they are,” he says. “As a result of that, they’re motivated and committed to making sure we don’t mess it up for them. That’s what we want more of. We want every Canadian to feel that way. And the best way to do that is to give every Canadian those very same kinds of experiences.”