A letter from the Northern Alberta Branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society to Park Superintendent Greg Fenton, regarding the proposal by Brewster Travel Canada to build a ‘Glacier Discovery Walk’ (Skywalk) above the Sunwapta River in Jasper National Park:
Comments pertaining to Brewster’s proposed Glacier Discovery Walk to Parks Canada, from CPAWS NAB & SAB Chapters by Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society of Northern Alberta (CPAWS NAB) on Monday, March 14, 2011 at 4:48pm
March 14, 2011
Superintendent Jasper National Park
P.O. Box 10
Re: Comments pertaining to Brewster’s proposed Glacier Discovery Walk
Dear Mr. Fenton,
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Northern and Southern Alberta Chapters (CPAWS NAB and CPAWS SAB respectively) are pleased to provide these comments pertaining to the Glacier Discovery Walk (GDW) as proposed by Brewster Travel Canada. We are supportive of the effort to increase public education and interpretation along the Icefields Parkway, but feel strongly that this proposal is not the best way to achieve that objective. We are fundamentally opposed to this new development and feel that it will detract from the visitor experience along the Icefields Parkway.
On Tuesday, January 25, 2010, staff from Brewster Travel Canada came to speak with the Executive Director and the Senior Conservation Planner of CPAWS SAB. This meeting was a useful means to obtain more detailed information regarding the proposal. During this meeting, we raised several concerns and Brewster provided us with detailed responses. However, that their responses were not sufficient to generate support for this development proposal.
The Icefields Parkway is a wondrous and beautiful place, a true gem of the World Heritage Site that contains Jasper National Park. Part of the beauty of this place is its current simplicity, which serves to showcase the true wilderness of Jasper National Park in a more pure form. We are concerned that proposals such as this one will impede that simplicity and detract from the real, inspiring experience of driving along the Icefields Parkway. The GDW is not in line with the Jasper National Park management plan to enhance visitor experience and decrease environmental effects to the Icefields area and it sets a dangerous precedent for the types of development that are permitted along the Parkway.
Our main concerns regarding the Glacier Discovery Walk are as follows: process and interpretation of the Jasper National Park management plan, the public’s increased disconnection to a National Park experience, the privatization of a public viewpoint, the construction of massive infrastructure to improve a view, and environmental impacts.
Areas of support
As an organization, we place a high value on educating people and helping foster an increased connection to wilderness. We are supportive of increasing educational opportunities along the Icefields Parkway, including improved interpretive signage at viewpoints. The Glacier Discovery Centre is currently the primary location for these kinds of educational opportunities and we are supportive of redesigning it to increase effectiveness. For example, having visitors enter through the interpretive section of the centre should be a top priority for this building.
During the Icefields Parkway planning process, the Tangle Ridge viewpoint was identified as one requiring improvements to reduce vehicle collision risk. CPAWS is supportive of altering the design of the viewpoint to increase safety for people and wildlife traveling along the Icefields Parkway. Last year, there were five motor vehicle collisions on Tangle Hill, slightly higher than the annual average of 3.4 (based on motor vehicle collision statistics for Tangle Hill from 2004 to present). Decreasing collision risk is good for people and for wildlife. However, if that is an objective of Parks Canada, then all possible tactics to achieve that objective need to be investigated and the most appropriate one selected. Other measures, such as improved signage, or closing the north end of the viewpoint may also be effective. If decreasing traffic collisions is an objective, then the solution should be based in scientific research that includes wildlife movement patterns and habitat use. A reduced collision rate does not justify this development.
Concerns regarding process and interpretation of the Jasper National Park management plan
Jasper National Park is a park of the Canadian Rocky Mountain World Heritage Site, recognized for its striking mountain landscape that “exemplifies the outstanding physical features of the Rocky Mountain Biogeographical Province” (www.whc.unesco.org/en/list/304). This development proposal stands to take something already authentic and outstanding and turn it into a commercial sensation for profit. Due to its international significance, the Icefields Parkway not only belongs to the citizens of Canada, but to the citizens of the world. This development proposes to charge a fee for something that is already free, namely the view of the Tangle Ridge viewpoint. Although access to the viewpoint will still be free, the “free” view will involve looking out over a metal and glass structure. That is not improving visitor experience.
This development sends a message that a natural view, which took millions of years to create, is not enough to satisfy the visitor; that we have to dress it up somehow. This attitude isn’t real or inspiring.
It is unclear at this time what the scientific rationale for this development is. As with other development proposal in the Rocky Mountain Parks, there is a lack of social science showing this is part of what visitors expect to find in a National Park and that this type of structure is required to improve their satisfaction. There is an assumption that the average visitor wants and is seeking some kind of adrenaline rush activity that “keeps the product fresh”. We are dismayed at the complete lack of social science research to prove these assumptions. In fact, the public outcry since this proposal has come forward would suggest the exact opposite; people appreciate the simple beauty of the Icefields Parkway and don’t want it to become some kind of sensationalized attraction. Brewster has conducted a survey with its paying clients and found that 90% would use the GDW when visiting Jasper National Park. It needs to be acknowledged that this survey is in no way a statistically defendable or representative sample of visitors to the Icefields parkway. Therefore, while this result appears evidentiary of public support for the GDW, it should be discounted as its significance and relevance can easily be disputed.
Privatization of a Public Viewpoint
Currently, the Tangle Ridge viewpoint is a pull-out with space for 60 vehicles. The current Brewster proposal requires the viewpoint become gated and closed to private vehicles. The proposal, however, does provide the option for people to drive the 6.5Km to the Glacier Discovery Centre and take a free shuttle back to the viewpoint. If someone is traveling south, this trip requires nearly an additional 20Km of travel to enjoy the view from Tangle Ridge. While that does not sound like a significant distance, it would turn a 10 minute stop to stretch your legs into an hour long stop. We are concerned that many people will not want to take the extra time and effort to enjoy this incredible viewpoint. In addition, it is possible that some visitors will feel slighted that they cannot access a public viewpoint while traveling independently down the Icefields Parkway. There is the possibility that the closing of this viewpoint will decrease visitor satisfaction for those people who do not wish to take the extra effort to get a shuttle back to where they just came from. Closing this viewpoint to private vehicles is unacceptable.
We are also concerned that the bus traffic to and from the viewpoint may negatively impact traffic flow in this portion of the Icefields Parkway, thus further impacting visitor experience and satisfaction.
Constructing massive infrastructure
CPAWS is opposed to the construction of new massive infrastructure in the Mountain National Parks. A similar structure in the Grand Canyon, which is located outside of National Park boundaries, involves 500 tonnes of steel, 90 tonnes of glass, and 8 concrete post footings held by 96 rod anchors. Putting a structure such as this together will be disruptive in itself. It is also unclear as to what will happen with the debris created from the “gentle” blasting. The proposal says the debris will be placed somewhere near the Icefields Discovery Centre, but where? More details are required.
Once in place, Brewster has asserted that this massive piece of infrastructure will serve to further connect people to the park. Again, we question that assumption. There is a worthy emphasis in the Jasper National Park management plan to connect people to this magnificent wilderness. We maintain that the best way to connect people to the park is to provide them with opportunities to touch, smell, and feel it. Structures such as this could just as likely serve to further disconnect people from the natural world and the wilderness of the park. Separating people from nature with steel and glass will not likely improve their connection to it.
We acknowledge that the environmental impacts of this structure are not as obvious as other proposals that have come forward in the past year. The structure will not be built in the heart of core grizzly bear habitat, for example. The area is, however, essential habitat for bighorn sheep and mountain goats. The positioning of this viewing structure could impede mountain goat movement through the area as they do not tolerate potential predators above them. Therefore, they are more likely to leave the area rather than travel underneath the viewing structure. Impacts to wildlife will undoubtedly occur. It is unclear how this structure will impact wildlife movement through the area and how these impacts will be mitigated.
Brewster has also suggested that the structural improvements to the viewpoint will decrease wildlife-vehicle collisions. This justification for the viewpoint is weak, however, as there are other ways to decrease wildlife-vehicle collisions in the area (e.g., signage, rumble strips, reduced speed limits).
A simple calculation reveals that each trip will contribute 4.95 pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere per person per trip. Knowing that the glaciers along the Icefields Parkway are retreating partly due to the increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere renders an activity such as this hypocritical and sends the wrong message to visitors. This level of greenhouse gas contribution to the atmosphere is another potential environmental and social impact that requires consideration.
We are unclear as to why this particular location has been selected for this viewing platform when other locations along the Icefields Parkway offer better views of the glaciers. The viewing platform would only be approximately 100 metres above one of the less spectacular gorges in the Rockies. Thus, even from a thrill-seeking perspective, the Glacier Discovery Walk appears to fall short. From this perspective, we would like to see more concrete justification as to this particular location and how it fits into Brewster long-term business plans for the Icefields Parkway.
While we are supportive of increased educational opportunities for visitors to the Icefields Parkway, we are fundamentally opposed to this development. Attractions like this can easily become distractions from the natural and splendid beauty of this world heritage site.
Katherine Thompson, Executive Director, CPAWS NAB
Anne- Marie Syslak, Executive Director, CPAWS SAB
Cc: Bill Fisher, Director General, Western & Northern Canada, Parks Canada Agency
Tracy Thiessen, Executive Director, Mountain Parks, Parks Canada Agency
Kevin Van Tighem, Superintendent, Banff Field Unit, Parks Canada Agency
Pam Veinotte, Superintendent, Lake Louise/Yoho/Kootenay Field Unit, Parks Canada Agency
Alan Latourelle, Chief Executive Officer, Parks Canada Agency