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Parks Canada to close national parks, historic sites to vehicle traffic


Parks Canada is restricting access in national parks and historic sites after people flocked to the popular areas on the weekend.

The federal agency said it's still noticing lots of visitors despite the suspension of services and facility closures last week.

Officials are suspending motor vehicle access, starting Wednesday, until further notice.

"I know this weekend was quite beautiful across our great country, which leads many families to spend time outdoors in our parks and our heritage sites," Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who is responsible for Parks Canada, said Tuesday in a video posted on YouTube.

"We saw visitation rates soar."

Similar concerns have been raised in some Alberta communities within or near national parks.

Visitors on the weekend crowded the main street and nearby trails of Canmore, a small town just east of Banff National Park's gates. It led to concerns from residents about increasing the risk of COVID-19 in places with limited health-care facilities.

Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said the tourist town's main street wasn't too busy on the weekend, but people did crowd other popular areas within the park.

She said she fully supports Parks Canada's decision to restrict traffic.

"I'm glad they've done it," Sorensen said. "We are not set up for visitors right now.

"Medical services get lifted right up to the top of reasons not to visit."

Wilkinson agreed that crowding on trails and at day-use areas is unsafe.

"It increases the risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus."

He said the restriction on vehicles includes parking lots and trailheads at all national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas.

Ontario closed its provincial parks on Thursday until April 30 to protect the health of employees and visitors. Gates have been put up at park entrances and buildings are locked.

British Columbia also added restrictions Tuesday after a surge in weekend traffic.

"The mental and physical wellness benefit of being outside during the COVID-19 pandemic response is important, but keeping people safe right now is the most important thing we can be doing," B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman said in a news release.

He said certain parks will be fully closed until health officials can get a handle on the virus.

Parks Canada said in a news release that highways and roadways through the national parks will remain open for residents, but people are urged to stay home unless travel is essential.

Commercial and truck traffic will also be allowed on those corridors, including the Trans-Canada Highway through Banff National Park and Yoho National Park in B.C.

Officials said parking won't be permitted on highways and roadways through the areas.

"We are asking all Canadians to respect these restrictions," Parks Canada said.

Staff will continue to perform highway maintenance, snow removal, fire response, dam operations and water management, as well as avalanche forecasting and control in the mountain parks.

Officials with Avalanche Canada, however, said the final forecast of the season will be issued Saturday due to a lack of available data and over larger concerns about the health-care system.

"We do not want to provide a service that promotes recreating in mountainous terrain, where there is often a significant hazard," executive director Gilles Valade said in a release. "Both B.C. and Alberta have declared a state of emergency.

"Our health authorities, as well as our prime minister, are urging people to stay home. This is clearly not the time for taking any sort of risk."

Rescue groups asked backcountry users last week to choose low-risk activities at a time when health resources are stretched due to COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 24, 2020

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

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