ENVIRONMENT

An identity crisis

There is angry debate over a national park

JOHN HOWSE February 27 1989
ENVIRONMENT

An identity crisis

There is angry debate over a national park

JOHN HOWSE February 27 1989

An identity crisis

ENVIRONMENT

There is angry debate over a national park

With their lush summertime carpet of mosses and wild flowers, the alpine meadows located near Alberta’s Sunshine Village, 17 km southwest of Banff, are one of the principal reasons that in 1984 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated the surrounding park area a world heritage site. Now, a battle is raging between developers and environmentalists over the future of the meadows.

Officials of the Banff-based Sunshine Village Corp. have proposed an $80-million expansion of the commercial skiing operation that the firm already operates in Banff National Park. According to a 1988 study costing more than $250,000, which was sponsored by Sunshine Village Corp. with federal and Alberta government backing, the expansion would not have any significant impact on the area’s present environment. But environmentalists strongly dispute that contention. Raymond Rasmussen, director of the Edmonton chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, says that existing ski operations are killing off wild flowers in the meadow. Said Rasmussen: “Visitors are destroying these fragile plant communities. If the plants continue to be destroyed, then the meadow could become a dust bowl.”

Arrayed against the environmentalists are supporters of Sunshine Village Corp. and provincial government officials, who say that Alberta should expand its tourism industry to offset the effects of low world oil prices on the province’s petroleum-based economy. In 1987, downhill skiing enthusiasts spent $97 million in Alberta. Sunshine Village officials say that the proposed expansion would add 200 permanent new jobs to the 290 existing positions, while new skiers attracted to the resort would inject another $28 million into the provincial economy. Recognizing the pressure to make room in parks for commercial ventures, the 1988 report said that “demand for tourism is forcing Banff to recognize its identity as a resort community instead of a park site.”

In response to those arguments, environmentalists are expressing concern that the federal parks department—which has histori-

cally operated parks as nature preserves that were off limits to large-scale commercial developments—may now give in to the demands of the skiing and tourism industries. Indeed, federal Industry Minister Harvie Andre, who represents the Alberta riding of Calgary Centre, has come out strongly in favor of the project. Said Andre: “I think it’s an important and good tourist facility that can be operated in a way

that respects the fundamental nature of the national park.”

At the same time, supporters of the proposed expansion argue that the area has supported a commercial skiing operation for 55 years without suffering serious harm. Sunshine Village had its origins in a cabin that was an overnight stop for groups of horseback riders who began following mountain trails during the early 1920s. Downhill skiers began using the

area in 1934 when private interests established a ski lodge on the site. Today, the area boasts 10 ski lifts and an 84-room hotel that attracts thousands of visitors each winter.

Under Sunshine Village Corp.’s expansion proposal, the firm would lease nearly 100 acres of additional land from Ottawa and increase accommodation for visitors to 300 beds. There are also plans for an additional chair lift and a 17-acre parking lot that would be located one kilometre from the existing parking lot, which is connected to the Trans-Canada Highway by an eight-kilometre access road. But the environmentalists claim that there has been no examination of what they say is the damage that existing ski operations have already caused to Sunshine meadows. Dianne Pachal, executive director of the Alberta Wilderness Association, for one, says that Healy Creek, which flows near the village, has been polluted by sewage. She also said that skiers have caused serious damage to the meadow’s highalpine vegetation. After snow is packed down by skiers, it then takes longer to melt in the spring, which shortens plants’ growing season. Rasmussen also blames snow removal equipment, as well as human traffic, for damaging the meadows, which contain at least 300 varieties of wild flowers.

At the same time, Rasmussen says that public hearings on the expansion proposals, which are scheduled to begin in April, will be a waste of time unless Parks Canada staff are “unmuzzled” and allowed to discuss environmental threats freely. He added: “There should be more time for research and well-reasoned briefs. If we lose this battle, we will lose our parks system. Ultimately, you will see average Canadians squeezed out of Banff. It is becoming a place for international tourists.”

For his part, Ken Preston, the Calgary-based senior communications officer for the Canadian Parks Service, said that the service’s “first mandate is protection.” Said I Preston: “It will be protected.” In the end, it will be up to federal Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard to decide—by as early as this summer—whether the expansion at Sunshine meadows should go ahead. With the debate over the issue rising in intensity, Bouchard planned to visit the region for a firsthand look at the mountain area that has become the central issue in an important confrontation between the forces of conservation and advocates of economic growth.

JOHN HOWSE in Calgary