National parks are free this year but still not accessible enough for students By Jordana Colomby

Waking up to a clear blue sky and brisk morning breeze in one of Canada’s beautiful national parks is a perk all Canadians should enjoy, according to Parks Canada. However, these natural paradises are not always the easy escape advertisements suggest.

The term “free parks” has been popping up everywhere in Canada from television commercials to Mountain Equipment Co-op Facebook advertisements since mid- 2016. However, waiving park fees for 2017 is making some Canadians wonder why parks are not always this accessible.

Liam Harrap, a master of journalism student at Carleton University, said he thought free admission was a great idea at first, but after examining the remaining costs of planning a trip, he no longer thinks the pass is beneficial to all Canadians.

To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, Parks Canada is offering free Discovery Passes to all visitors. Annual access to the parks usually costs $67.70 for an adult and $136.40 for a group.

This year, the Discovery Pass allows visitors free access to national parks, marine conservations, national historic sites and now includes lockage, according the Parks Canada site.

Parking, reservations, firewood, camping, mooring, fishing, and other accommodations and activities not covered by the pass will still require visitors to reach into their wallets if they want to enjoy these sites.

The free Discovery Passes are available in participating stores or online and shipping is also free worldwide. Photo by Jordana Colomby.

Being from Jasper, Alberta, Harrap enjoys free access to Jasper National Park. However, sometimes he ventures outside his hometown to go camping where he doesn’t enjoy the same privilege.

“Everything is more expensive in the parks, and they’re always looking at ways to make it more expensive,” said Harrap.

Harrap often goes camping in Banff National Park, not too far from where he grew up. He purchased the Discovery Pass in previous years, admitting it was a great deal for frequent visitors.

He said he was annoyed to discovery a new $11.70 non-refundable reservation fee in Banff for trips he booked the day of departure. This fee doesn’t exist in Jasper for reservations made less than 48 hours in advance, according to Jasper National Park employee, Peter Lynch.

“Everything is more expensive in the parks, and they’re always looking at ways to make it more expensive,” said Harrap.

For a frequent camper like Harrap who visited the park every weekend growing up, this fee adds up fast.

“That’s a huge increase just for someone to stand on the other side of a desk and print me a permit. It’s outrageous,” he said. “The only thing it promotes is people not getting a permit.”

Another Carleton University student, Eric Labrecque, looked for ways around some of the parks’ fees when he visited 14 Canadian national parks last summer.

“I didn’t pay for camping throughout my entire trip,” said Labrecque. “I camped out 35 nights out of the 41 nights and I never paid for camping. It was a challenge but it was pretty sweet.”

Reserving land to pitch a tent has a fee attached in most national parks, so some opt to stay outside of the parks and only enter during the day. Photo by Jordana Colomby.

High prices coupled with high visitation persuaded Labrecque to camp outside the parks on his trip.

While a backcountry camper only pays $9.80 per person, a one-night stay on a Banff campground can cost up to $38.20 depending on the type of site and amenities available.

For entry and overnight camping, Parks Canada recognizes anyone between the ages of six and 16 eligible for a lower rate, leaving university students to pay the full adult rates. This may contribute to young adults' hesitation to visit parks.

Parks Canada’s 2016-17 Report on Plans and Priorities stated youth are one of the demographics currently under-represented in its visitor base along with urban and new Canadians.

The plan promised more opportunities for Canadian youth and young adults to visit the parks through The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge Youth Ambassador Program, Canada’s Coolest School Trip Contest, the post-secondary Campus Club network and Students on Ice Program.

However, the plan attributed declining youth visitation partially to the changing needs and expectations of youth in Canada, but grade 12 student Nicole Smith disagreed.

“I feel like young people don’t have as much money or access to cars which makes some parks inaccessible to them,” said Smith. "It’s not that they are not interested it’s just that it’s unrealistic for them to be able to go.”

After 10 years of summer trips to Ontario provincial parks, Smith decided to take advantage of the free pass this year and plan a trip to her first national park, Bruce Peninsula.

Smith said she picked Bruce Peninsula because she’s heard how beautiful it is and it’s not too far compared to other national parks.

Summer is the peak season for Bruce Peninsula and it usually gets fairly busy. Parks officials are preparing for an even larger visitor turnout this year. Photo by Omri Chazot.

Unlike Harrap, Smith lives far from most major national parks. As a Torontonian, she has to endure a minimum four-hour and $700 plane ride in peak season to get to what Harrap can call his backyard.

According to a Statistics Canada report in 2011, 81 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas. Only 17 per cent of the rural population are aged 15 to 29, meaning most young adults live in urban areas.

“I think it only applies to the easy access parks,” Harrap said about the free Discovery Pass. For anyone who doesn’t live in the Rockies, it can be an extremely expensive journey just to get there.

Harrap said for someone planning a trip as far as Nahanni National Park Reserve in Northwest Territories, the cost of a Discovery Pass is insignificant compared to the amount they would spend on travel.

Northern Canada is home to some of the country's most beautiful national parks, but getting there often requires an aircraft and a long journey. Photo by Jordana Colomby.

Allan Shiff, President of the Canadian Society for Protection of Nature in Israel and advocate for the preservation of national parks, agreed the distance of Canada's parks is an issue preventing Canadians from visiting.

“We’re such a large country that it can be quite expensive just to get to the park,” said Shiff. He also said the cost and distance of travel might deter people from getting out to the parks, especially younger people.

As an avid hiker and frequent camper who just turned 80, Shiff stressed the importance of youth accessibility to the parks.

Allan Shiff reminisces about hiking the Bruce Trail, which ends near Bruce Peninsula National Park. Photo by Jordana Colomby.

“I think it would be wonderful if every young person could experience the far north, the West Coast mountains and the beauty of the Maritimes,” said Shiff. “It would be quite nice if the nation had a program of assisting younger people to get to parks.”

Currently, popular parks such as Banff and Jasper provide shuttles to the park. The lesser known and less visited parks such as Grasslands National Park, which is not far from either of those places, require visitors to drive in.

Shiff said parks are the most accessible to those who have mobility and can afford to travel.

Bruce Peninsula is accessible by car or Parkbus, which only runs four out of five routes in the summer while the Toronto Parkbus runs all year. Photo by Jordana Colomby.

“Some people save up money for their vacation other people don’t have that problem. And many people just cannot afford to get to that kind of experience,” he said.

Students often fall under the category of people who need to save up money for a trip or simply cannot afford to take one.

A 2015 survey by the Canadian University Survey Consortium found that students are paying off tuition fees mostly with the help of family or a spouse, but 49 per cent of students are paying their way through school partly or entirely funded by earnings from their current employment.

Payments only get harder as tuition rises. The same survey stated Canadian students saw a 3.2 per cent increase in tuition this past year.

Considering the survey also found the average debt of Canadian graduating students to be $26, 819, it seems the average student does not have excess cash lying around to shell out on a trip to the national parks.

“As a student, I come from a bracket that doesn’t have a lot of extra money around so my friends sometimes would avoid parks because of cost,” said Harrap.

Liam Harrap is pursuing a master of journalism degree at Carleton University where he is a member of the Parks Canada Outdoors Club of Carleton. Photo by Jordana Colomby.

Since getting there can cost more than the trip itself, a cheap travel alternative for students is hitchhiking. However, grabbing a ride from a stranger isn’t always as easy as the movies.

Harrap said while he does occasionally hitchhike, it isn’t the best option in the mountain parks. Most people who come in are visitors and he said they do not usually want to pick up strangers flashing their thumbs on the side of the road, and rightly so.

“It’s not uncommon for you to spend an entire day on the road and not get picked up by anyone,” said Harrap.

Due to Harrap’s central location he does have the benefit of a shuttle, but they aren’t always cheap. A one-way ticket on the Brewster Shuttle from Jasper to Banff is $74.

Ideally Harrap would drive, but since he sold his car after moving to Ottawa he usually relies on family or friends with a car for a ride.

Unfortunately, driving into the parks might be the most convenient option but it is not the most environmentally friendly option.

“It’s not uncommon for you to spend an entire day on the road and not get picked up by anyone,” said Harrap.

Former superintendent of Banff National Park, Kevin Van Tighem, said a big problem facing parks right now is the large number of vehicles.

“I think that everybody should get into the parks free every year,” he said. “We should be having to pay for our cars in the parks, but we should get in free.”

Unfortunately for conservationists like Van Tighem, the free pass covers parking which will encourage people to drive into the parks.

Both Harrap and Van Tighem agreed a lower cost for arriving on bike or foot would be a good incentive for people to leave their cars at home.

“I’ve always thought that one thing our national parks do not cater towards are people who come to visit the parks using self-propelled methods,” said Harrap.

However, Lynch said there is no fee exemption depending on the visitor’s mode of transportation.

“Everyone who comes into the park, if you come in on the train or a car or technically even if you come in on foot, as a visitor to the national park you’re supposed to have a park pass,” said Lynch.

Although Harrap supports decreasing traffic in the parks, he admitted finding a way to the parks without a car is a hurdle young Canadians face when trying to explore the national parks.

Keeping in line with Parks Canada’s efforts to attract more Canadians to the parks, in 2018 parks will be free for visitors under 18. However, this still leaves many Canadians searching for ways to make parks visits cheaper, particularly university students.

Harrap said he thinks parks are geared towards families and people with money, not young adults.

“It’s certainly not students,” Harrap said about Parks Canada’s target demographic. “It’s certainly not people that are orientated towards going into the backcountry.”

Harrap did not order a free Discovery Pass for 2017 because he doesn’t have plans to go anywhere besides back home to Jasper where he still benefits from free admission.

The costs and accessibility issues surrounding national parks won’t stop Harrap from exploring Canada’s great outdoors, but it will require some extra planning and saving wherever his next adventure takes him.

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