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Ecological integrity of parks key to all candidates

Wild Rose is a federal riding that boasts something not many others across the country can – the crown jewel in the national park system.

Wild Rose is a federal riding that boasts something not many others across the country can – the crown jewel in the national park system.

Banff National Park forms a significant part of the riding and with it comes governance and regulation by federal agency Parks Canada.

The Outlook interviewed the four federal candidates for their perspective on issues facing the area, including new proposed uses.

Last September, the minister of the environment, who is responsible for Parks Canada, announced an array of new recreational uses as acceptable in parks, including mountain biking, canopy walks, zip lines and via ferrata.

While each individual national park superintendent is required to assess if proposed uses are appropriate, Banff is looking at several.

Asked what are appropriate new uses, NDP candidate Jeff Horvath said he is more on the conservation side of the spectrum.

“I believe tourism is a big industry, however, the integrity of the national park is critical to maintain,” he said. “We want parks to be accessible to the point of maintaining the integrity of a wilderness area.”

Horvath used examples of areas in the U.S. that use interpretive centres to draw people in along with the natural surroundings.

Horvath said he is not sure things like via ferrata are needed, saying his concern is they would take away from the natural environment.

Green Party candidate Mike MacDonald said his party would like to see things get back on track in the national park system with the development of new parks and support for the ones that already exist.

“Canada’s national parks are part of our heritage and are a treasure,” MacDonald said. “If we are going to have them, we need to support them properly.”

He pointed to a recent trend of having decisions made by those in management positions, without the best advice.

“We need to ensure we are actually getting our information from people educated and knowledgable in the field of ecological integrity,” MacDonald said.

Liberal candidate John Reilly advocated for a balance between business interests and ecological integrity.

When it comes to specific proposals for new uses, however, he said impacts should be studied to determine if it fits within Parks’ mandate.

But if the line was drawn between visitation and ecological integrity, the former judge said he leans towards the latter.

“If we increase visitation too much, we will lose ecological integrity and what people are coming to (national parks) for won’t be there,” Reilly said.

Incumbent Conservative candidate Blake Richards said when it comes to new uses and increased visitation there needs to be a balance with ecological integrity.

“What it comes down to is we have to find a balance between protecting the natural environment we have; but in doing that we need to ensure we are making it possible for Canadians and visitors to enjoy (the national parks),” he said, adding improving visitor experience is part of that.

Richards pointed to a number of specific proposals like via ferrata, but said decisions have to be made with all stakeholders in the room, including Parks Canada, conservationists and businesses.

Currently, Brewster is proposing a multi-million dollar suspended glass floor observation platform overlooking the Sunwapta Valley six kilometres north of the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park.

Richards said Brewster is a huge part of creating visitor experiences in the mountain national parks.

He said innovative ideas are always worth looking at and deserve consideration, but pointed out that the balance with ecological integrity needs to be maintained.

“Ideas like that will only help to grow the local economy that relies so much on tourism and also ensure people have reasons to visit a national park,” Richards said.

Horvath said one of his core values is that the national park belongs to everybody, not just specific corporate interests.

“I am a firm believer that regulation has to occur; it is not a free for all, especially in a national park,” he said. “People come to parks for the beauty and splendour of the natural environment.”

MacDonald warned against overdevelopment of the national parks.

“How do you preserve a natural area and allow people to enjoy it? That is a dialogue that needs to happen,” he said, adding balance is needed. “If we turn it into a money making enterprise, you slowly erode what attracted people there in the first place.”

MacDonald said proposals are always welcome and should be discussed, but the final say in what happens in a national park should not be determined by business interests alone.

Reilly said corporate interests should be subject to whatever is necessary to maintain the ecological integrity of the national park.

“I would like to see them serve the needs of the visitors we have,” he said.

Parks Canada has been investing in visitor experience as a mandate for the organization. At the same time, its science program has seen cutbacks and a number of high level positions not being filled after a retirement.

Richards pointed to funding announced last winter for studying wildlife crossings as an example of where the science program has moved forward.

“I don’t see it being a trend, but we need to ensure we have that balance,” he said. “I am encouraged by the fact Parks Canada is trying to find ways to improve visitor experience.”

He said communication between the agency and businesses in the park has been greatly improved and he is proud to have been involved in that.

Reilly pointed to the fact the Harper government has muzzled scientists in the country receiving federal funding as a problem.

“I am hoping a Liberal government would open things up more and we would have more information,” he said. “I think that is definitely wrong.”

Horvath said what has to be protected in parks is ecological integrity and that trumps tourism.

“I feel the scientists can determine the health of parks and ecological soundness,” he said. “Our priority is we want to improve conservation and this trumps tourism.”

MacDonald said environmental and economic viability are connected.

“We need science to back decisions or (ecological integrity) will be at risk,” he said.

Banff National Park is currently looking at reintroducing bison to the area in small herds in remote areas.

Horvath said he would support the reintroduction of bison and pointed to Bison Belong as a local group consulting with stakeholders on the idea.

“That is the proper route to go,” he said.

MacDonald said he is not an expert on the proposal that is currently being considered. He added that as the representative for Wild Rose his role would be to ensure people with the knowledge and experience to make these decisions are in the right positions and providing the right advice.

Reilly said he also does not know all the details, but said as a young boy it was a thrill to come to Banff and see the bison herd at the paddock.

“I would support (the proposal) if it supported ecological integrity,” he added.

Richards said the proposal is interesting and could be challenging to manage.

“I would have to see how the plans for that come together,” he said.

The mortality rates of bears, both black and grizzly, on CP Rail’s tracks through the mountain national parks is something that garners headlines annually.

Reilly said he does not know what the solutions are to this problem, but he said looking towards science and research is a good start.

“Certainly something as simple as keeping grain off the tracks would help reduce the number of bears killed by trains,” he said.

Horvath said he does not think enough is being done to address the issue. He said there are controls and mechanisms that can be used to lower the impact of trains on bear mortality.

“We have to invest and look for safer ways to protect this species,” he said.

MacDonald also said there is not enough being done, not just on the railway tracks, but on highways throughout the riding.

He went further to point to the fact Alberta’s landscape is becoming more and more fragmented with human use and coming into conflict with bears.

“The reality is, in Alberta there are fewer grizzly bears than those currently in power in Alberta or federally are willing to admit,” he said.

Richards said whenever wildlife are in dangerous situations, no one likes to see it.

However, he pointed to the work CP Rail has done with repairing its grain cars as an example of the effort they have taken to reduce their impacts on wildlife.

“There is always more that can be done,” he said, adding he has kept in touch with the company and they are looking at more investments and opportunities to address the issue “as we speak”.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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