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Ecological integrity top priority for Parks

BANFF - Commercialization and development in national parks, particularly in Banff and Jasper, may be under review.
In her response to the 2017 roundtable and public consultation process on the future of national parks, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna re-affirmed

BANFF - Commercialization and development in national parks, particularly in Banff and Jasper, may be under review.

In her response to the 2017 roundtable and public consultation process on the future of national parks, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna re-affirmed ecological integrity is the top priority in managing parks.

Exactly what the minister's commitment means to major expansion plans for Lake Louise Ski Resort and talk of downhill ski events at the resort should the City of Calgary decide to move forward with a formal bid for the 2026 Olympics is not known.

McKenna said national parks are critical to the tourism industry, but a recommitment to ecological integrity and science will help Parks Canada respond to the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, and development and commercial pressures.

"Maintaining and restoring ecological integrity requires limits on development in national parks, particularly those where development can impact ecosystem health," she said in her report released Monday (May 7).

An independent expert working group will be created to review Parks Canada's policies and approval processes. The group will include expertise in governance, policy development, ecological science and heritage conservation.

The group's mandate is to recommend in more detail what needs to be done to deliver on Parks Canada's legal responsibility to prioritize ecological integrity. The group's recommendations will be presented to the minister by Aug. 31.

During a massive round of public consultations, Canadians expressed concerns that continued commercialization and development have contributed to degradation of some areas, particularly in Banff and Jasper national parks.

Several organizations that represent commercial businesses and activities in national parks talked about sustainable tourism, and the role they play in supporting outdoor recreation.

Anne-Marie Syslak, executive director for the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), welcomed the minister's response, saying it reaffirms what already exists in law and policy.

"Over the past many years, that culture of conservation has been eroding," she said, pointing to a blueprint for development at Lake Louise ski hill, the Jasper Skywalk and a Parks Canada proposal for a paved bike trail from Jasper to the Columbia Icefield.

"The minister has clearly listened to the thousands of Canadians who shared concerns about threats facing our parks from development and other stresses, and a desire to see Parks Canada refocus efforts on conservation."

If new or redevelopment is to be truly viewed through the lens of ecological integrity, CPAWS can't see how any Olympic events, or expansion of new terrain outside the Lake Louise ski hill's current footprint, could go ahead.

The proposed long-range plan for Lake Louise ski hill includes new ski lifts, development of new ski terrain, construction of new and expanded lodges and a warming hut, as well as development of tubing, snowshoeing and ice climbing.

A draft terms of reference document for the detailed impact analysis for the long-range plan is currently out for public review until the end of May, which is the next step in the process before the ski hill can advance further with any development plans.

"I would hope she would say, 'I put ecological integrity as the first priority and these things are simply not appropriate for the long-term conservation and protection of the park'," said Syslak.

The Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment (AMPPE) welcomed the minister's response, noting it strikes a balance between the environment and economy.

Casey Peirce, the group's executive director, said AMPPE trusts in the environmental assessment process and federal laws in place to protect the environment on development issues, such as the Lake Louise ski hill plans and talk of Olympic events.

"The assessments that are required before any development is approved are very comprehensive," she said.

"The talk that development is running rampant is simply not true. We have so many guidelines in place to prevent unwarranted development."

AMPPE noted it's encouraging to hear the government recognizes the value of tourism and the economic impact of visitation to the national parks in balance with ecological integrity.

Peirce pointed to the minister's report, which stated the environment and economy complement each other in Parks Canada operations, contributing about $3.38 billion annually to Canada's GDP and supporting about 40,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

"Tourism has a role and that's good messaging to hear from the government," she said. "That's the balanced approach that's needed to be incorporated into all planning and decisions."

Darren Reeder, executive director of Banff Lake Louise Hospitality Association, said the group fully supports the government's prioritization of ecological integrity in all aspects of the management of national parks.

In addition, he said the 2016 State of Canada's natural and cultural places report identified that climate change was one the biggest threats to the future ecosystem integrity of Banff National Park.

"BLLHA desires to work with the government, private and not-for-profit sector and academic community on research and collaborative communication efforts that help position Banff National Park as one of the most carbon neutrally-visited national parks in the world," he said.

Specifically, McKenna plans to restore public reviews of national park management plans to every five years from every 10 years to allow for more regular public input and quicker response to threats facing to ecosystems.

In addition, the minister affirmed there will be a reinvestment in science capacity and reinforced that science will guide decision-making. There is no confirmation on how much funding. Parks cut its science capacity by one third in response to 2012 budget cuts.

Research will be conducted into how climate change impacts protected spaces.

"New investments in conservation science capacity will help Parks Canada conduct vulnerability assessments and identify actions required to help ecosystems adapt," she McKenna in her report.

Ongoing improvements to transportation plans for parks, such as Banff, experiencing high vehicle traffic, will be further explored. They include initiatives to limit traffic, add shuttle services, or provide alternate transit and travel options.

"Parks Canada undertook a number of successful transportation initiatives to respond to high visitation levels in the summer of 2017, which serve as positive examples," said McKenna in her report.

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