Wild, magnificent … and threatened

Updated September 22, 2013

The tentacles of commerce

Jasper National Park is wild and magnificent and its free spirit is still there for those who long for it but there is an insidious trend by commercial interests to grab for themselves what the park has always given naturally.

Business-focused organizations, whose board members have commercial connections in the national parks, lobby for development and activities that only ten years ago would have been unthinkable under the Canada National Parks Act. A federal government, whose bottom line is money and profits, supports their demands while at the same time cutting the parks’ funding by 30%, forcing a battered Parks Canada to accept these new ‘partners’.

Here in Jasper National Park a thrill-based ‘skywalk’ is being constructed by Brewster Travel Canada alongside the world-famous Icefields Parkway. Under the guise of creating a ‘profound experience’ this US-backed company proposes to attract 600 visitors each hour (at $24.95 each) to what was once a beautiful free viewpoint in important mountain goat and bighorn sheep habitat.

Even the world-famous Maligne Lake is being targeted. Many thousands of day-use visitors enjoy it now, and Parks Canada has preserved the lake’s wilderness spirit and its wildlife by prohibiting overnight accommodation. It is now caving in to pressure from the federal government to convince an increasingly skeptical public that a high-end hotel should be allowed at the north end of the lake.

Montane ecoregion

Pressure on the montane heart of the park is unrelenting. This is where the Athabasca River, melting from the Icefields, meets the Miette River from the west and the Maligne River from the east near the town of Jasper. In what was once the best wildlife habitat and travel corridor in the park for both predators and prey, a frenzied mass of human development partially blocks the valley. Instead of preserving the rest of this Three Valley Confluence for wildlife, Parks has allowed a tangled web of recreational multi-use trails, many only 2-300 m apart, forcing wary carnivores to move higher on the slopes of the surrounding mountains.

Add to this the upcoming privatization of Miette Hot Springs and the proposed introduction of activities such as hang-gliding, traction kiting and canopy walks and we get an idea of what is happening at the instigation of commerce helped by friends in the federal government. So far a hopelessly underfunded Parks Canada – which suffered a staff cut in Jasper of 43 personnel last year – has been unable to oppose this onslaught.

A rare and wonderful wilderness

Jasper National Park rolls across the main and front ranges of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, from the Columbia Icefield in the south to the Resthaven Glacier in the north. Its northwestern boundary skirts the lower slopes of British Columbia’s Mount Robson, highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.

Rivers with evocative names like Sunwapta, Whirlpool, Astoria, Maligne, Rocky, Snaring, Miette, Fiddle and Snake Indian tumble down from peaks and glaciers, carving their way to the Athabasca, which later joins the Mackenzie River flowing to the Arctic Ocean.

Rugged peaks, icefields, glaciers, scree slopes and flower-studded alpine meadows make up the alpine ecoregion – more than 40% of the park. The subalpine ecoregion, with steep slopes of thick coniferous forests, heavy winter snowfalls and rushing creeks, covers another 50%. The remaining area of less than 10% is the montane ecoregion of grasslands, wetlands, Douglas fir, pine and aspen forests cutting through the middle of the park from west to east following the Miette and Athabasca river valleys.

A history vital to Canada’s identity

From a faded tapestry of native legends we know Sarcee, Sekani and Kootenays used different parts of what is now the national park. In the 17th century the fur trade began to reach out from Montreal along the river systems leading from the Rocky Mountains. With the fur traders came the explorers, surveyors and adventurers followed in the 19th century by the railways and settlers.

In 1883 a mineral hot springs was discovered by rail workers in what is now Banff National Park. Surveyors soon realized that the springs were located in some of the most spectacular scenery on the continent and 1885 saw the creation of Rocky Mountains Park around the springs. Later renamed Banff National Park, it was joined by a loose collection of protected areas – their boundaries changing on the whims of the politicians.

To the north of Banff, in 1907, a huge wilderness area of almost 11,000 square kilometers was designated as Jasper National Park. Of the Rocky Mountain National Parks it is the largest and the most representative of the natural region of the Front and Main ranges.

In 1984 – together with Banff, Kootenay and Yoho national parks and the British Columbia provincial parks of Hamber, Mount Assiniboine and Mount Robson – Jasper became part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site under UNESCO, sealing its reputation as a tourism destination for people from all over the world.

The retreat of wildlife

Park surveys show almost 90% of visitors come to the park for wilderness, the sense of peace and chance sightings of the iconic wildlife. However, that wildlife is now being asked to ‘share’ its habitat with increased human numbers and noisy ‘visitor experiences’.

It is the nature of wildlife to be shy and protective of its young so it retreats instead of ‘sharing’. Tracks in winter indicate it has become more secretive and, in particularly disturbed and fragmented areas, avoids what once was prime habitat.

Some of Jasper’s species are listed as ‘threatened’– the woodland caribou federally under the Species at Risk Act and the grizzly bear provincially under the Alberta Species at Risk Act. Others including wolverines, wolves, mountain goats and harlequin ducks are sensitive to human disturbance. They are still out there somewhere in the wetlands, forests and vastness of the alpine peaks and meadows of this national park and World Heritage Site. They have nowhere else to go.