It is a sad day for Canada’s national parks and all that they stand for.
With last week’s green light given for a major new commercial tourist attraction along the iconic Icefields Parkway, Parks Canada, the taxpayer-funded agency set up to protect our national parks, has clearly demonstrated it is now the organization our parks actually need protecting from.
The Harper government’s approval of an environmental assessment for Brewster Travel Canada’s Glacier Discovery Walk, a 400-metre interpretive trail with a glass-floored observation deck extending 30 metres out into the Sunwapta Valley in Jasper National Park, is a symbolic change and a sign of more troubling times to come.
In fact, during the announcement, Environment Minister Peter Kent was quick to leave the door open to more commercialisation of Canada’s national parks, saying each parks has “it’s own potential to responsibly develop.”
We at the Outlook want to make it clear that we’re not anti-business, anti-tourism or even anti-Brewster. In fact, we recognize the impeccable environmental track record and remarkable contribution the company has made to the mountain parks for well over a century.
We are not saying put an end to tourism in the parks, which are celebrated around the world for their wildness and wildlife, but we are saying ongoing commercialisation of national park lands is wrong – plain and simple.
In a world where there are no limits to development and growth, our national parks are some of the few places remaining that should be treated differently, and where the almighty dollar should not always take precedence.
Canada’s National Parks Act makes that clear. It states that maintenance and restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes, is the first priority of the minister when considering all aspects of the management of parks.
This statement makes it crystal clear that Parks Canada has a legal obligation to maintain and protect Canada’s national parks rather than focus on further money-making developments.
Someone should let the Harper government know about this important piece of legislation, because they clearly have no idea. During the announcement, Kent said, “Our government has made the economy its top priority and one of the ways to do this is by investing in Canadian tourism.”
It is true that a number of mitigations will be put in place to deal with adverse environmental affects, including monitoring of mountain goats. Yet as it stands, there are no long-term wildlife studies in this area on population estimates or trends.
And while no one here questions the importance of a solid economy, it’s shameful that under Parks Canada’s new direction, this has to come at the expense of limited national park lands and the traditional values they represent.
During the announcement, Kent also bragged of an exhaustive, inclusive and robust consultation process – and no one can question Brewster went above and beyond in its efforts to seek input.
But part of what makes public consultation in a democracy so important is having governments actually listen to what people are saying. In this case, there was such an outpouring of opposition to more commercialisation.
The relentless opposition was not just from a bunch of so-called tree-huggers, but people from all walks of life with real concerns about more commercialisation and potential threats to ecological integrity.
They were simply ignored.
Brewster has not disclosed how much the Glacier Discovery Walk would cost, but Parks Canada has indicated it’s going to be somewhere in the range of $12 million.
The irony in all of this is that it seems like a heck of a lot of money to spend when scientists are predicting Canada’s glaciers are melting away at an alarming rate.