Cabin Before the Caribou

  • Published on Apr 18 2017 |
  • by Alison Ronson |
  • This article is tagged as:

This blog post is brought to you by Jaclyn Ludwig at the University of Alberta. We will be featuring guest blog posts for the next few months from University students.

When I visit Jasper National Park, I experience an almost immediate lightening of mood. Just seeing the beautiful landscape and soaring mountains is enough to boost the spirits of most people I know. Being able to explore and hike through this piece of nature is a privilege that many local Canadians cherish, and many tourists travel across the world to experience. At the same time, Canada has a responsibility to protect this environment, to preserve biodiversity, and preserve the landscape for future generations to enjoy. To this end, we have approved Parks Management Plans for our National Parks to direct responsible use and development. Parks Management Plans are developed through extensive research with their first priority being the preservation of the ecological integrity of the area, and balancing that with the enjoyment of visitors to the Park. You would think this would mean that there would be a clear directive for Park staff, commercial operators, and visitors to turn to, and you would be right. However, that doesn’t mean that some companies won’t try to get around the rules and seek special consideration. Just that is happening right now, concerning the Maligne Lake area of Jasper National Park.

What Does the Private Operator Want to Do?

Maligne Tours’ Concept Proposal for Responsible Experiential Enhancement at Maligne Lake [the “Concept Proposal”] proposes three major initiatives:

  1. "The redevelopment of Maligne Tours’ day lodge into a 66 unit hotel [Hotel Proposal];
  2. The development of a new 10-15 tent cabin overnight site, which would require a new leasehold area [Tent Cabin Proposal]; and
  3. The introduction of 12 different visitor experience activities.”

Parks Canada has, quite appropriately, turned down the proposed hotel. It is difficult to understand why the reasons for turning down the proposed hotel do not equally apply to the proposed tent cabins.  Page 102 of the Concept Proposal shows the site plan for the proposed tent cabins right on the shores of Maligne Lake. This is land that is currently protected from development and cannot be developed for overnight accommodation unless there is a change in the law approved by Parliament and by the Senate. The proposed tent cabins would have a large base made of wood, with canvas tops, and would be accompanied by showering and bathroom facilities in another building, making this more of a permanent development than a temporary one that is easy to dismantle.

What Does the Law Say?

Section 4.7.1 of the Jasper Park Management Plan prohibits the release of new land for overnight commercial accommodation outside of the community of Jasper by way of the “Direction on Outlying Facilities and Marmot Basin.”

What is Wrong with the Proposed Development?

Aside from the fact that the proposed development is prohibited and illegal, the proposed development will interfere with endangered wildlife in the area, an argument made by the Jasper Environmental Association (JEA) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). This argument was made in a legal challenge against the Parks Canada Agency and Maligne Tours, launched by the law charity Ecojustice on behalf of JEA and CPAWS. The complete argument is as follows:

  1. "The proposed development was contrary to the Management Plan;
  2. The proposed development was contrary to the Guiding Principles and the Outlying Commercial Accommodation Guidelines [OCA Guidelines];
  3. The proposed development was contrary to the conditions set out in the 2003 renewal of the lease and licenses of occupation for the Maligne Lake developments;
  4. The proposed development could jeopardize the survival and recovery of the Maligne Herd of Southern Mountain Caribou;
  5. The proposed development would interfere with the use by grizzly bears and harlequin ducks of habitat adjacent to the Maligne Lake Day Use Area; and
  6. There was no social science evidence to support the need for overnight accommodation at Maligne Lake.”

Maligne Tours argue that their proposed development would significantly improve visitor experience in the area, part of which public consultation seemed to support. However, although public consultation showed that people liked the idea of renovating existing facilities to improve them, it also revealed concern around overnight developments. Bottom line: Increasing traffic to the area and adding sites of continuous occupation do not make sense in areas of sensitive habitat. And make no mistake, despite it being a popular day use area, the site where Maligne Tours propose to build these tent cabins is being considered for designation as a critical habitat, which means that species in that area are under considerable risk of decline or disappearance.  Should the development be approved, it will be a sad day for the Park and a sad day for the caribou.

Do we want more of this:

Or more of this?

Unfortunately, a recent decision by the Federal Court of Canada [the “Maligne Decision”] has opened the door for private commercial operators to pursue approval of developments contrary to the Park Management Plan. In particular, it allows Maligne Tours to pursue the expansion of its commercial overnight accommodations operations (tent cabins) in Jasper National Park, even though the operator’s proposal cannot be approved under the existing laws and regulations governing the development and administration of the Park.  Not only can the proposal not be approved, but the legal amendments that would be required to approve it will require the House of Commons and the Senate to vote to reverse its explicit prohibition of the very developments proposed by the operator. While the current legal decision authorizes the Park Superintendent to independently work with the operator, in the hope that the House and Senate might later approve things, it is my view that the Superintendent should be directed by the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to stop all further consideration of the operator’s proposal. The Minister should also advise the operator that no further consideration of its proposal will be undertaken unless, and until, the House of Commons votes to reverse Canada’s current policy, which explicitly prohibits the type of overnight accommodation development being proposed.

When I visit our National Parks, my goal is to see and experience views like this:

Not this:

I’m willing to travel a little farther from my overnight stay to preserve the ecological integrity of our National Parks, how about you?




Photo credit to:

Jaclyn Ludwig, Public domain image by axelle b, Public domain image by Albert Herring