Marmot expansion may occur despite threat to caribou

Updated August 7, 2015

  • Parks Canada is not closing the door on more development and expansion at Jasper National Park’s Marmot ski hill, even though a commissioned study concludes expansion will harm endangered caribou.
    PARKS CANADA PHOTO

From : Rocky Mountain Outlook August 5, 2015

Parks Canada is not closing the door on more development and expansion at Jasper National Park’s Marmot ski hill, even though a commissioned study concludes expansion will harm endangered caribou.

At the same time, the federal agency continues to explore the feasibility of reintroducing caribou into Banff National Park, where a remnant herd was wiped out in an avalanche in 2009, and to augment dwindling herds in Jasper through a captive breeding program.

Scientists are worried Parks Canada is giving in to commercial interests over protecting an endangered caribou herd, in particular the Tonquin herd, whose northeastern potion of its range takes in Marmot Basin ski area.

Mark Hebblewhite, a renowned caribou expert who has studied caribou in both Banff and Jasper, said it’s unethical to think about reintroducing caribou into Banff and Jasper, while at the same time considering development that would harm the struggling Tonquin herd.

“Taking caribou from somewhere else to fill in holes in the dike, while at the same time thinking about more commercial development, is unethical and irresponsible,” said Hebblewhite, an associate professor in the University of Montana’s wildlife biology program.

“Any expansion is basically going to destroy critical habitat during winter for a federally endangered species. Parks Canada’s own risk assessment shows there’s no way you can expand the ski resort without further harm to the caribou.”

Parks Canada commissioned the third party assessment to help them determine whether or not to consider, in a future long-range plan, proposals to develop ski lift access in the Outer Limits and Tres Hombres areas.

The caribou risk assessment is also meant to inform decisions for managing off-piste skiing and other human uses in the Whistlers Creek drainage.

Led by Fiona Schmiegelow, one of the country’s leading caribou researchers, the independent study looked at the effects development and expansion of the ski hill would have on caribou. It was completed more than a year ago, but was never made public by Parks Canada.

Schmiegelow decided to go public with the assessment after John Wilmshurst, who commissioned the report, was abruptly fired as Jasper National Park’s resource conservation manager in June.

Her risk assessment found there is considerable evidence to categorize the Tonquin caribou herd as not self-sustaining. The current numbers in the herd are estimated to be about 38 individuals – and that’s the largest herd in south Jasper.

Schmiegelow, a University of Alberta biology professor, said the recovery strategy for southern mountain caribou identifies all areas of high elevation winter and or summer range as critical habitat, which would include Marmot Basin ski area.

Roads and trails and snow compaction already give wolves far easier access into caribou habitat, and developing additional areas for human activity will only make matters worse for caribou, she said.

“New developments within the Tonquin range could exacerbate current conditions, and therefore would not be consistent with the need for active recovery efforts to address threats to the rapidly declining Tonquin caribou population,” said Schmiegelow.

The assessment concluded new ski area development in the Tres Hombres and Outer Limits areas could significantly increase the number of people in the Whistlers Creek area, and that Tonquin caribou winter habitat selection, predominantly during late winter, has already been reduced within a buffer of approximately five kilometres of the presently developed area.

“This avoidance is not explained by predation risk, suggesting that late winter avoidance of Marmot Basin is a result of human activities,” said Schmiegelow.

“New developments are not consistent with population recovery objectives, and mitigating options for existing developments should be implemented.”

In June, the federal government approved a long-range plan for Marmot Basin that allows expanded snowmaking, additional parking and transportation access, upgrades to the Caribou Chalet and some tree thinning for glade skiing.

But any proposed developments for Tres Hombres and Outer Limits, which the ski hill indicated it would advance in a future additional long-range plan, were waiting on the results of the independent caribou risk assessment.

Greg Fenton, superintendent of Jasper National Park, said Parks Canada has still made no decisions on ski hill development for Tres Hombres and Outer Limits, and likely won’t until fall.

“We are still reviewing the report,” he said. “There has been some preliminary analysis by my staff and when there are final recommendations to me, I will have a discussion with Marmot Basin about those recommendations and then I will make a decision.”

Fenton said Parks Canada still plans on moving ahead with a captive breeding program as part of its caribou conservation plan. Earlier this year, the Calgary Zoo pulled out of a partnership, which they cited was due to lack of funding from Parks.

The cost to construct a captive breeding facility is estimated between $2 million and $3 million, with operating costs between $300,000 and $500,000 per year. There are now considerations to include a visitor centre as part of the program.

Fenton said the B.C. government has conceptually agreed to provide caribou for the breeding program from some its herds, but Parks Canada is still looking for a location for the breeding facility.

“The animals would be raised to augment existing herds in Jasper, focusing on the Maligne, Tonquin and Brazeau,” said Fenton. “And we’ve always said the vision and goal is also herd reintroduction in Banff in the north end.”

Jasper National Park has four main herds. The northern A la Peche herd, estimated at less than 100 caribou, spends most of its time outside the national park. In recent years, surveys suggest the A la Peche population has declined.

Three additional herds of caribou are found in the southern part of Jasper National Park, spending most, if not all, their time within the national park. The three herds use distinct regions of the park and rarely interact.

In total, their numbers are estimated at approximately 55 animals and have been declining. The largest herd in south Jasper is the Tonquin herd with 38. The other two herds, Maligne and Brazeau, both have less than 10 animals.

Schmiegelow’s report concluded when caribou on provincial lands in Alberta and B.C. are at risk from industrial development – given wolves have greater access into traditional caribou range with roads and seismic lines – national park herds are more important than ever.

“Recovery actions for caribou populations with ranges within national park boundaries are urgent and can inform and potentially influence the outcome of management decisions for surrounding populations,” she said.

Hebblewhite said Parks Canada should do everything possible to save the Tonquin herd, noting the risk assessment should be the centrepiece of Parks Canada’s decision-making, not business interests.

“It’s the biggest herd solely within the national park system,” he said. “The Maligne and Brazeau herds are basically the walking dead.”

Hebblewhite said he believes any future expansion at Marmot Basin would be contestable in court under the Species At Risk Act (SARA).

“It would be very difficult for a federal government to fight for development in critical habitat. I think it would be suicidal,” he said.

Hebblewhite said the Lake Louise ski hill – which is proposing massive growth and expansion and has had its site guidelines to guide future development approved – also falls within caribou range.

“I don’t see logically why it’s not critical habitat. People may say that’s because there’s no caribou, but there has been no official decision that wrote off caribou in Banff National Park as extirpated,” he said.

Article by Cathy Ellis

Rocky Mountain Outlook

Tonquin Caribou Risk Assessment

Updated July 25, 2015

JEA COMMENTS

Parks Canada had refused any development by Marmot Basin into the wilderness area of its lease in the Whistlers Creek Valley since 1981 because of possible adverse effects on woodland caribou and mountain goats. However, in 2008 it decided to consider development expansion into the valley depending on the results of an independent two-year caribou study. The study was completed in March 2014 and the JEA understood it would be available to the public last fall but all requests to obtain it since then were refused.

The Report on the Tonquin Caribou Risk Assessment was finally released this week – but not by Parks Canada. It was released by Dr. Fiona Schmiegelow, the report’s lead author, citing the abrupt firing last month of Dr. John Wilmshurst, Jasper’s Resource Conservation Manager, as the catalyst for her decision to make the report public.

The 62-page report and its 97-page appendix show only too clearly the importance of Whistlers Creek Valley to the caribou, the dire straits the Tonquin caribou herd is in and steps that should be taken to avoid disturbance of this endangered population that has dropped from approximately 111 in 2006 to 54 in 2011.

Download the pdf Report on the Tonquin Caribou Risk Assessment

A man of science, a source of inspiration

Updated July 7, 2015

From The Jasper Local by Bob Covey

 

Fired from Parks Canada

Dr. John Wilmshurst

Deep inside the JNP warden compound, through the entrance to the Resource Conservation wing and past a series of cubicles, on June 19, an office door was left ajar.

Taped to the office door were dozens of messages of support for a man who was no longer allowed to go through it. Dr. John Wilmshurst was fired from his post as Resource Conservation officer on June 11.

Neither Parks Canada officials nor Wilmshurst would provide a statement about the firing, but the messages, as well as a photo of a smiling Wilmshurst which was also covered in well wishes, said a lot.

“Best manager I’ve had in 33 years,” one note read.

“A source of inspiration,” said another. “Still our Chief.”

“Forever our leader.”

After a seven year stint as a grasslands ecologist in Winnipeg, where he performed work which won him a CEO Award of Excellence from Parks Canada, Wilmshurst came to Jasper in 2008 as JNP’s Science Coordinator. He occupied that post for four years before transitioning to the role of caribou program project manager—a project which spanned all of Canada’s mountain parks. When former Jasper Resource Conservation Manager Steve Otway retired in 2012, Wilmshurst was hired for the job, heading up approximately 50 employees working in Jasper.

Since becoming a biologist for the national parks, Wilmshurst’s speciality had shifted from behavioural ecology to conservation biology tending towards wildlife management. His teams’ work have been guided by a seminal Parks Canada report in 2000 which helped usher in an era of using ecological integrity as a measurable management tool. The report’s authors were part of a Panel of Ecological Integrity, a committee created in 1998 after the Liberal government promised to do a better job of protecting Canada’s natural heritage.

“In Canadian national parks, ecological integrity has evolved from a scientific idea into a management system. It connects science to management,” Dr. Stephen Woodley, who was on that panel Panel on Ecological Integrity, wrote in 2010.

Critics of the current government point out its unwillingness to take meaningful steps to address climate change, despite scientific evidence calling for stricter emissions targets, for example. Meanwhile, Wilmshurst has been featured in the national media speaking to the potentially catastrophic effects of not adapting to curtail climate change. In a 2014 story produced by the Canadian Press and picked up by the CBC, Huffington Post, McLean’s and other major news outlets, Wilmshurst described research he and his colleagues were doing on the melting Athabasca Glacier. He predicted that the ice could be gone in his children’s lifetime, a statement supported by recently-published research out of the University of British Columbia.

“The information that we’re getting is pretty clear that climate is warming,” he told the camera. (Climate change) is definitely something that is happening and it’s happening because of our activities.”

Wilmshurst was a well-regarded boss, as evidenced by the messages which adorned his former office door, Words such as “inspirational” and “dedicated;” “integrity” and “kindness;” and “defending” and “standing up” were peppered throughout the thank-you notes.

Those last two verbs, at least according to theories some Jasperites are putting forward, could be telling as to Wilmshurst’s dismissal. The Jasper Environmental Association presumes that Wilmshurst was fired because he chose to carry out his job according to his high principles.

“The faceless individual who took this step is part of a bureaucracy that has become so poisoned with suspicion and intolerance that anyone who does their job according to what they believe is best for a national park is now in danger of facing this kind of draconian measure,” JEA Chair, Jill Seaton, has said.

The Jasper Local has learned that JNP’s Integrated Land Use Planner, Sean Cardiff, will act in the Resource Conservation Manager position in the interim.

Bob Covey  – The Jasper Local

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jasper’s top conservation manager fired

Updated July 5, 2015

john

From the Rocky Mountain Outlook July 2, 2015

Jasper National Park’s resource conservation manager has been fired, raising questions among conservationists and scientists about why and whether it is part of a larger pattern of dismantling the scientific capacity at the federal agency.

Multiple sources have confirmed John Wilmshurst was given his walking papers on June 11. He was second in command in Jasper, behind superintendent Greg Fenton, where he has been resource conservation manager since October 2012.

Wilmshurst declined to comment and has hired a lawyer.

The reasons for the sudden departure of Wilmshurst, who is a staunch defender of science and passionate about wildlife conservation and habitat protection according to colleagues, remain a mystery.

Parks Canada is not commenting.“This is a human resources matter and Parks Canada does not comment on issues of this nature,” said Parks Canada spokesperson Kavitha Palanisamy.

Stephen Woodley, who retired as Parks Canada’s chief scientist three years ago after a 34-year career with the federal agency, said Wilmshurst is an excellent scientist.

“I worked with him for many years and he’s an outstanding scientist and this is a huge loss to Parks Canada,” said Woodley, who now works with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“I’m a bit astonished. He gave fearless advice and loyal implementation, which is the hallmarks of a good civil servant,” he added.

“He was very objective. All good scientists are highly skeptical of information that comes before them and he was willing to ask the tough questions.”

As resource conservation manager, Wilmshurst led a team of 35 people working in wildlife biology, ecological research and monitoring, aquatic ecology, fire and vegetation management, public safety, search and rescue and emergency dispatch.

Wilmshurst was Parks Canada’s project manager for the protection and recovery of endangered woodland caribou populations from January 2011 to October 2012.

Jasper’s southern mountain caribou population totals approximately 150, and all herds are struggling. He led meetings in Edmonton and Jasper when delayed recreational access to caribou winter habitat in Jasper was announced.

In addition, Wilmshurst has also been involved with work surrounding ongoing protection of harlequin ducks on the Maligne River. The mid-Maligne river has been closed by Parks Canada to commercial rafting since 1999.

Wilmshurst was also the ecosystem science coordinator in Jasper during the development of Brewster’s Skywalk and he and his scientific staff participated in environmental assessments and research and monitoring associated with the project proposal.

Around the same time, he was also co-supervising a goat study from the University of Laval on goats at Marmot Basin ski area with renowned goat expert Steeve Cote, to try to understand the potential effects of ski area development on goat populations.

Conservation groups, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Jasper Environmental Association and Bow Valley Naturalists, have long expressed concern that the science capacity of Parks Canada is being dismantled.

“The federal government hand in hand with powerful business interests has brutally crippled a once proud department,” said Jill Seaton, chair of Jasper Environmental Association in an emailed statement.

In the past several years, scientists from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Parks Canada and Environment Canada have either been dismissed or left the government service, and programs and research facilities have lost their funding.

“I speak to many colleagues inside the organization and there is a significant chill about providing strong advice on conservation,” Woodley said.

Wilmshurst was given Parks Canada’s CEO Award of Excellence in 2009, as a member of a team who worked on principles and guidelines for ecological protection in Canada’s protected natural areas.

He was also given Public Service Award in 2012 in recognition for his scientific contribution as a member who conceived and implement a restoration and monitoring program for Grasslands National Park.

Cathy Ellis

Rocky Mountain Outlook

 

 

 

Letters regarding the dismissal of Dr. John Wilmshurst

Updated July 4, 2015

It’s all about money in our parks

Posted from The Jasper Local  July 1, 2015

Does Parks Canada recognize the path they are going down?

It is with deep sadness that I learned of the recent dismissal of Dr. John Wilmshurst as the head of Resource Conservation in JNP. John was dismissed last week “without cause,” which in government “new speak” means that he was not dancing to the tune that the current administration is playing on the jukebox.

In recent years Parks management have shifted their priorities from ecological integrity to enhancing attractions and developing visitor experiences in the Parks. This shift is thought to make national parks more relevant to Canadians and provide attractions which will bring more visitors and their money to the parks. It’s all about money!

In this shift they have fallen into the trap of dreaming up an ever increasing stream of   new ideas to attract more visitors without considering if these activities are even appropriate to the parks or what the impacts on the park, animals and environment might be.

The Harper government and Parks Canada have been putting science under the microscope for years now and only support science when it supports the current political agenda. Often staff members who dare to speak up are muzzled or sidelined by management.

John Wilmshurst is one of these people. He is a scientist and a man of integrity, principles and values. He stood strongly for the environment and national parks and felt that he had a moral and ethical duty to speak up.

He paid the price for this integrity.

Stand tall John and be proud, we are with you.

Sincerely yours, Terry Winkler (Parks Canada employee until 2012)

 

Connecting observations

Posted by:  Posted date: June 24, 2015 In: ArchiveLetters To The Editor |

Dear Editor,

My heart sank into deep sadness when I learned that Dr. John Wilmshurst had been fired as the Head of Resource Conservation in Jasper National Park.

I feel the pain and tough implications this has for the family as much as it has for this National Park and our community.

John is a highly skilled, smart man with high values and standards for ecological and personal integrity, people skills that allowed him to rebuild a team out of a group of employees that were left shaken and demoralized after the dubious staff cuts of 2012 and he understands the essence and fibre needed to create community fabric.

These elements put together grow resilience—something either Parks Canada or this current government don’t seem to value, because people displaying qualities such as John displayed can’t be manipulated or “bought” easily, so “best” to cut them out; this way the rest of the organization will go back without question to the new agenda of “attracting more money” rather than being prudent about protecting this National Park and our community for those who come after our time.

Who do we have left as genuine mentors for the greater good of wholeness in this National Park?

When will we stand together? What has to happen for us to stand for each other, rather than our own personal agenda? What has to die for us to move from “me” to “we”?

The divide and conquer method currently being applied will kill us all one by one and it will not stop within the organization of Parks Canada, it will affect Jasper and our country in its entirety.

I know most don’t want to hear this.

Can we finally learn from the animals in this Park? It seems to me the elk stand together.

Can we make the connection from wolf predation/caribou to visitor experience—big business/integrity?

Can we make the connection from cougar mother/juvenile cat (and it’s death) to mentor/young inexperienced or silenced staff?

I could come up with more of those. All along our wildlife has been trying to teach us about how we humans are connected to the wildness of life and instead we “manage” in strange ways, and those like John who are awake get “cut out” so not to disrupt the slumber and comfort of others—sad—or we could choose to wake up.

John, our heart is with you and your family. Stand proud and tall, you have every reason for it.

Ursula Winkler
Jasper, Alta.

Fired for what reason?

Posted by:  Posted date: June 17, 2015 In: ArchiveLetters To The Editor | comment : 0

Dear Editor,

Jasper National Park’s Manager of Resource Conservation has been fired for no stated reason but anyone who knows Dr. Wilmshurst is well aware of the great love and deep concern that he has for this park. So we may presume that he was fired because he chose to carry out his job according to his high principles, extensive knowledge and considerable experience to fulfill Parks Canada’s mandate to protect Jasper National Park for future generations.

Whether this demonstrably underhanded order ultimately came from the federal government or senior Parks Canada staff in Ottawa is irrelevant. The faceless individual who took this step is part of a bureaucracy that has become so poisoned with suspicion and intolerance that anyone who does their job according to what they believe is best for a national park is now in danger of facing this kind of draconian measure.

There is honour in Dr. Wilmshurst being fired for following the high standards of protection for Canada’s revered national parks. Nothing but dishonour can be ascribed to those who see fit to getting him out of the way so they can follow the government agenda without question or conscience.

The federal government hand in hand with powerful business interests has brutally crippled a once-proud department. Thousands of staff have either lost their jobs or voluntarily left the now noxious atmosphere of these magnificent areas protected over a century ago by a far-sighted government to become an integral part of Canada’s heritage and psyche.

If we are not to lose these areas altogether to commercialization we need to ensure that highly principled staff like Dr. Wilmshurst are permitted to voice their concerns so Parks Canada may begin to return to its mandate to protect these wild places and their wildlife for future generations of Canadians and visitors from around the world.

Jill Seaton (Chair)
Jasper Environmental Association

There’s good reason to worry

Posted by:  Posted date: June 17, 2015 In: ArchiveLetters To The Editor | comment : 0

Dear Editor,

Another cold, grey pallor has settled down on the town of Jasper, another unsettling and unnerving quiet smothers the June streets. We all feel the icy cold stabs of disbelief, shock and outrage as it whips through the town, with a bite more vicious than a December north wind—the unprecedented dismissal of JNP employee John Wilmshurst has stunned the JNP family and the community of Jasper.

I grew up in JNP and in a Park Warden family; until this date, there has never been such a perplexing and gut wrenching act, as the recent dismissal of John Wilmshurst, a good and honourable man, who for five years was the science coordinator for the Mountain Parks, and recently (in old time Warden lingo), the Chief Park Warden of JNP.

The big question is WHY? But here’s where things get confusing; severely vexing with shades of questionable political grey. Many of us are concerned about the way things are now being conducted, with regards to managing our national parks. How can a man as highly regarded and respected as John be treated in such a disrespectful fashion? What could he have done to warrant this dismissal? Some speculate he was a marked man. Could he have challenged the dogma of a paranoid and protective government?

Many of us are aware that PC staff are ordered “not to talk”, trained PC media personnel spin a coloured yarn with efficient brain washing, interwoven with layers of secrecy that seem to be insidiously attached to managing our national parks.

John Wilmshurst is a decent man that shrink wraps integrity and honesty around his thin frame. During the PC open house in 2013, over 200 winter users of JNP, packed toques and merino wool into the basement of the Crimson Hotel. The heated topic was caribou conservation and why PC was closing a vast majority of JNP to winter users. He stood up, with hundreds of upset eyes boring into him; he explained and defended PC’s position with humour and conviction. I could see the inner frustration build, as John, the scientist tried to explain the complexities concerning the importance of caribou conservation. He passionately said, “I’m not going to give up on a single animal.”

I’ve worked on many trail related matters with John; he was on one side of the table, in a PC uniform, and I on the other side, trying to defend and promote trail use. These sides often clash; it takes effort and perseverance to understand each other, but at the end of the day, we remained friends and shared many trail and street side laughs. I will really miss John.

What were the real reasons behind the dismissal of John Wilmshurst? If he was terminated for political reasons, the words of Shakespeare come to mind, “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark” and there is good reason to be worried.

Loni Klettl
Jasper, Alta.

Resource Conservation Manager fired in Jasper National Park

Updated June 17, 2015

Firing of senior Jasper Park employee remains a mystery

 

Posted by:   June 17, 2015  

A senior employee with Parks Canada was unexpectedly fired from his job last week for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery.

Multiple sources confirmed John Wilmshurst, the science and resource conservation manager for Jasper National Park, was fired on June 11.

Wilmshurst was second in command after Greg Fenton, the superintendent for Jasper National Park.

His sudden departure sent shockwaves through Parks’ offices and the community.

“We were shocked to hear that John Wilmshurst has been let go by Parks Canada,” said Alison Woodley, national director for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), in an emailed statement. “As a scientist John has made an enormous contribution to protecting Canada’s national parks, through his work in Grasslands National Park, as well as in recent years in Jasper.

“CPAWS and others have expressed serious concern since 2012 that the science capacity of Parks Canada is being dismantled,” she said referring to the budget cuts and mass layoffs that took place three years ago. “This news raises even more concern about the future of science and scientists in our national parks.”

Parks Canada refused to confirm or deny Wilmshurst had been fired.

“With regards to your query about John, this is a human resources matter and Parks Canada does not comment on issues of this nature,” said Kavitha Palanisamy, communications officer for Jasper National Park, in an emailed statement.

Wilmshurst also declined to comment.

News of Wilmshurst’s termination has sent the rumour mill in full motion and led numerous community members to reach out to Yellowhead MP Jim Eglinski, looking for answers.

When reached in Ottawa, Eglinski said he looked into it, but received little information.

“I went to the minister’s office and inquired,” he said, referring to the Minister of Environment, “and I have been told it’s an internal matter between Parks Canada and the employee, Mr. Wilmshurst, and they will not be making a public statement in that regard.”

Eglinski declined to speculate why Parks would fire one of its top conservationists.

“I don’t know if you can point the finger at Parks Canada, it doesn’t matter what corporation, if they decide to downsize the corporation, or terminate a person, or let a person go, that information is between them and that person.

“I don’t think it’s of public interest, even though the public would want to know why those people are going, but there shouldn’t be a legal obligation for either party to tell the public about it.”

Paul Clarke
reporter@fitzhugh.ca

Marmot to expand snowmaking, long range plan approved

Updated June 14, 2015

Notes from JEA:

This Fitzhugh article concerns the first part of Marmot Basin’s long range plan. The second part will be released sometime in the next two years and that will include Marmot’s expressed desire to expand into the Whistlers Creek Valley, a critical wildlife travel corridor and habitat for mountain goats and the endangered woodland caribou.

However there is a component of this first part that we were given to understand would be tackled by Marmot Basin but which has now been delayed to the second part – mass transit. Mass transportation systems are now in use in many parks in the U.S. and there is no doubt that one would be the best solution for Marmot Basin. It would do much to lessen wildlife mortality on the 12 km access road running through a wilderness area that is important habitat for moose, caribou, lynx and bears.

Both the 2007 Strategic Environmental Assessment and the 2008 Marmot Basin Guidelines for Development and Use indicated the “Use of mass transit will be the primary means to address parking issues”. Marmot is putting this off and in the meantime will cut down 600 trees to enlarge its present parking areas for an increase in car numbers from 1000 to a total of 1,630 – with a “future option of developing a parkade structure”.

The only way to ensure the public will use a mass transit system is to disallow the use of cars on the hill. Marmot appears to be doing the opposite.

Article from the Fitzhugh June 11, 2015

ChairliftChillinSA

R. Fletcher photo

After nearly a decade of work, Marmot Basin’s first long range plan was approved last week, allowing the ski area to move forward with four projects, including the expansion of its snowmaking operations.

The long range plan outlines the projects Marmot wants to undertake in the next five to 15 years.

As well as building a brand new snowmaking system, which includes a reservoir that will hold 10 million gallons of water, Marmot’s long range plan also includes plans to expand its parking lots and its lower chalet and thin forests on Milk Run, Elevator Chutes and Little Chicago.

“We’re going to have some very busy years ahead of us to get this all done,” said Dave Gibson, president and CEO of Marmot.

“The primary project for us is going to be the snowmaking,” said Gibson, noting that the hope is to have the new system in place by 2017—although he admits that’s in an ideal world.

“We’re still trying to figure out the real costs for the snowmaking system, and it will be very expensive. By the time you build a reservoir, put all the piping in the ground, and all this other stuff, you’re talking several million [dollars].

“In an ideal world we’re at 2017 and you’re probably looking at 2018 or 2019 before we do anything else,” he said referring to the other projects in the plan.

Marmot’s long range plan is based on the Marmot Basin Site Guidelines approved by Parks Canada in 2008.

As well as outlining projects that Marmot hopes to undertake, the plan also includes a reduction in the ski area’s leasehold, with the Whistlers Creek area—about 118 hectares of land—being returned to Parks Canada.

“If you flip that over into … Canadian football fields, not American football fields, it’s the equivalent of about 150 Canadian football fields,” said Greg Fenton, superintendent of Jasper National Park. “It’s a very significant gain for the environment, but it also means a significant gain or enhancement to the visitor experience.”

Fenton said the return of Whistlers Creek was important for the protection of species at risk, like the caribou, that frequent the area.

With an approved long range plan, Fenton said it will expedite the approval process as Marmot moves forward with its four projects.

Marmot will, however, still have to go through the development process and provide the required environmental assessments for each of the projects. But, in some cases, some of that work has already been completed for the long range plan, so it reduces what needs to be accomplished moving foward.

“It certainly paves the way to get the project done relatively quickly, probably not for this ski season, but it helps them to advance that very expeditiously, given the scope and scale and magnitude of the project, because it’s a big one,” said Fenton of the new snowmaking system.

To provide snow to the mid-mountain area—on Paradise Run, Marmot Run, Basin Run, S Turns and Roll Out—the plan is to build a reservoir on a piece of land between the base of the old Kiefer T-Bar and the old triple chair.

“That’s a section of land that we’ve looked at for years,” said Gibson. “So what will happen now is the consultants were up last Tuesday [June 2] and they’ll start looking at that area and they’re going to put together a design proposal for us.”

While the reservoir engineers work on that, Golder Associates will work on an environmental assessment and Snow Machines, Inc. will design a pump house for the reservoir, as well as the piping that will go up the road to the top of the mountain.

“It’s a big job, there’s no doubt about it. But we’ll get it done,” said Gibson.

Snowmaking is a big part of Marmot’s early season strategy, allowing the ski area to open in mid-November.

“It’s been a big benefit to us and our employees and also the community of Jasper,” said Gibson. “I was here when we opened Marmot Basin at the end of November, I’ve also been here when we’ve opened two days before Christmas. If we’re not open, there’s not an awful lot happening in the community of Jasper and I feel that responsibility.

“So now with that snowmaking system on the lower part of the mountain, unless something really goes wrong, we’re pretty well guaranteed we can get open Remembrance Day, middle of November.

“It will be the same thing with the snowmaking on the upper part of the mountain. The sooner we can get that open, the sooner we can get people here in the restaurants and hotels and all that. That’s important to us.”

Nicole Veerman
editor@fitzhugh.ca

Parks takes a step back from RV camping at Jasper Airfield

Updated June 5, 2015

picnic-area2

Note from the Jasper Environmental Association:

Under the Freedom of Information Act the Jasper Environmental Association received more than 300 pages of papers that were part of the process prior to the decision by Parks Canada to put forward the present airstrip day-use area as a group RV campground. While the final decision is now on hold while other sites are considered the airstrip site is still on the list of possibilities and “could still see group RV camping for up to 12 RVs”

In view of the very strong arguments against the proposed project that Jasper National Park biologists and other staff put forward we have to wonder how it ever got to the stage that it did before sliding to at least a temporary halt. The released documents contain page after page of concerns from experts regarding the importance of this rare grassland area and the use of this riverside corridor by large carnivores and other wildlife.

There were also questions regarding the whole concept of catering to group RV camping which, by its nature is “louder and more disruptive to other campers”. The under-staffed Law Enforcement Branch didn’t want it either. There may be a very good reason that there are none of these serviced group sites in the Rocky Mountain National Parks and are even rare out in the province of Alberta. It seems Parks Canada saw a chance to make money and was hoping to locate one far enough away from other campers where only the wildlife would be disrupted. 

Maybe Parks should follow its own Guiding Principles and Operational Policies 4.3.2: ‘To avoid impacts on park ecosystems and to contribute to regional economic development the location of commercial services and facilities should take place in adjacent communities.’

From the Jasper Fitzhugh June 4, 2015

Parks Canada is taking a “step back” from its plans to develop an unserviced RV campsite at the Jasper Airfield and is considering other locations for a similar group campsite.

“What we wanted to do was take a step back and look at the changing needs or the growing demands that we get from campers, particularly RVers, for group RV camping,” explained Greg Fenton, superintendent of Jasper National Park.

This reexamination does not, however, take the airfield off the table for group RV camping, he said. Rather, Parks is analyzing other possible sites to see if they can fill the need, as well as provide service hookups, but down the line, the airfield could still see group RV camping for up to 12 RVs.

Earlier this year, Parks was criticized for its proposal to provide group camping opportunities for RVs at the airfield because the area includes sensitive grasslands that could be negatively affected by increased human activity. It was also criticized for its lack of communication about the proposal.

Fenton said, although Parks heard those concerns, that’s not what’s causing the agency to take a step back. It’s just that the demand shows RVers want a group site with hookups.

Currently, that’s a service that isn’t available in the park.

“The majority of the demand for RVs is usually for serviced sites, that’s why we have been—as part of improvements in the past—moving to electrification of more sites at Wabasso Campground, Whistler Campground and Wapiti.

“But we haven’t really met the sort of niche market, if you wanted to call it that, or the demand for group RVing. That’s what we originally had looked at trying to do [at the airfield].”

The airfield, however, would only be appropriate for short visits as it wouldn’t include hookups for water, sewer or electricity.

Parks is now considering the possibility of group sites within its existing campgrounds, specifically Whistlers, Wabasso and Wapiti.

“[We’re] really looking at all of the existing campgrounds to see if we can meet some of that growing demand.”

To pay for the necessary upgrades, Fenton said Parks will be receiving some federal infrastructure initiative funds—although those funds haven’t yet been announced.

Parks’ analysis of possible sites is currently underway and Fenton said that when more is known the public will be notified and given an opportunity to submit feedback.

“As we make decisions on where the group camping opportunities might be in the existing campgrounds, we’ll certainly make those known to interested public, including residents.”

Fenton said he expects there won’t be any decisions until next year at the earliest.

In the meantime, work is being done at the airfield—which Parks is now calling the Athabasca Terrace Day Use Area—to “formalize” the site.

That includes installing fencing to delineate where people can drive and park, installing a small arbour for weddings, improving the seating at the site and upgrading the picnic shelters.

Fenton said that work will be completed this year.

“The other thing that will take place is easier access,” he said. “I’m not sure if it will be an online booking tool, but [we’re] looking at the possibilities of reservations, similar to camping reservations.”

He said if bookings don’t move online, at the very least, Parks will update its website to include information on how to book, what the fee is and what you get for that fee.

Nicole Veerman
editor@fitzhugh.ca

Is promoting major bike events Parks Canada’s new mandate?

Updated February 26, 2015

Although Parks Canada repeatedly says it has no money for monitoring wildlife populations, for enforcement or for repairs to trails, it finds money to contribute $60,000 to a Tour of Alberta bike race on the 2015 September long weekend.

Now it is considering this Gran Fondo race in June. June is the month when the ungulates are having their young, when returning migratory birds are nesting and when the bears are moving down to the valleys. In other words, one of the most critical times of year in what is supposedly a protected place.

Gran Fondo bike race planned for Jasper

Posted by:  Posted date: February 25, 2015 In: ArchiveFeatureNews | comment : 0

gran_fondo

Creative Commons photo

Jasper’s cyclists are abuzz with anticipation of the arrival of the Tour of Alberta in September, but what they might not know is Jasper is just a few steps away from hosting another major road cycling event this summer.

Trevor Soll, the president of Multisports Canada, submitted paperwork with Parks Canada late last fall to host a Gran Fondo bike race in Jasper June 13 and 14.

While Parks Canada hasn’t yet given the full go-ahead, in an interview Feb. 19, Soll said it has given him “conditional approval” to hold the race.

A Gran Fondo is a long-distance road cycling event in which a large number of cyclists are individually timed as they race a marked route.

Fondos have gained popularity in North America over the last five years, and Soll has wanted to hold an event like this in Jasper since that rise began.

“[Jasper] is the perfect venue for it—the roads are great and it’s one of those untapped markets: Jasper has nothing like a Gran Fondo right now,” he said.

With the Tour of Alberta rolling through town later this summer, he said his event will be a good test for people to get a glimpse of what a major road cycling event in Jasper will look like.

But it’s not just a road bike race that Soll hopes to bring to Jasper in June. Along with the Gran Fondo June 13, he also hopes to pull off a triathlon the following day.

Soll will need support from the municipality on top of permission from Parks to make all this happen. At a council meeting Feb. 17 the municipality’s culture and recreation director, Yvonne McNabb, brought the information to council.

According to McNabb, Soll’s proposal is for a Gran Fondo bike race that would see more than 200 participants sign up. Three distances would be available for the race—160, 100 and 65 kilometres—which would follow some of the same routes the Tour of Alberta cyclists will ride (such as Highway 93A and the climb to Marmot Basin).

Each distance will be open to anyone aged 16 or older.

The triathlon on June 14 will consist of a 750-metre swim, a 26-kilometre bike ride and a 5-kilometre run. There will also be a “try-it” race, with shorter distances for those looking to test the triathlon waters, and a “Kids of Steel” race for young children.

Soll said the event will be a family-friendly one with opportunities for parents and kids to take part in all kinds of different races.

He also mentioned, and McNabb confirmed, that at this point he is not asking the municipality for money, simply for support in closing roads and using some of its facilities.

He will also be looking to partner with a local charity that he hopes will provide volunteers in exchange for a donation from his organization, and fundraising from race participants.

On March 2, Soll will meet with Parks Canada representatives and other interested parties to hammer out the details of the event.  He said he is currently working through a pile of documents to get everything ready, but he remains confident the race will go ahead.

“The good thing is [Parks] sees the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Trevor Nichols
reporter@fitzhugh.ca

Official Secrets: Parks mum on airstrip campground

Updated February 13, 2015

jasper national park, athabasca valley, Jasper Environmental Association, Parks Canada, campgroundn

Riverbank wildlife habitat

Posted by:  Posted date: February 11, 2015 In: ArchiveLetters To The Editor | 

Dear Editor,

Margaret Atwood wrote: “The best way of keeping a secret is to pretend there isn’t one,” but from the secrecy surrounding a development proposal at the airstrip one would think Parks Canada was running a spy agency rather than a Canadian national park.

In answer to a direct question from the Jasper Environmental Association, a persistent rumour was confirmed that Visitor Services is planning a campground at the day-use airstrip picnic area for the somewhat convoluted reason of meeting “demands for groups travelling together with a mixed array of camping units.”

We asked for an open process of decision-making but Parks says it is “following its routine processes and will provide an opportunity for public feedback at an appropriate time.” This invariably comes after they have prepared an environmental assessment to oil the way for the project, which may be followed later by a few mitigations to appease the public.

Does Parks intend to cater to every variable of passing trends and whims of tourism? It is already financially unable to maintain its present infrastructure. How can it afford to install the numerous utilities required by this “mixed array” of campers? Rather than destroy this lovely riverside area, why not open more sites at Whistlers or Wapiti or let Hinton benefit from this kind of campground? How will Parks enforce protection of the grasslands area? What about Parks’ commitment to its status as a Dark Sky Preserve?

Apparently the site was chosen from a list of seven. Where are the other six? Parks says they didn’t fit the criteria because they had “the potential to create impediments for wildlife movement and displace wildlife from their habitat.”

Riverbanks are critically important as wildlife habitat and movement corridors and in 1999 Parks recognized this by closing the Jackladder waterfront site and carrying out a controlled burn to create more grassland. To now propose a campground in the middle of it indicates a blatant disregard for Parks’ legislated protection of ecological integrity.

In its unseemly haste to provide the ultimate in “visitor experience” Parks seems to have forgotten why visitors come to the national parks in the first place. According to polls, questionnaires and surveys they choose overwhelmingly to experience what remains of unspoiled wilderness ­and the magnificent species that live here—even though Parks Canada and Tourism Jasper try hard to sweep those polls under the carpet.

Jill Seaton
Jasper, Alta.