Feature 

Managing in the mountains

Banff conference looks at issues associated with bringing people to the mountains

For the last year I have been carefully watching the transformation of the town of Golden from a logging-based economy to one based on tourism. As with most ski resort developments, Golden is now going through some crucial decisions as far as human impact on the environment.

Interestingly enough, this was the topic of a recent conference at the Banff Centre for Mountain Culture. From June 10 to 14 researchers, park managers, mountain enthusiasts, tour operators and planners gathered in the Alberta Rockies for the first Human Use Management in Mountain Areas (HUMMA) conference to examine how to measure and mitigate human impacts on mountain environments. Those impacts could be as simple as a footprint or as complex as the cumulative effects of human presence in a wildlife corridor. But as the conference brochure warned: Mountain environments are among the most fragile on earth. They are also among the most visited.

Golden is one of the most recent mountain towns to grapple with the issue of balancing man and nature, with its transformation to the Kicking Horse ski area. It’s a balancing act I’ve been following through production of the Goldenrush film, which will chronicle Golden’s transformation from logging town to resort.

The transformation is interesting, but so is the goal of drawing more people to the mountains. All over the world, mountain environments draw visitors and residents in ever-increasing numbers. In some mountain regions of the United States, population growth over the past decade was three times the national average. Whistler was one of the fastest growing towns in Canada for much of the 1990s. Every year more than four million people visit Banff National Park and in the United States more than 10 million visit the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and environs. Internationally, mountain areas face cultural and environmental impacts as sports-oriented mountain tourism grows in popularity.

It’s a question Golden is just beginning to deal with. As conference speaker Dr. Robert Manning, professor of natural resources at the University of Vermont said: "How many visitors can ultimately be accommodated in our national parks and related areas before the integrity of natural and cultural resources is threatened, and the quality of the visitor experience is degraded?"

Manning, who has worked with the U.S. National Park Service to develop and apply systems for measuring carrying capacities of protected areas, was part of an impressive list of speakers at the conference.

Bob Aitken is a freelance research consultant and writer from Scotland. His Ph.D. dissertation was on wilderness areas in Scotland (Aberdeen University, 1977), but for the last 20 years his expertise has been in designing sustainable trails or paths resulting in minimal damage to the surrounding environment.

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