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026 Parks Canada Takes Its Lumps

In this episode I’m taking an in-depth look behind the curtain of Parks Canada. It’s truth time, and as I record this on April 24, 2017, Parks Canada is once again in the headlines…and for all the wrong reasons.

Story 1 – Parks Canada Under the Microscope

If you’re a follower of this podcast, you’ll know I’m a great champion of the job that Parks Canada staff undergo on a daily basis. Every day, they’re on the front lines trying to keep our wildlife both wild and safe, keeping resources protected and plucking injured wilderness wanderers off of mountain tops by helicopter. Without these champions of our wilderness Canada’s National Park system would not be the world class system of protected areas that it is today.

On the other hand, over the past 10-15 years, decisions have been taken from the scientists and experts that know the resource, know the priorities, and know where to best invest limited park dollars. Decisions are increasingly being made by distant bureaucrats with little connection to a local sense of place.

It happened gradually. During the Harper years, the backcountry began to be de-emphasized and more and more focus was placed on getting more cars through the gates. As backcountry trails began to erode, bridges to collapse and boardwalks to rot, Parks Canada allowed skywalks, via ferratas, summer ski hill operations, and gondola expansions – all in the name of bringing more and more and more people through the gates.

As classic tourist locations like Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Sulphur Mountain Gondola, Peyto Lake and the Columbia Icefields are inundated with more and more people, the Federal Government thought that it would be a good idea to make entry to the park free for Canada’s 150th birthday.

I can guarantee that not one local employee of Parks Canada was consulted on this decision because I know what they would say….Nooooooooooooooo! In a landscape that is already operating far beyond its carrying capacity, we don’t need a reason to bring more people through the gates.

Way back in Episode 13, I talked about the town of Banff’s irritation with Parks Canada over these free passes. Karen Sorenson, the mayor of Banff was, and is, frustrated by the lack of consultation with the community over decisions that affect the town.

She’s very upset that Parks, not only did not consult council on this issue, but didn’t come forward with any resources to help the town to deal with the huge influx of additional visitors – all of whom will be utilizing the town roads, parking lots, public restrooms and other resources.

While these visitors are here to see “the park”, almost every one of them will also visit the townsite. In 2016, vehicle counts in Banff increased 7 percent over 2015. During July and August this past summer, 49 of 62 days  were considered over the congestion limit of 24,000 cars in the townsite. 2015 saw fully 20 less days with a similar vehicle count.

During the 2017 Canadian Parks Conference  held in Banff National park this past March, Canada’s Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna indicated that ecological integrity was again, job 1 within Parks Canada. There were three things that were her priority:

“The importance of ecological integrity, science, conservation and traditional knowledge and my renewed focus on it, ” She went on to state “The integral role of indigenous people will continue to play with Parks Canada as we move towards reconciliation and three, the future. What will our legacy be for the next 150 years and how can we work together?”

Parks has had a few big wins lately, with the reintroduction of bison in the Panther River Valley being one for the books. Bringing back an iconic animal like bison, after some 130 years of absence is a huge accomplishment.

This is what makes many of the decisions of Parks Canada’s upper management so puzzling over the past few years. Decisions that continue to stand out are the inexplicable free park passes, a now $86.4 million dollar paved bike trail from Jasper to the Columbia Icefields, and the decision to approve the Columbia Icefields Skywalk in 2012.

I’ve talked about the bike trail numerous times on this podcast, most recently in Episode 23, however a number of troubling reports have surfaced over the past few weeks that sheds light on this mysteriously approved trail.

Internal Parks Canada reports have been uncovered by Ottawa Freedom of Information Warrior Ken Rubin that shows that even Parks Canada staff had serious doubts about this project from the very beginning.

According to a 2016 background document, they said:

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

They go on to indicate that any trail of this magnitude will surely need pullouts and rest stops every 5-10 km, not to mention connected campgrounds and additional asphalt based infrastructure.

It also confirms many of the concerns that environmentalists, like myself, have had from day one, that it would traverse critical habitats for bats, and olive-sided flycatchers, not to mention the endangered mountain caribou and whitebark pine.

Along the route also lies the Mount Kerkeslin mountain goat salt lick that needs to be taken into consideration.

And I’ve stated numerous times on this podcast, it confirms the fact that encounters with bears are likely to be high as the trail traverses critical buffaloberry habitat. It also states that as they clear trees during the trail construction, additional buffaloberry habitat will be created increasing the likelihood of bear-bike encounters even more.

It acknowledges the reality that cyclists riding a manicured trail are also less likely to carry safety items like bear spray with them. I would argue that the trail itself would attract less prepared cyclists than a more rustic, wilderness style trail.

As a guide, I see that working in and around Banff. Stand for 30 minutes on the Spray Fireroad Trail, a wide gravel trail that goes through great bear habitat. You’ll notice very few cyclists with visible bear spray, and those that you do see, overwhelmingly the spray will be strapped to the bike and not to their bodies. If you get separated from your bike, as often occurs in a close encounter crash, suddenly you have no bear spray.

Recently, Rubin released another bombshell. In additional documents, he unveiled one of the real reasons this bike trail seems like it is being forced upon us despite almost universal opposition – time and money!

While Parks Canada recently held ‘public consultations’, reports from those present said that it felt like it was less of a consultation and more of a “this is happening but let’s hear, but not listen, to what you think” event.

It’s pretty rare that a project of this magnitude comes out of left field. Usually, as in the case of the also poorly conceived Glacier Skywalk, approved in 2012, there are lots of hints, leaks and half-hearted public consultations before the approval takes place.

This project has always felt different. From day 1 it was announced as a reality, and not as a potential future project. At no time did Parks say “hey we have 66 million bucks to spend on trails, what do you think we should do with it? How bout a paved trail from Jasper to the Icefields?”

I can guarantee if they did that they would have gotten thousands of respondents reminding them that Jasper already has hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres of trails that are absolutely impassable due to years of overgrowth, erosion, bridge collapse and other manner of neglect. Imagine what 66 million dollars could do to fix those problems.

Instead the message was we have a suitcase full of cash, so let’s build a high speed bike trail through critical habitat – bears and caribou be damned!

This most recent release of documents shows why Parks officials have been acting as if the trail was a done deal – there are time based strings on the money. The money had to be spent within 2 years or it risked being lost.

Long before so called ‘public consultations’ happened, a ribbon cutting in Jasper to announce the breaking of ground had already been planned for some time this year.

They have to begin spending because if they’re not done before the two-year clock runs out, the money runs out with it.

While public comments talk about a fair process, ecological integrity and rigorous development reviews, internal documents talk about the fact that:

“engineers cannot wait until the IA (impact analysis) process is complete,”

They were referring to the 1st phase of the environmental impact assessment. An August status report indicated that the schedule will be “extremely aggressive and could be considered high risk, however it is listed as medium risk due to the very preliminary state of the detailed schedule preparation and analysis.”

This lack of transparency has been dogging parks for years and this is the first time that a researcher has been able to peel back the curtain of secrecy and show what’s really happening – high level decisions ignoring both recognized science and public feedback to force-feed high intensity visitation to the park.

Way back in Episode 9, I reported that an intergovernmental panel was visiting Banff to hear from stakeholders regarding the increase in numbers in the park and the changes in the character of tourism in the mountain parks.

After a decade of decisions made to increase tourism, despite science-based arguments showing that they were poorly conceived, many of us had little confidence in this process. However, on March 24, 2017, the report was published under the title: Taking Action Today: Establishing Protected Areas for Canada’s Future.

It’s a big read, stretching some 120 pages and includes some great information, some re-focused stress on ecological integrity – and even a heavy dose of crow.

Under the section on ecological integrity, for the first time it acknowledged the competing goals of protecting biodiversity and “sharing these great areas with Canadians as a way to maintain support for ongoing work to meet protected areas objectives.

The report recognized that trying to combine these two goals can be at cross purposes. It states:

“These two roles are important; however, their interpretation and implementation are varied. Many perceive a conflict between the two. Through testimony and its site visits to Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, the Committee became acutely aware of the differing points of view. Essentially, one person’s use and enjoyment of a park can be another person’s impairment.”

While Parks Canada sees increased numbers as a great way to foster understanding, there is a point at which too much fostering can lead to negative perceptions. As the report indicates:

“In fact, some witnesses felt that planned increases in visitation will impair not just ecological integrity, but also the role of parks in connecting Canadians with nature as overcrowding at attractions diminishes visitor experience. ”

I’ve already mentioned the lack of backcountry access is many areas of the mountain parks, but he report also recognized the folly of focusing all of your visitation on a few iconic locations. It noted that 92% of visitors get their ‘park’ experience on hardened surfaces in the developed 1-4% of the park area.

It also recognized the many complaints of towns like Banff and Jasper that Parks Canada did not consult with them, nor offer additional resources as their marketing brought increased people into already crowded townsites. Jasper has it even worse than Banff as it is still fully under the yoke of Parks Canada in terms of its town management.

While Banff incorporated as a town in 1990, giving it more control over local land-use issues, Jasper is still fully under Parks control, which means that every local decision is the exclusive jurisdiction of Parks Canada and the ponderous bureaucracy that comes with it.

The report acknowledged the traffic difficulties that have plagued Banff and Jasper as well as vehicle numbers overwhelming the capacity of the town roads to accommodate them.

In terms of some of these contentious developments, the report acknowledges:

“Public consultations on development proposals have become limited to a few weeks of geographically restricted consultations, often after years of behind-closed-door discussions with private developers, and often after decisions have already been made internally. In many cases, like the Lake Louise Ski Resort expansion and the Glacier Skywalk, proposals have been approved in spite of strong public opposition. Public accountability measures like the Minister’s Round Table, which is legally required every two years under the Parks Canada Agency Act, have become tightly scripted events, focused almost entirely on how to increase park visitation, with no attention paid to nature conservation in recent years.”

This is music to my ears. For years, we have been talking about not just protecting the ecology of the mountain parks, but also protecting the integrity of the visitor experience. Year in and year out, we’ve been seeing dramatic annual increases in visitation to the point that the roads, parking lots, and viewpoints simply can’t accommodate them.

In terms of the Jasper to Icefields bike trail, the committee stated:

“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.”

Finally, the report acknowledged that it’s great to find dollars to build something…but if you don’t maintain it, then it becomes just another building with a leaking roof, trail with a missing bridge or viewing platform knocked out by a falling tree.

Any new development must come with ongoing dollars to maintain, repair, upgrade and improve it as tourism evolves and time passes. This includes roads, interpretive signs and things as integral as water treatment plants. Don’t build it if you can’t maintain it. Just ask a horseback outfitter in Jasper who can’t access hundreds of kilometres of backcountry trails.

Just this week, despite ongoing criticism, it seems that Parks Canada is still moving full-steam ahead with the proposed bike trail. They have now listed a tender call on the site buyandsell.gc.ca, a site used by them to purchase goods and services. According to a story in the Rocky Mountain Outlook (

http://www.rmoutlook.com/article/Tender-calls-signals-Icefields-trail-already-a-done-deal-20170420), a tender has been placed by Public Works and Government Services Canada looking for consulting services in the delivery of the 109-km long trail from Jasper to Wilcox Campground. It also states that:

“a future phase, not included in this contract, will complete the Icefields Trail, to the Municipality of Lake Louise in Banff National Park.”

It does state that the consultant will need to take into consideration mitigation and other measures that result from public consultations and Environmental Impact Assessments. The public consultation has just ended and will be fed into the draft of the impact assessment.

Parks spokesperson Meaghan Bradley, told the Outlook that the purpose of the tender was to allow parks to be: “well positioned to deliver the project if, and only if, the decision is taken to move forward”.

The other mystery of the story has been the lack of transparency as to how this project ever came to be. Apparently, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna requested background information from Parks Canada CEO Daniel Watson. In the memo, marked secret, Watson indicated that Parks executives first discussed the trail in December of 2014. At that time, the cost for the entire 230 km trail was estimated to be $160 million.

Since no dollars were available, the project was shelved until 2016 when the finance department was looking for infrastructure projects that could be finished in two years. It’s this two year limitation that has caused the undue rush and lack of proper public consultation.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like much is going to change as Parks moves full-steam ahead with its plans to bulldoze thousands of acres of prime wildlife and bird habitat.

This has been a really bad few weeks for Parks Canada. I hope the negative media scrutiny has shone enough light to help them to find their way back to their founding – to protect the parks while sharing them with Canadians.

They must always remember that, according to the National Parks Act:

“maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity is the minister’s first management priority for national parks.

Here is where the real trick comes. In order to combine this goal of maintaining ecological integrity with tourism, we must remember that although the national parks act dedicates the parks:

“to the people of Canada for their benefit, education and enjoyment.”

The provision goes on to stipulate that the parks must be

“maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Bottom line – bears before buses and caribou before bike trails.

I hate doing an episode like this one. I’ve spent 30 years as a champion of the mountain national parks and I continue to be one. Over the years I have met and collaborated with many  park staff and I truly believe that every local parks employee would agree with what I’ve spoken about today.

On a local level, I have seen almost no dissent, aside from various vested interests. Some may call me a hypocrite because I make my living as a naturalist, guide and photographer, and I accept that. We all look at the park through our own lenses (photography joke – I couldn’t help myself).

As I guide though, I have to put myself in the shoes of my guests. I want them to have the best experience they can possibly have – the one they saw in the Parks Canada brochure! It’s for this reason that we all need to stand as one to help make sure that the future sees a new priority in the parks, one that will move the focus a little more towards ensuring that the next generation of visitors will still consider the Canadian Rockies to be one of the modern Wonders of the World.

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