‘Secret’ memo reveals origins of Icefields trail project

Updated April 12, 2017

Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park

Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park

From the Fitzhugh, April 12, 2017

By Paul Clarke

The origin of the Icefields Trail project has remained shrouded in mystery since it was quietly announced in the federal budget in March 2016, but a secret memo obtained by the Fitzhugh reveals Parks Canada started talking about the idea in December 2014.

According to a memo to the minister of the environment and climate change, in December 2014 executives with the mountain parks discussed the concept of constructing a 230-kilometre trail that would link Jasper to Lake Louise. The memo was stamped June 30, 2016.

The memo stated the estimated cost to complete the project at that time was $160 million over five years according to an assessment conducted by an independent engineering consulting company. The cost estimate was further informed by work undertaken to build the Legacy Trail in Banff National Park.

The trail was initially shelved because there was no funding available at the time, however in February 2016, Parks Canada revisited the project after a request from the Department of Finance for infrastructure proposals that could be completed within two years.

“Given the two-year constraint Parks Canada submitted a proposal with a reduced scope of work from that which was envisioned in the 2014 proposal,” the memo states.

The 2016 budget allocated $65.9 million for the 109-km trail from Jasper to the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre over two years with Parks Canada chipping in another $20.5 million to complete the project during the third and final year for a total of $86.4 million.

According to the memo, the $65.9 million included money for an environmental assessment and design work for the 123-km segment from the Discovery Centre to Lake Louise, but due to time constraints and construction costs no money was allocated to build it.

A briefing note from April 2016 shows construction of the trail was originally slated to begin in early 2017 with the trail completed by the fall of 2018. By the end of June the schedule was revised with a targeted completion of March 2019, according to a memo signed by Daniel Watson, the chief executive officer of Parks Canada.

The documents that reveal this timeline were among more than 500 pages of emails, memorandums to the minister and draft communication strategies, that were obtained under Freedom of Information legislation by researcher Ken Rubin and provided to the Fitzhugh through a third party. Parks Canada failed to provide a comment before press deadline.

The new information follows a federal report by the standing committee of the environment and sustainable development, which recently found it was difficult to understand the decision-making process for development projects in Canada’s national parks.

“While there will always be people who disagree with some development decisions, the committee itself discovered that it is difficult to understand the decision-making process,” the report stated.

“For example, despite repeated questions to numerous witnesses, the committee was unable to determine what process led up to the announcement in budget 2016 of a $65.9 million investment for a new biking and walking trail in Jasper National Park. More transparency in decision making is required.”

Wayne Stetski, the NDP’s Parks Canada critic, said this was the first time he had heard anything about the origins of the project.

“That’s news to me,” Stetski said, who participated with the committee.

“We asked several people at various levels in Parks Canada if they could tell us where that came from in terms of pointing to a document, preferably a public document, that had been vetted, that had an environmental impact assessment done, that had community consultations done and there was nothing that we could find anywhere.”

Alison Woodley, national director for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), said the documents show a lack of transparency.

“Clearly there was a whole lot of planning going on behind closed doors,” said Woodley.

“The process that has unfolded to date is completely out of line with transparency, with the mandate and with the responsibility to manage our parks on behalf of Canadians.”

According to Parks Canada, the idea of the Icefields Trail project is based on the 2009 Icefields Strategic Concept, which briefly states the need to “develop” and “explore” options to enhance cyclists’ needs. Parks Canada has also said the project is part of the management plans for both Jasper and Banff National Parks.

Woodley described Parks Canada’s defense of the trail as “misleading.”

“This is not in the management plan, regardless of what Parks Canada has said to the contrary, which I find to be misleading, this is not in the Jasper park management plan.”

She said the proposed project should have been made public before it was included in the 2016 budget.

“From reading the document it seems like once the money was announced in the budget it became more about spending the money than about the park.”

“The good news is that Parks Canada is now saying that it’s not a done deal and that seems to be a change from what shows up in those documents, which is a positive change, so there’s still an opportunity to reconsider this.”

 

Minister should reject bike trail

Updated April 8, 2017

Editorial by Paul Clarke

April 6, 2017

Anyone who has lived in Jasper long enough knows by now that the number one priority for Parks Canada is to protect the ecological integrity of Canada’s national parks, yet time and time again it seems that this priority plays second fiddle to development.

The latest example is the proposed Icefields Trail project. The project envisions building a paved bike trail from Jasper to the Columbia Icefield, cutting through critical habitat for grizzly bears, woodland caribou, the common nighthawk and whitebark pine, all of which are listed to varying degrees under the Species At Risk Act.

While these animals might get the most attention because of their perilous situation, let’s not forget about other animals, such as black bears, wolves and sheep, not to mention the thousands of lodgepole pine trees that will be cut down.

Take a minute to let that sink in.

On top of this, when Parks Canada initially released details about the project it said it would have no net ecological or culture impact. It’s hard to image how cutting down thousands of trees and paving a 107-km swath of forest will not damage the environment.

Initially as a newspaper we were inclined to support the trail, but after listening to environmentalists, attending public consultations and reviewing hundreds of internal documents between Parks Canada staff, it’s clear that this bike trail has no place in a national park.

Here’s why.

According to Parks Canada’s charter, the agency’s first priority is to protect “the natural and cultural heritage of our special places and ensure that they remain healthy and whole.”

Supporters of the bike path will undoubtedly point to another part of charter’s mandate which states Parks also has a duty to “foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment” of Canada’s national parks.

While this is indeed true, it doesn’t negate the fact the agency’s number one priority is to protect the park’s ecological integrity. Full stop.

In March, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna made it clear during a meeting in Banff that she sees ecological integrity as a top priority.

In fact, she went as far as saying that protecting ecological integrity will be front and centre in every decision she makes.

If she truly means what she says, rejecting the Icefields Trail project should be a no-brainer.

Public consultations for the Icefields Trail project will wrap up on April 24. From mid-July to mid-August, the draft version of the direct impact analysis will be available for review and by September a decision will be made.

Let’s hope the minister remembers what she said in Banff when she sits down to make her decision.

Aggressive timeline to build paved bike trail

Updated April 8, 2017

Woodland Caribou of the threatened Southern Mountain herd  Image by Donald M Jones

Woodland Caribou of the threatened Southern Mountain population
Image by Donald M Jones

From the Fitzhugh, April 6, 2017

By Paul Clarke, Editor

Internal documents and emails about the proposed Icefields Trail project show pressure from Ottawa to build the paved bike trail as quickly as possible, despite concerns from the local field unit that moving too quickly could put the entire project in jeopardy.

Less than a month after the federal government promised $65.9 million for the proposed trail in 2016, Jasper National Park Superintendent Alan Fehr expressed concern with his superiors that the schedule to build the proposed trail within two years was not feasible and could put Parks Canada’s credibility at risk.

“We have an opportunity to bring people along on this amazing project, but we need the time to have meaningful consultations with the various stakeholders,” Fehr wrote in an email on April 19, 2016.

“To avoid flak received during construction of the Skywalk we need to, again, meaningfully involve Canadians. I think there will be support, but we need to show that we’re taking care of their park. As we all know, how we achieve goals is as important as actually achieving them, and, in the case of Indigenous peoples and some special interest groups, our credibility is at stake.”

The documents, which includes more than 500 pages of emails, memorandums to the minister and draft communication strategies, were obtained under Freedom of Information legislation by researcher Ken Rubin and provided to the Fitzhugh through a third party. Parks Canada did not respond to an interview request to comment on the documents.

According to a briefing note, construction was originally scheduled to begin in early 2017 with the trail completed by the fall of 2018 in order to meet a request by the Department of Finance to finish the infrastructure project within two years. The project is now slated to be completed by March 2019.

Even with a revised schedule, Parks Canada staff with the local field unit continued to express their concerns with the aggressive timeline, which initially included launching public consultations in the fall of 2016.

At one meeting last October, there was a suggestion that the project could be a model for meaningful Indigenous and public consultations, however the push by the government to deliver the project quickly risked damaging those efforts.

“To do this well and honour Indigenous desire for reconciliation, we need more time.”

Minutes from the same meeting seem to show Parks Canada staff worried about the optics of the project.

“Call it (a) bike lane, not trail. ‘Trail’ is setting off amber flags for a number of constituents.”

Public consultations for the project officially got underway in Jasper on March 14.

The controversial project envisions building a paved bike trail from Jasper to Wilcox Campground, near the Columbia Icefield. The total budget is $86.4 million.

The majority of the 109-kilometre trail will parallel Highway 93 and use existing trails, portions of the old road, and existing bridges where possible.

During the meeting several residents questioned whether public consultations ever have any impact given the last time consultations were held, for the Glacier Skywalk, it was approved despite strong opposition.

In response Parks reminded the public it is only a proposal at this time and said that if there are “significant adverse affects” that can’t be mitigated by changing the design it would not to move forward on the project.

Alison Woodley, national director for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), which has seen the documents, said it reinforced that the project should not be going forward.

“The documents clearly identify that this is going to run through critical habitat for four species at risk, so that in and of itself should be enough to stop this,” said Woodley.

“The most worrying of this is the Brazeau caribou herd, which is clinging to life, and two of the threats Parks Canada has identified in its caribou strategy are habitat fragmentation and loss and human pressures and both of those are going to be increased by this project.”

She said she was shocked to see Parks Canada staff discussing ways to get permits to destroy critical habitat.

“If critical habitat for endangered species isn’t safe in a national park, where is it safe?”

She also pointed out that what’s even more revealing is what was not found in the documents.

“Nowhere in that document is there ever any mention that this is a world heritage site,” said Woodley. “Clearly the agency is not taking that seriously.”

A 2016 background document suggests Parks Canada officials have some of the same concerns, particularly when it comes to induced development.

“Trail use is likely to be high and will induce further development … or at least demands for further development.”

According to the documents, pullouts and rest stops may need to be built every five to 10 kilometres and the trail would also need to be connected to campgrounds and other infrastructure, which would require more asphalt. The documents also mention the possibility of building trail spurs to Athabasca and Sunwapta Falls, but there is no money set aside in the current plan for either. The cost to maintain the trail once it’s built has also not been considered.

“This is not going to be one corridor, this could lead to a whole new raft of development pressures in those sensitive valley bottoms,” said Woodley. “That is completely out of step with the legal priority that ecological integrity be the first priority in all aspects of park management.”

In March, Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change, told an audience in Banff that the government was committed to a renewed focus on ecological integrity and conservation.

In the documents there was also plenty of concern about mitigating environmental damage and human-wildlife conflict, particularly between grizzlies and cyclists.

Some of the suggestions included manually removing berry bushes along the edge of the trail or using herbicide. Other suggestions included, reducing the speed limit, clearing long sightlines and encouraging cyclists to carry bear spray.

In January CPAWS called on McKenna to reject the proposed trail and reinvest the $86.4 million to restore science and conservation programs.

“When you look at what their legal priority is and the behaviour on this project they’re completely out of sync,” said Woodley. “This is inconsistent with their mandate, it’s inconsistent with their commitments and it’s just another indication that the Parks Canada agency is more focused on tourism development than on conservation.”

 

Jasper – Icefields Bike Trail

Updated March 29, 2017

Cyclists on the Icefields Parkway  – Calgary Herald Staff photographer

Cyclists on the Icefields Parkway – Calgary Herald Staff photographer

Parks documents show controversy over planned Icefields Parkway bike path

Bob Weber, Calgary Herald, March 29, 2017

It sounds like a no-brainer — a bike trail alongside a world-famous scenic highway through two of Canada’s best-loved national parks.

But Parks Canada documents show the proposed trail down the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper raises a host of complications, from damage to wildlife habitat to safety concerns and increased development pressure.

“It might sound like an innocent trail, but it also comes with other considerations,” said Alison Ronson of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, which has opposed the current proposal.

The most recent federal budget contained $66 million to develop a 107-kilometre bike trail from the Jasper townsite to the Columbia Icefields along the parkway. The trail could eventually extend all the way to Banff.

Cyclists currently hug a narrow shoulder along the highway. Parks Canada is proposing a separate, paved route buffered from the busy road by 10 to 20 metres of trees.

Parks Canada is conducting public consultations on the idea.

Environmental groups have expressed concerns about it. Documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation by researcher Ken Rubin and provided to The Canadian Press suggest Parks Canada officials have some of the same qualms.

“Trail use is likely to be high and will induce further development … or at least demands for further development,” reads a 2016 background document.

Pullouts and rest stops may need to be built every five to 10 kilometres. The trail would also have to be connected to campgrounds and other infrastructure with more asphalt. Those pressures are not considered in the current plans or environmental assessments, the document says.

The trail would lead through critical habitat for bats, olive-sided flycatchers and two threatened species — the mountain caribou and the whitebark pine.

Wetlands along the trail are “insufficiently mapped,” the documents say. A salt lick for mountain goats would have to be considered.

The trail could also create encounters between cyclists and grizzly bears. Grizzlies are drawn to berries that grow where trees have been cleared, the documents note, adding cyclists are less likely to carry bear spray and travel quietly at much higher speeds than hikers.

“Some mitigation measures could have relatively significant costs which should be factored into decision-making,” the documents say.

The documents show Parks Canada is wary of public concern.

“Call it (a) bike lane, not trail,” says one. “‘Trail’ is setting off amber flags for a number of constituents.”

Parks Canada was unable to provide a staff member to discuss the documents.

The agency has previously said it is trying to find ways to widen its appeal beyond traditional visitors.

“Developing new services and visitor offers, such as the Icefields trail, allows more Canadians, including youth and newcomers, to experience the outdoors and learn about our environment.” spokesman Steve Young said in an email last summer.

Parks Canada’s management plans for the parks do include expanding cycling opportunities. But Ronson said that could be done by expanding the shoulder of the current highway. The documents say that would be difficult to engineer, given the terrain.

Ronson’s group has already calculated the amount of paving needed for a trail along the entire highway would be the equivalent of 116 football fields.

The total budget for the project is about $86 million. Ronson said that money would be better spent on Parks Canada’s primary job of protecting and studying park environments.

“Over the last few years, their budget has been cut so much that we don’t see enough interpretation or education now,” she said.

“This is really egregious when you consider the cuts to the science and conservation programs in the park.”

Bob Weber

 

Icefields Bike Trail Controversy

Updated March 23, 2017

Open house for Icefields bike trail set

Thursday, Mar 16, 2017 06:00 am

Rocky Mountain Outlook

By: Cathy Ellis

As Parks Canada gets public feedback on an $87 million paved bike trail along the Icefields Parkway from Jasper to the Columbia Icefield, the federal agency is also gearing for a plan to extend the trail to Lake Louise.

Parks Canada officials say, based on the outcome of public consultation on the Jasper portion of the trail, they may do project planning this year to extend the trail south to Lake Louise along Highway 93 North.

“In order to maximize savings and achieve efficiencies that may exist, consultations for the Icefields Trail South would build on consultations for the Icefields Trail North,” said Steve Young, a spokesman for Jasper National Park.

A public open house has been set for Friday (March 17) at Banff Park Lodge at 7 p.m. on Parks’ controversial proposal to build a 109-kilometre paved trail from Jasper to Columbia Icefield and Wilcox Campground.

The three-metre wide paved trail would follow the east side of the parkway for most of the route, but cross to the west side from Athabasca Falls to Mount Christie picnic area, and Tangle Hill.

The proposal would see the trail cross the highway at least five times, at level crossings with signs and markings. The crossings are planned to get people to attractions and accommodations on the opposite side of the road.

Most of the trail would go through an outdoor recreation zone that covers about 100 metres either side of the highway, but about seven kilometres would run through declared wilderness along an abandoned road near Beauty Flats to avoid wetlands.

Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN) has serious concerns with the proposal, saying while cycling is a carbon-friendly way for visitors to enjoy the park, a new trail built 20 to 30 metres away from the road in grizzly bear habitat is not the way to do it.

BVN says widening the shoulder would be better for cyclists than what’s existing, provide for better views, increase bear and rider safety, be significantly cheaper to build, and, from an ecological perspective, reduce the amount of critical valley bottom habitat lost.

“An easy solution would be to widen the shoulder,” said Reg Bunyan, a member of BVN’s board of directors and a retired resource conservation officer with Parks. “I bet $87 million could go all the way to Lake Louise.”

BVN believes there is potential for bears and human safety to be compromised, noting riders will be cycling through “bear central.”

They say the narrow valley and high elevation snow tends to concentrate bears in the valley bottom during the short summer season, with roadside bear sightings typically in the hundreds per year.

Bunyan said there’s also potential for riders to push a surprised bear into traffic on the highway, or worse, roadside bear jams could scare a bear into cyclists on the bike path.

“It’s not good for bears and not good for people. Somebody will get hurt and bears will be killed,” said Bunyan. “It’s a recipe for human-wildlife conflict.”

BVN also doesn’t buy into the argument that this is a family-friendly pathway.

It won’t be like the Legacy Trail between Banff and Canmore, they say, which runs within a fenced highway corridor, safely separated from wildlife, is close to amenities, with cellphone coverage, multiple start and stop points and to emergency services.

“That’s not the case at all along the Icefields Parkway,” said Bunyan.

Casey Peirce, AMPPE’s executive director, said it would be a safe and accessible way for people and families and other users to enjoy Jasper National Park without the use of a vehicle.

The trail would provide new ways to bring people to the parks, she said, noting it will help people fall in love with nature, thereby boosting conservation efforts because people will want to protect the places they love.

“It’s a win for the environment in terms of lowering the carbon footprint in the national parks,” Peirce said.

“It’s a win for cyclists and hikers and recreationists in general. It’s a new and exciting way to see such an iconic place in the world.”

Peirce believes a bike path away from the highway will be a much safer experience for cyclists.

“I’ve ridden on that road and most cyclists will agree it can be quite dangerous. It’s quite treacherous in terms of the speed some people travel on the road, and the fact the shoulders are non existent,” she said.

“The new pathway will be a joy to ride.”

Extending the new trail all the way to Lake Louise also has AMPPE’s backing. “I would support the extension from Jasper all the way to Lake Louise because then it becomes a route with an end point,” she said.

Casey points out that cycling is one of the fastest growing sports in North America. “The demand is definitely there to provide bike trails,” she said. “We’ve certainly seen that with the success of the Legacy Trail.”

Even though $87 million for the bike path between Jasper and the Columbia Icefield is already dedicated in the federal budget, Parks Canada’s Young said the project is not a done deal.

“We’re trying to gather input on, ‘is this is a good idea or not?’ ” he said. “No decision has been made. It’s not a for sure, for sure.”

___

In answer to the above statements by Ms. Peirce

Rocky Mountain Outlook

March 23, 2017

Dear Editor

In a recent interview with the Rocky Mountain Outlook the executive director of AMPPE, Casey Peirce, surmised that a bike trail away from the Icefields Parkway would be a safer experience for cyclists. However, we understand safety has not been an issue with the shoulder of the highway but it almost certainly will be on a trail winding through grizzly bear habitat.

Ms Peirce believes this bike trail will be a win for the environment in terms of lowering the carbon footprint. Unfortunately this trail and its access roads will necessitate cutting down thousands of carbon-storing trees; transporting materials – something in the order of 179,000 cubic meters of gravel, drain rock and asphalt in excess of 22,000 truck-loads; not to mention annual maintenance on the trail. In addition, the extraction of the huge amount of gravel from the borrow pits can hardly be achieved without the use of fossil fuels.

Ms Peirce points to the success of Banff’s Legacy Trail as an example. But is it realistic to compare a ‘family-friendly’ 22-kilometer trail – fenced to exclude wildlife and unaffected by avalanches, rockslides or washouts – with a proposed trail through critical grizzly bear habitat in steep terrain and typically unpredictable mountain weather far from emergency services in case of an accident?

The idea that this is a “win for cyclists” needs to be examined against the fact that it will definitely be a loss for two of Jasper’s most sensitive and at-risk species – grizzly bears and woodland caribou. Bears will attempt to continue to feed along their roadside habitat but if the trail is built their only retreat from the highway will be across the bike trail and if frightened off the bike trail they will head across the highway. In terms of one of Parks Canada’s favourite analogies the bears will be losing 82 “football fields” of scarce valley-bottom land and for over 7 kms the trail is proposed to wander off into the late spring/early summer habitat of the threatened Brazeau caribou herd.

This proposal ignores the Jasper management plan that lists two of its most important challenges as being: “the status of woodland caribou” and “the regional grizzly bear population”. Under Key Strategies, Parks commits to: “Ensure activities and facilities do not have any additional impact on key wildlife corridors”.

How can Parks Canada go against its own management plan and justify spending $86 million dollars to undertake massive construction work that will do irreparable harm to over 100 kilometers of valley-bottom wildlife habitat in a national park and World Heritage Site. All this for a trail that may be used for at most four months of the year by cyclists who already have a perfectly acceptable highway shoulder that merely needs some basic repairs and the addition of one meter in width?

Jill Seaton

 

 

 

 

John Wilmshurst’s letter to the Jasper Fitzhugh

Updated February 10, 2017

Last week’s Fitzhugh was hard to read.  It was at once hopeful and heartbreaking.  I was encouraged to see Parks Canada cracking the door on openness with the public about the serious issues facing this park.  Alpine ecosystems in decline, grizzly bears dying at unsustainable rates, cougars killed in Jasper and Parks Canada giving up on mountain caribou.  How heartbreaking it is to see the decline of our home, and it begs the question: in the absence of such magnificent wildlife, what does Jasper protect? What is here to which visitors can connect? A highway, a ski hill, a bike path, a town, a golf course, a pipeline?

National Parks were, and continue to be, established to preserve Canada’s natural heritage for current and future generations. We have unfortunately demonstrated time and again, that in the absence of such protection, this heritage is squandered. Because of this, national parks should look, feel, and be managed differently than other places. This is not an easy task, but it is what we have entrusted Parks Canada to do; to make the case for wilderness even when it is inconvenient to do so.

As I read the paper last week, I felt that I was watching Canada’s established national myth of wilderness slip through my fingers. I, like all of us, am culpable in being unwilling at times to support the difficult decisions to protect what I now enjoy. By neglect, I am complicit in deciding that a Jasper without grizzly bears, caribou, cougars, and a healthy alpine still reflects Canada’s natural heritage. Future generations are counting on me, on us, to do what it takes today so that tomorrow, their connection is real, not imagined.

John Wilmshurst

Jasper, AB

How to spin a bike trail

Updated January 19, 2017

Parks Canada sign in Icefields Parkway caribou habitat

Parks Canada sign in Icefields Parkway caribou habitat

From The Fitzhugh January 19, 2017

Dear editor,

According to a recent press release from the minister of environment and climate change, the idea of the proposed Icefields bike trail is based on the Icefields Parkway strategic concept and Jasper and Banff National Park management plans but, oddly enough, we find there is no mention of a separate bike trail in any of these documents.

The strategic concept says merely that Parks would ‘explore options’ for cyclists and the Jasper management plan echoes the same phrase. The Banff management plan proposes to “provide 2 km of bike trail between Bow Valley Parkway and Icefields Parkway” to enable cyclists to avoid using the Trans Canada Highway but nothing is suggested that is not already in place with the shoulder on the Icefields Parkway that has been used by cyclists for decades.

Parks Canada says it has learned ‘a lot of lessons’ from the Legacy Trail that runs between Banff and Canmore. That’s odd because the Legacy Trail is only 22 km long and entirely fenced from natural hazards. It is safe from avalanches, mudslides, rockfalls and fast-flowing water; there are amenities at both ends and cell phone coverage. There have been a number of accidents on the trail, but it is easily accessible by ambulance.

How can one compare this ‘family-friendly’ Banff-Canmore trail to an unfenced 107 km bike trail through mountainous terrain with frequent extreme weather conditions and prime grizzly habitat with potentially dangerous wildlife encounters?

We now await the environmental assessment on this surprising plan to spend $86 million of taxpayers’ money on what could essentially be a three-month per year one-activity boondoggle. It will be interesting to see how Parks picks its way through the minefield of unmonitored wildlife populations as well as upcoming stipulations of the strategic action plan under the Species at Risk Act to protect the ‘threatened’ caribou herd whose habitat covers more than 20 km of the proposed trail. No doubt the words ‘minimum’ and ‘mitigations’ will figure prominently to help pull the wool firmly over the public’s eyes.

All that is realistically needed is a good repair job and some limited widening of the present parkway shoulder so experienced bikers can continue to enjoy it.
The money was prematurely allocated in the federal budget for this specific ‘Icefields Trail’ and Parks will fight to keep it, just as those who care about their irreplaceable national parks should fight to stop it.

Jill Seaton
Jasper Environmental Association

Price tag for Icefields Trail Project jumps to $86.4 million

Updated January 10, 2017

Part of the old Icefields highway in caribou habitat

Part of the old Icefields highway in caribou habitat

A proposed trail from Jasper to the Columbia Icefields will cost an extra $20.5 million.

A controversial project to build a paved bike trail from Jasper to the Columbia Icefields will cost significantly more than first thought.

According to Parks Canada, the proposed trail will cost an extra $20.5 million, which it will pay through its infrastructure investment program.

The estimated price tag to build the 107-km trail is now $86.4 million. Parks Canada said the total cost is based on the outcome of consultations and a detailed impact analysis.

In March, the Liberal government earmarked $65.9 million in the federal budget for the consultation, design, and construction of the trail.

“When we first were looking at it we were trying to come up with what we thought would be a rough estimate of a total price,” said Alan Fehr, superintendent for Jasper National Park.

“In budget 2016 they put $65.9 million towards this proposal and it was determined that if there was more money required that Parks Canada would take care of that out of the infrastructure investment fund that we have,” he said, explaining the money is coming from Parks’ national capital budget.

In June, five environmental groups voiced their opposition to the project citing a lack of public input. The groups also said they feared a paved trail would damage critical habitat for endangered species.

In a press release published on Jan. 6, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) called on Catherine McKenna, the minister of Environment and Climate Change, to reject the project.

“This proposal is inconsistent with the federal government’s stated commitment to limit development in our national parks, and their legal obligation to put ecological integrity first in all aspects of park management.”

“It is also contrary to Parks Canada’s obligations to protect species at risk in the park, as the proposed trail would fragment and destroy critical habitat for threatened woodland caribou and sensitive grizzly bears, and disturb and potentially displace wildlife through its use.”

Jill Seaton, chair of the Jasper Environmental Association, echoed those concerns, but said her organization would prefer to see Parks Canada widen the shoulders of the highway rather than create a new trail.

“It would be nice to have something down there, but they’ve already got it. They’ve got the shoulder of the highway, make it wider, that’s all they need to do.” said Seaton.

She said she’s also concerned about where they are going to get the gravel to build the trail.

“If they’re collecting it in the park then there goes their ecological integrity right there.”

According to Parks Canada, the project is based on the Icefields Parkway Strategic Concept, which was guided by a public steering committee and included Indigenous representation. The agency also said the project is part of the management plans for both Jasper and Banff National Parks.

While Jasper’s management plan doesn’t specifically mention a paved trail from Jasper to the Columbia Icefields, the Banff management plan mentions it four times.

It states: “Complete a long-distance cycle route from Canmore to Jasper that enables users to avoid travelling on the Trans-Canada Highway, by developing a cycle route connecting the Bow Valley Parkway and the Icefields Parkway.”

According to Parks Canada, the 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, and could be extended to Lake Louise. Public consultations will begin in early 2017 with a targeted completion date of March 2019.

“We’re in the conceptual phase of this project, it’s a proposal,” said Fehr.

“The next phase of this project is consulting the public, consulting indigenous peoples and hearing what they have to say and then us doing some of our own leg work to ensue there aren’t any significant environmental impacts.”

He said public consultations will begin within the next few weeks, including a series of public meetings. There will also be an online component and Fehr said Parks intends to publicly share a draft of its detailed impact assessment with the public.

“We want people to see what the potential issues are and how they might be mitigated and then based on that information then the minister will make a decision whether we’re going to proceed or not,” said Fehr.

Despite his reassurance, Seaton cast doubt about whether public consultations will actually amount to anything.

“They always have public consultations, but do they listen to them?” asked Seaton.

“People are voicing their opinions already about the tremendous expense it’s going to be and quite frankly their press release sounds as though it was written by the tourism industry.”

CPAWS called on the government to use the money to restore science capacity and conservation programs and urged Canadians to voice their concerns about the proposal.

The Association for Mountain Parks Protection & Enjoyment (AMPEE), a vocal supporter of the project, said it supported the government’s detailed impact assessment process.

“AMPPE believes in the federally mandated impact assessment process that ensures the responsible usage of our mountain parks and the protection of the wildlife within,” wrote Casey Peirce, executive director of the pro-tourism group.

“We are also excited at the prospect of providing Canadians and visitors from around the world with the opportunity to experience our mountain parks in in an environmentally friendly way. What better way to embrace sustainability and reduce our carbon footprint than by leaving the car at home or the hotel to explore the iconic Icefields Parkway by bike?”

Fehr acknowledged that some people are concerned, but pointed out that the area is already zoned for this type of activity.

“The one thing I think people forget is that the area along the highway is zoned as outdoor recreation so this trail is not going to be a wilderness trail. It’s going to be a multi-use hiking and biking trail that’s going to be predominantly within the outdoor recreation zone.”

According to Fehr, the outdoor recreation zone extends 100 metres from the centre line on both sides of the highway, however the proposed trail will likely only be about 20 to 30 metres off of the highway.

“It’s not going to be on the outer edge of the 100 metres, it’s going to be closer so that as people wind their way through they’ll get a sense that they’re in a natural setting, but they’re safe,” said Fehr.

During the telephone interview he played down concerns about paving the trail, explaining that it will reduce maintenance costs and provide a more enjoyable experience for people with strollers and wheelchairs.

“It’s not being designed for hardcore cyclists to go from Jasper to Wilcox Campground in the morning and then back again. This is intended for recreational use, for people to connect with nature.”

He said Parks Canada has learned a lot of lessons from the Legacy Trail, which was opened between Banff and Canmore in 2010.

Paul Clarke  – Editor Jasper Fitzhugh

 

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

Media Release on National Parks Management

Updated October 4, 2016

Photo by Donald M Jones/ Great Gray Imagery

Photo by Donald M Jones/ Great Gray Imagery

Statement by the following national conservation groups:

Equiterre, Ecojustice, Pembina Institute, Greenpeace, CPAWS, David Suzuki Foundation, Sierra Club of Canada Foundation, Ecology Action Centre, West Coast Environmental Law, Environmental Defence, Nature Canada, Wildlife Conservation Society Canada

October 4, 2016.

As leaders of Canada’s environmental movement, we have gathered in Banff National Park to discuss solutions to key environmental challenges facing our country. We are moved by the magnificent wilderness, wildlife and ecosystems that surround us in Banff, and are grateful to our forebears who have protected this magnificent landscape – Indigenous peoples’ who have been stewards of this land for millennia, and national park managers who have worked to protect its ecological integrity and pass it along unimpaired to future generations of Canadians.

Canada’s national parks serve as cornerstones of our nature conservation efforts, providing safe sanctuary for wild plants and animals, as well as providing people with opportunities to experience and learn about the wonders of nature.

We note and support the commitment Canada has made to protect at least 17% of our landscape by 2020 in well-designed, well-managed and well-connected protected areas as an important next step towards what’s needed to conserve nature, particularly in the face of climate change. Protected areas contribute to efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, provide clean air and water, jobs and many other benefits to Canadians. An ambitious plan for new national parks and connectivity areas is essential to delivering on this commitment.

But as we expand our national park system, we must not take the well-being of wildlife and wilderness in and around our existing national parks for granted.

There is strong evidence that park ecosystems are struggling in the face of enormous and growing threats from inside and outside their boundaries. Parks Canada’s last report on the state of national parks showed that fewer than half of park ecosystems measured were in good condition and more than one third were in declining health, while more than 40% of park ecosystems had not yet been assessed. There is an urgent need to scale up efforts to protect the ecological integrity of our national parks to fulfil the legislative mandate of maintaining or restoring their ecological integrity as a first management priority.

Yet, since 2012, Parks Canada’s conservation capacity has been cut by almost one third, public consultations have been dramatically curtailed, and development proposals have been allowed to go ahead within parks, even though they contravene policies specifically designed to limit development and protect precious wildlife habitat. Meanwhile, development pressures are continuing unchecked in areas around these protected areas.

As leaders of Canada’s environmental movement, we are deeply concerned that the Government of Canada’s management of our national parks has shifted dramatically in the wrong direction, putting our most treasured protected places at risk.

For example, concept approval has been granted for a massive expansion of the Lake Louise Ski Resort in Banff even though it would encroach on legally protected wilderness; for a resort development on the shores of Maligne Lake even though it directly contravenes the park management plan and other park policies; and for a new bike path corridor from Jasper to Banff right through critical valley bottom caribou and grizzly habitat, with no prior public discussion or assessment of its impacts.

Similarly, we are deeply concerned about the inadequate attention being paid by the Government of Canada to the cumulative impacts of developments outside our national parks on their ecological integrity. For example, the nation’s largest national park – Wood Buffalo – is at risk of joining the list of world heritage sites in danger due to the cumulative impacts from intensive petroleum and hydro development upstream from its borders. If Parks Canada continues to focus on tourism, marketing and development at the expense of nature conservation, and if development pressures in areas around our parks continue unchecked, wildlife and wilderness in our national parks will be whittled away, and we will fail to deliver on our responsibility to pass along these special places unimpaired to future generations.

It is time to re-focus on conserving nature first and foremost in our national parks.

This does not mean keeping people out of parks. We recognize the critical role national parks play in providing opportunities for people to experience and learn about nature. However, it is critical that the collective impact of infrastructure and people enjoying our parks does not jeopardize the very wildlife and wilderness they are meant to protect.

We appreciate the commitments made by the current federal government to limit development in our national parks, re-focus on ecological integrity, restore science funding, work in partnership with Indigenous peoples, restore open, transparent decision-making processes and reform essential federal environment assessment legislation.

To deliver on these commitments, there is an urgent need for Parks Canada to refocus on nature conservation and stewardship, and to reverse the relentless focus on marketing, tourism and increasing visitation with little regard to the impacts on nature.

To ensure our national parks are passed along unimpaired to future generations of Canadians, as required by law, we specifically call on the Government of Canada to:

  • Prohibit any further expansion of the development footprint in Banff and Jasper National Parks, starting with saying “no” to the proposed Lake Louise Ski Resort expansion as well as any other ski area expansions in Banff, to the proposed resort at Maligne Lake, and to any new recreational corridor through caribou and grizzly bear habitat in Jasper.
  • Re-focus on protecting ecological integrity in our national parks as the overarching management priority, including re-investing in science, ecological monitoring and public reporting;
  • Ensure that reforms of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act require the most stringent level of review in and around our national parks, including cumulative impacts.
  • Ensure the current funding allocated for infrastructure in national parks is used to maintain and upgrade existing infrastructure, not to expand the development footprint in national parks, for example by building new or expanded roads.
  • Restore open, transparent decision-making and public accountability processes in our national parks.
  • Focus investments in national park visitor experiences on nature interpretation and education programs with the explicit goal of nurturing nature stewards.

Canadians value unspoiled natural beauty and wildlife above all else in our national parks. We have a collective duty to pass along these special places unimpaired so future generations can share what we have the privilege of experiencing today. Fulfilling this promise requires urgent action to re-focus on conserving nature as the first priority in all aspects of national park management.