When Canadians take advantage of free admission to their national parks in 2017, they will come face to face with two decades worth of debate between environmentalists, government policies and tourism industries.
While Parks Canada has made ecological integrity the first priority in national parks, many new infrastructure developments have been both proposed and built over the past few years. Environmentalists are concerned ecological integrity is at risk as a result of policies being overlooked.
The three largest development projects currently under scrutiny by environmental activists are the Lake Louise ski expansion proposal in Banff, an overnight accommodation proposal at Maligne Lake in Jasper, and the already completed Glacier Skywalk in Jasper National Park.
The Lake Louise ski expansion guidelines proposal, approved in August 2015, calls for new ski terrain both inside and outside the current developed boundary, some of which is on designated wilderness land. These plans have been submitted to Parks Canada and are pending approval.
While environmentalists believe people visit the parks to enjoy the natural beauty, the idea of needed entertainment stems from both the tourist industry and Parks Canada, according to Jill Seaton, chair of the Jasper Environmental Association.
“Everything is so focused on visitor experience,” she says.
A 2012 Focus Canada survey by the Environics Institute, ranked national parks among the top four symbols of national identity alongside health care, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Canadian flag.
It is because of this prominence as a national symbol, and the availability of access to the parks next summer, that environmentalists are hoping Canadian citizens will notice the issues associated with tourism infrastructure in the parks.
Kevin Van Tighem, former superintendent of Banff National Park, criticizes Parks Canada involvement in the ski area expansion proposals. He says the proposal to expand the ski area into designated wilderness has the effect of rendering the policy against this useless, since the National Parks Act states designated wilderness cannot be violated.
“If they can do it once, they can do it a thousand times,” he says. “This is where I feel that Parks Canada is basically undermining its own policy foundations and losing control completely of this development issue.”
Van Tighem also criticizes the overnight accommodation proposal at Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park, which would allow 15 heritage style tent cabins to be built outside of the town site.
Van Tighem says to allow commercial accommodation at Maligne Lake would violate both the commercial accommodation guidelines and the Jasper National Park management plan, which forbids any overnight accommodation outside the town sites.
“We’re now looking at projects that if approved would mean that all that policy work was for nothing,” he says.
The tension over these tourist-based developments is rising.
Environmentalists are wary of Parks Canada’s intentions as more emphasis seems to be put on visitor experience in the form of development instead of following policies that promote ecological integrity.
But Parks Canada continues to remain confident in its preservation goal.
Kassandra Dazé, communications officer for Parks Canada, says Parks Canada is committed to protecting the ecological integrity of all national parks while simultaneously providing meaningful visitor experiences.
Same issues, different decade
The issue of infrastructure development in national parks has concerned Canadians and environmentalists for the past two decades.
In the late 1980s, the government launched the Banff Bow Valley Study following public scrutiny over development. Results showed that the ecological integrity of Banff National Park was compromised by the infrastructure development. Following this, the government conducted a nationwide study called the Panel on Ecological Integrity, which concluded that Canada’s national parks were at risk due to development.
Alison Woodley, Parks Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) says these studies were necessary to show the importance of ecological integrity in parks.
“There was the recognition that this kind of development [tourist infrastructure] couldn’t continue or we would lose the values that were there,” she says. “Things had to change.”
Although guidelines have since been put in place, parks continue to face development pressures along with an increasing number of visitors.
With more Canadians gearing up to see their national parks next year, Jill Seaton hopes they will see the importance of the natural beauty of the parks .
“The parks are so beautiful and there is so much to do already,” she says. “Parks [Canada] has become too commercialized and they’ve got to get back to thinking about ecological integrity and protecting the wildlife.”
[Main photograph courtesy of Parks Canada/Ryan Bray]
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