How many is too many visitors when the environment is at stake?
Sandbanks Provincial Park is always a focal point when it comes to environmental issues in the County. It is a unique ecosystem enclosed by the world’s largest baymouth barrier dune formation. Luckily for humans, this ecosystem is also a fantastic place to relax and have fun with its white sands and clear waters. For decades, this park has been a place to vacation and commune with nature. That, combined with the County’s newfound celebrity status, makes for a staggering number of people attending the park every year. In the 1980s the number hovered around 380,000. In the last 40 years, the number of park attendees has almost doubled, passing 700,000 in 2016. In the past few years there have been more announcements that park is “sold out”, and more talks of lineups “miles long” to get in. So, with that many cars in the area, and that many more feet on the ground, how is the park doing?
According to Park Superintendent Robin Reilly, the park is doing quite well. This season, the park had a decline in attendance due to poor weather and high water levels. But even banner years in attendance, like 2016 had, minimal impact on the park’s ecosystem.
“Beach ecosystems are very resilient, and they host a lot of species that aren’t affected by human interaction,”said Reilly.
Reilly also adds that poison ivy is a great ally for the ecosystem. It not only holds the dunes together with its roots, but it deters the public from straying off the marked paths. That makes things like garbage collection and supervision easier as well. It is nature’s own security guard.
As for the number of times the park has been “sold out”, the issue does not lie in number of people in the park, it’s the number of cars.
“When the parking lots fill up, people start to park in dangerous areas along the roads, making it unsafe to get to and from your vehicles,” said Reilly. He adds that in the off-season, the park is in the process of blocking dangerous parking areas with posts and other impediments. This will decrease the amount of people entering the park annually and provide a safer environment for patrons.
Local interest group Friends of Sandbanks has been voicing concerns in the past, but is impressed with the park’s maintenance.
“Every year I pick up one trash bag full of garbage from the West Lake bar, but I’m encouraged that I have to walk further each year to fill that bag. I’ve been on the Outlet Beach before 8 a.m. and in addition to the daily machine grooming, park student employees were hand-picking up garbage.”
But there are voices in the County that are still concerned. Not with the status of the park currently, but what the future holds for the park if the numbers continue to rise.
Terry Sprague was the Assistant Park Naturalist from 1984- 1992, and his concern lies in what the park is designated for.
“Sandbanks Provincial Park is designated as a natural environment park. It is a sensitive dunes system that is unstable, and has been talked about as such since the 1920s. When I was working at the park, we were told that when speaking to patrons, we were to always promote natural history, and stress the fragility of the dunes.”
With so many concerned parties, it looks like everyone is doing their part to make sure that Sandbanks Provincial Park is doing well and will be around for future generations to enjoy. This year, Outlet Beach received its Blue Flag designation, with the result being that the beach has been cleaner than ever before. One small reminder from the park next season; if you plan to go the park, try and avoid the midday. Plan on going in the morning or in the late afternoon to avoid the crowds. Oh, and stay on the paths, or the natural security guards will have at you.