Maligne Lake proposal draws criticism

Updated January 24, 2014

Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park, winter scene

Maligne in midwinter

Rocky Mountain Outlook

A proposal for overnight commercial accommodation on the shores of Jasper’s Maligne Lake is against Parks Canada’s own policies and threatens treasured wildlife like grizzly bears, harlequin ducks and caribou, according to leading environmental lawyers.

EcoJustice, which provides legal services free-of-charge to charities and citizens on the front lines of the environmental movement, has drawn up a submission to Parks Canada on behalf of the Jasper Environmental Association (JEA) and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) to fight the proposal by Maligne Tours.

The legal group says overnight accommodation, including 15 cabin tents and a 66-room hotel, flies in the face of several national park policy documents that do not allow new commercial accommodation outside the Jasper townsite, including Jasper’s management plan.

Barry Robinson, an EcoJustice staff lawyer, says it would jeopardize the survival and recovery of the Maligne caribou herd, which is down to about five members, and interfere with the use by grizzly bears and harlequin ducks of habitat adjacent to Maligne day-use area.

He said approval of overnight accommodation at Maligne Lake, in the absence of a recovery strategy and identified critical habitat for the Maligne caribou herd, would be contrary to the prime directive to maintain and restore ecological integrity.

“Such approval would further aggravate the impacts of the minister’s failure to provide the recovery strategy and identify critical habitat as required by the Species at Risk Act,” he wrote.

“JEA and CPAWS-Northern Alberta must challenge in the strongest terms the approval of the proposed development of overnight accommodation by Maligne Tours at Maligne Lake.”

Maligne Tours Ltd. currently operates a day lodge and boat tours at Maligne Lake, but offers no overnight accommodations. Last year, the company announced its intentions for the hotel development.

The proposal has drawn fire from many, including former superintendent of Banff National Park Kevin Van Tighem, who accused the federal government of selling out the public interest in favour of commercialization of national parks.

Robsinson said Jasper’s management plan directed development should be prioritized to infrastructure for first-time campers, recreational vehicle users and those seeking hassle-free camping.

He said this is in stark contrast to Maligne Tour’s proposal to attract “more sophisticated and well-heeled” visitors and “premium-paying customers” through developing overnight accommodation.

The environment minister, Robinson said, has an obligation to consider maintenance or restoration of the Maligne caribou herd as the first priority when considering Maligne Tours’ application.

“It is unlikely that additional development within the Maligne Valley is compatible with the recovery of the Maligne herd,” he said.

Officials with Maligne Tours say one of the initiatives to support experiential tourism is the proposal for heritage-themed accommodation at the site where early pioneers such as Fred Brewster first offered overnight accommodations.

The company hosted forums to garner feedback from stakeholder individuals and groups, and company officials saying they are committed to ensuring that only responsible development occurs at the lake.

Harvey Sawler is the spokesperson for Maligne Tours and is a tourism consultant based in Prince Edward Island who has been working on the redevelopment proposals for Maligne Lake for the past two years.

Sawler said the overall redevelopment plan for Maligne Lake, including modernizing the boat tour operation, is to offer a world-class experience.

“What people have been experiencing, except when it was first established, is a 9 to 5 experience and we don’t think Maligne Lake should be a 9 to 5 experience … this 9 to 5 syndrome has been associated with all kinds of attractions in national parks,” he said.

“There’s a number of other things that happen after that – dark skies, peace and tranquility, silence and so forth – and the lodge and the scale being proposed will meter that, in terms of not having too many people there at night.”

Sawler said the conceptual proposal is before Parks Canada, and the company is in the process of doing an assessment of the public engagement input undertaken last year. He plans to have that to Parks Canada in the coming weeks.

“Then they will make a decision based on the concept and based on policy, and if we get approval for the conceptual proposal, then we will enter a whole new sphere. That’s where it gets more details and that’s when environmental assessments are generated,” he said.

“At the end of day, the proposal from Maligne Tours is a proposal. Parks Canada is the regulator here and they will be ones that will make the decision. What the company is proposing is based on best evidence and beliefs on what the customer is looking for.”

Cathy Ellis

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