Environmental, pro-tourism groups clash over development

Updated October 13, 2016

Remains of the old Icefields highway. Note the buffalo berry bushes.

Remains of the old Icefields highway. Note the buffalo berry bushes.


October 13, 2016. From the Jasper Fitzhugh.

Twelve of Canada’s largest environmental groups issued a joint statement calling on the federal government to prohibit any future development in Canada’s national parks–but not everyone agrees.

The group—which includes the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the David Suzuki Foundation—met with Parks Canada last week in Banff to discuss their concerns.

The groups are concerned Parks Canada has become too focused on increasing visitation and tourism instead of protecting the ecological integrity of Canada’s national parks.

The statement specifically asked the government to “say no” to the conceptual proposal to build overnight accommodations at Maligne Lake and the proposed bike path from Jasper to the Columbia Icefield. The statement also asked the government to “say no” to the Lake Louise Ski Resort expansion.

“We are saying ‘no’ to inappropriate development in our national parks, which would go against the mandate of our parks, which is to protect nature and wilderness habitat for the benefit of both current and future Canadians,” said Alison Ronson, executive director of the northern Alberta chapter of CPAWS.

“Over the last few years the message from Parks Canada is that people don’t visit our parks and that they need more visitors, but in fact what we’re seeing is park visitation has been up year-over-year for the last few years and that our parks can’t keep up with it.”

She pointed to traffic jams and the number of animals that have been killed this year as examples.

In August, Parks Canada confirmed it had killed at least five elk and a black bear in Jasper National Park this year. In Banff, six wolves have died of unnatural causes in the Bow Valley, according to the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

“It’s not the visitors’ fault. The parks are for people and we want people to connect with nature, but it needs to be managed properly so we don’t have these negative impacts on the parks, such as wildlife having to be killed,” said Ronson.

The Association for Mountain Parks Protection & Enjoyment (AMPPE) said it supports the responsible use of Canada’s national parks, but said there needs to be a balance between protection and development.

“Banff and Jasper National Parks are internationally renowned destinations that need to be protected–absolutely–but that also has to be in concert with providing a positive visitor experience through sustainable tourism,” said Casey Peirce, executive director of the pro-tourism organization.

“It’s important to remember that visitor experience is one-third of Parks Canada’s mandate. That dictates that infrastructure has to be maintained and improved in order to provide for the increasing number of Canadians and visitors that come here.”

She reaffirmed her organization’s support of the 107-km bike path from Jasper to the Columbia Icefield, and chided the environmental groups for misleading the public about the proposal to build overnight accommodations at Maligne Lake and the expansion at Lake Louise.

“Often the claims coming from these groups are emotional and they are not based on scientific evidence,” said Peirce.

“When you request the federal government to make changes in policy it’s very important to have scientific evidence behind it and I would ask where is that?”

Ronson shot back, describing Peirce’s comment as an “unfair assessment” of the groups’ statement.

“Our parks report that was released back in July contains all the references related to these statements, which in our estimation are all true.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being emotional. These are supposed to be Canada’s most protected areas, safeguarding nature and wildlife for current and future generations, we should all care about that.”

Parks Canada also weighed in on the debate.

“It should be noted that strict development limits are in place to protect the ecological integrity of national parks,” wrote Meaghan Bradley, a communications officer with Parks Canada’s national office.

“Parks Canada remains committed to a rigorous development review and environmental assessment process that ensures all development proposals comply with these limits and that a park’s ecological integrity is maintained or restored. Additionally, any development in national parks is managed through consultation with the public, stakeholders and Indigenous communities, and planning that is informed by science.”

According to Bradley, Parks Canada uses more than 600 independent scientific measurements to help inform its decisions about park-specific priorities and guide conservation investments.
She also noted that 97 per cent of Jasper National Park and 96 per cent of Banff National Park has been declared wilderness areas with strong limits on development and use.

Maligne Lake proposal

In November 2015, a federal court judge dismissed a legal challenge disputing Parks Canada’s approval of a conceptual proposal for overnight accommodation at Maligne Lake.

The judicial review was filed by Ecojustice on behalf of CPAWS and the Jasper Environmental Association–two conservation groups concerned that overnight accommodation at the lake would negatively affect threatened wildlife in the Maligne Valley.

Although the case was dismissed, the judge made it clear that in order for the tent cabins to receive full approval, there would have to be an amendment to the management plan, and such amendment could only be made by the minister of environment and climate change.

Brewster, which bought Maligne Tours in January 2016, did not respond to an interview request to confirm whether or not the company was still pursuing the project, however, according to Parks Canada, there are no proposals for development at Maligne Lake.

“For the Maligne Valley in Jasper National Park, there are currently no proposals before Parks Canada for development at Maligne Lake,” said Bradley.

Icefields Trail Project

In June, Parks Canada revealed plans to build a 107-km paved bike trail from Jasper to the Columbia Icefield.

The $66-million multi-use trail will run parallel to the Icefields Parkway and make use of areas that have already been disturbed, such as the old paved highway. The hope is that by building a separate trail it will improve cyclists’ safety.

Environmental groups fear the trail will damage caribou and grizzly habitat and point to it as the latest example of parks ignoring its mandate to protect the park.

AMPPE has been a strong supporter of the project since Parks Canada released details about it and urged those opposed to the project to wait for an environmental assessment to be completed before assessing its ecological impact.
Lake Louise expansion

In August, the federal government approved new site guidelines allowing Lake Louise Ski Resort to expand its operations.

The controversial decision would actually reduce the size of the resort’s leasehold by 669 hectares, but allow the resort to expand in other areas ultimately allowing it to double its current capacity from 6,000 to 11,500 visitors per day.

The plan includes more ski lifts, more ski hills, a new lodge and increasing the size of its parking lot.

Environmental groups and 11 former Parks managers are opposed to the plan, arguing that doubling the ski resort’s capacity is not an environmental gain.

Paul Clarke

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