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Banff management plan silent on Norquay gondola

“We’ve looked at that issue and we’ve determined it wasn’t really a feasible option," said Banff National Park superintendent Dave McDonough.
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Jan Waterous.

BANFF  – The draft 2021 management plan for Banff National Park is silent on Liricon Capital’s proposal for an aerial gondola from the Banff townsite to Mount Norquay.

The 2010 management plan called for exploring the feasibility of an aerial tramway system from the Banff townsite to the ski area to provide new visitor experiences while reducing human activity in the Cascade wildlife corridor.

“We did investigate the feasibility of it – that’s done,” said Dave McDonough, superintendent of Banff National Park.

“We’ve looked at that issue and we’ve determined it wasn’t really a feasible option.”

In 2018, Adam and Jan Waterous, who own Norquay ski resort and whose company Liricon Capital leases lands from CP Rail, submitted a proposal for 4.4-km gondola from the train station lands to the summit of Mount Norquay.

The proposal also included ridge-top boardwalks and a two-storey summit pavilion providing food service, educational displays and viewing area located outside the ski hill’s lease boundary.

That proposal was vetoed by Parks Canada in late 2019.

Parks Canada indicated these components of Norquay’s feasibility study didn’t conform with policies on limits to commercial development and ski area management in Banff National Park. 

The agency said there would be no further consideration of this part of the proposal, to be located on lands outside Mount Norquay’s leasehold, including in areas declared in legislation as wilderness.

Liricon, however, is still pursuing a gondola, although no specifics are being provided at this time.

Jan Waterous said Liricon believes the draft 2021 management plan for Banff National Park provides ”opportunity for all aspects of our project in principle”.

One section states that outside of park communities, no new lands are alienated for commercial development through lease, licence of occupation or agreement, except for essential infrastructure like water or wastewater, ancillary of the primary existing use “unless there is a clear ecological or public safety benefit to doing so.”

She said the draft plan states that it is “built on the groundwork laid by previous plans” and “will build on existing policy and plan direction” and “not starting anew”. 

Waterous said nine key strategies – conserving natural and cultural heritage, true-go-place experiences, strengthening Indigenous relations, connecting with Canadians, managing development, regional connectivity and landscapes, climate change and adaptive management, moving people sustainably, and park communities – are all supported by the work Liricon has been doing with all three levels of government to restore and transform Banff’s railway lands.  

“Our multi-modal, integrated projects include intercept parking, aerial transit to Norquay, shuttles to points of interest, and Calgary Airport to Banff passenger rail,” she said.

According to documents obtained previously by the Outlook under federal Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) legislation, Parks Canada had challenges with Norquay’s former development proposal from the get-go.

Parks Canada’s ski area management guidelines do not contemplate ski areas becoming primarily summer operations, nor does the federal agency allow for growth beyond caps in approved site guidelines, or for development outside the leasehold.

With at least half the length of the proposed gondola on land outside the ski area lease and licence of occupation, Parks Canada also feared an extension of that could be viewed as defacto expansion of the ski area. 

In a May 2019 letter from McDonough, the Waterous’ were informed their proposal didn’t appear to be supported by the ski hill’s lease, licence of occupation, current legislation or key Parks Canada policies and plans. 

While the 2010 Banff National Park management plan allowed for the feasibility study, McDonough said Liricon’s study extended beyond this to include redevelopment of the ski area through extension of the gondola from the resort to the summit of Mount Norquay, redevelopment of lodges, reconfiguration of the lease and development of the pavilion and boardwalks at the summit for year-round use.

“Neither the approved site guidelines and long-range plan for Mount Norquay contemplates an increase in commercial development of this type, scope and scale,” he wrote in that 2019 letter. “Nor do they allow for a shift in the primary purpose of the resort from a winter ski area to a major, year-round sightseeing attraction.”

In terms of the proposal within the townsite boundaries, Parks Canada also had some additional challenges, noting some of the gondola infrastructure may be in zones where commercial development is not allowed.

“The legislation limiting the amount and location of commercial development to specific zones within the townsite was brought into effect after extensive consultation,” McDonough said.

The ATIP documents also indicated Parks Canada had concerns with the gondola alignment bisecting the Bow Valley and significantly impacting the national park views.

Because protection of natural viewscapes was key for Banff’s inclusion in the Canadian Rocky Mountains World Heritage Site, the agency was concerned a gondola may be seen by some as a threat to the park’s world heritage site designation.

In addition, Parks Canada raised concerns about the effects of using scarce, undeveloped montane lands for the gondola base parking lot and the effects of tripling its current use.

The federal agency highlighted how it has spent millions of dollars removing facilities, restoring disturbed areas, and putting use restrictions in place since the 1990s to ensure wildlife habitat and movement corridors in this area are preserved.

“The area between the town and ski area is ecologically important and sensitive,” according to a briefing note obtained in the ATIP documents.

Liricon submitted a draft area redevelopment plan for the railway lands to the Town of Banff for discussion purposes in February 2020.

The municipality has no authority over Norquay’s gondola proposals. Only the terminus of a gondola would be located on lands within the Banff townsite.

Town of Banff officials say they are working on refining the scope, content and site concepts of the draft area redevelopment plan.

“The draft is still under review,” said Randall McKay, the Town of Banff’s manager of strategic initiatives and special projects.

“We anticipate there will be some public outreach occurring within the next few months.”

The draft 2021 management plan for Banff National Park acknowledges the proposals for twinning the rail line for passenger rail between Calgary and the community of Banff.

“These proposals may be tabled again during the span of this management plan,” according to the 2021 draft document.

Parks Canada asks the public to provide feedback on the 2021 draft management plan to opinion@canada.ca until July 7.