Parks Canada’s former chief scientist is spearheading a call to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to investigate ecological threats to Banff National Park if a major expansion of the Lake Louise ski area were to go ahead.
Stephen Woodley said he forwarded a petition letter to the UNESCO committee on behalf of several former senior Parks Canada managers worried about ongoing commercialization of Canada’s flagship national park and threats to ecological integrity, including threats to sensitive wildlife like grizzly bears and mountain goats.
The managers argue the scale of proposed ski hill development is unprecedented and an assault on existing policy and national park legal protections, noting areas of existing declared wilderness currently outside the resort’s existing lease may be developed.
“A letter has gone to the world heritage committee asking them to investigate,” said Woodley, who is now the co-chair on biodiversity and protected areas for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“The site guidelines simply don’t put ecological integrity first in a national park and world heritage site – and that’s what we promised to do.”
Banff National Park was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1984, together with other national parks and provincial parks that form the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks.
Last year, Parks Canada approved the site guidelines for Lake Louise, which serve as a blueprint for development and use for the next 10 to 15 years. Individual projects will be advanced in long-range plans, and will be subject to environmental assessments.
In exchange for large-scale development, the ski area guidelines propose to reduce the area’s leasehold by 669 hectares, with the return of Wolverine Bowl, Purple Bowl and lands in the Whitehorn wildlife corridor to protected wilderness zones.
The guidelines also propose to allow development of new ski terrain outside the lease, including in West Bowl and Hidden Ridge. These areas are currently wilderness zones, never intended to be developed, and would be operated under a licence of occupation.
In addition, there would also be new ski terrain inside the current lease, but outside the current developed boundary, at Richardson’s Ridge, complete with a ski lift, ski runs and glading, and new ski terrain at West Juniper.
The guidelines also call for construction of a new lodge at the top of Whitehorn, where a summer sightseeing operation would be based. There is also consideration in the guidelines for an extension of summer hours.
A spokesperson for Parks Canada and the Minister for Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna could not be reached for comment on the issue before the Outlook went to press.
Officials with the Lake Louise ski resort said they are unaware of the letter sent to the UNESCO world heritage committee.
“Therefore, we can’t comment,” said Dan Markham, director of brand and communications for the Lake Louise ski resort.
UNESCO world heritage committee has several options to consider when considering threats to world heritage sites, including whether or not to consider the world heritage site as in danger or, in extreme cases, to de-list.
According to UNESCO’s website, the list of World Heritage in Danger is designed to inform the international community of conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which a place was put on the world heritage list, and to encourage corrective action.
Armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanization and unchecked tourist development pose major problems to world heritage sites, according to the site.
There is recent precedent in Canada for the UNESCO world heritage committee to investigate threats to a world heritage site.
The committee last year announced it would investigate Alberta’s Mikisew Cree First Nation’s petition to list Wood Buffalo National Park as a world heritage site in danger, and decided to send a joint UNESCO/IUCN field mission to investigate threats.
Wood Buffalo is Canada’s largest national park and was set up in 1922 to protect the last remaining herds of bison in northern Canada. The park is currently home to a herd of 5,000 wild bison and endangered whooping crane, and was declared a world heritage site in 1983.
Mikisew claims the park is threatened on all sides – uranium abandonment, oil sands development, hydro dam construction and gutting of environmental legislation by the Conservative federal government over the past decade.
In its decision, the world heritage committee requested that the federal government conduct a strategic environmental assessment of the cumulative impacts of all of these threats to Wood Buffalo National Park.
The committee also requested the government not take any decisions on any of the development projects that would be “difficult to reverse” and to submit the assessment to the World Heritage Centre for review.
Woodley said he has sent the letter regarding the concerns for Banff National Park and the world heritage site and it’s now up the world heritage committee to decide what to do next.
“The process is they investigate and they see if there are any issues,” he said.
“They’ll seek clarification on the issues from the host country and make a determination about whether to go further.”