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Parks documents reveal aggressive timeline to build paved bike trail

The proposed bike trail will parallel Highway 93 also known as the Icefields Parkway. Parks Canada image.

The proposed bike trail will parallel Highway 93 also known as the Icefields Parkway. Parks Canada image.
The proposed bike trail will parallel Highway 93 also known as the Icefields Parkway. Parks Canada image.

Over the coming weeks the Fitzhugh will be publishing a series of stories related to the proposed Icefields Trail project after it obtained a dossier of internal documents between Parks Canada staff released under Freedom of Information legislation.

Internal documents and emails about the proposed Icefields Trail project show pressure from Ottawa to build the paved bike trail as quickly as possible, despite concerns from the local field unit that moving too quickly could put the entire project in jeopardy.

Less than a month after the federal government promised $65.9 million for the proposed trail in 2016, Jasper National Park Superintendent Alan Fehr expressed concern with his superiors that the schedule to build the proposed trail within two-and-a-half years was not feasible and could put Parks Canada’s credibility at risk.

“We have an opportunity to bring people along on this amazing project, but we need the time to have meaningful consultations with the various stakeholders,” Fehr wrote in an email on April 19, 2016.

“To avoid flak received during construction of the Skywalk we need to, again, meaningfully involve Canadians. I think there will be support, but we need to show that we’re taking care of their park. As we all know, how we achieve goals is as important as actually achieving them, and, in the case of Indigenous peoples and some special interest groups, our credibility is at stake.”

The documents, which includes more than 500 pages of emails, memorandums to the minister and draft communication strategies, were obtained under Freedom of Information legislation by researcher Ken Rubin and provided to the Fitzhugh through a third party. Parks Canada did not respond to an interview request to comment on the documents.

According to a briefing note, construction was originally scheduled to begin in early 2017 with the trail completed by the fall of 2018 in order to meet a request by the Department of Finance to finish the infrastructure project within two years. The project is now slated to be completed by March 2019.

Even with a revised schedule, Parks Canada staff with the local field unit continued to express their concerns with the aggressive timeline, which initially included launching public consultations in the fall of 2016.

At one meeting last October, there was a suggestion that the project could be a model for meaningful Indigenous and public consultations, however the push by the government to deliver the project quickly risked damaging those efforts.

“To do this well and honour Indigenous desire for reconciliation, we need more time.”

Minutes from the same meeting seem to show Parks Canada staff worried about the optics of the project.

“Call it (a) bike lane, not trail. ‘Trail’ is setting off amber flags for a number of constituents.”

Public consultations for the project officially got underway in Jasper on March 14.

The controversial project envisions building a paved bike trail from Jasper to Wilcox Campground, near the Columbia Icefield. The total budget is $86.4 million.

The majority of the 109-kilometre trail will parallel Highway 93 and use existing trails, portions of the old road, and existing bridges where possible.

During the meeting several residents questioned whether public consultations ever have any impact given the last time consultations were held, for the Glacier Skywalk, it was approved despite strong opposition.

In response Parks reminded the public it is only a proposal at this time and said that if there are “significant adverse affects” that can’t be mitigated by changing the design it would not to move forward on the project.

Alison Woodley, national director for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), which has seen the documents, said it reinforced that the project should not be going forward.

“The documents clearly identify that this is going to run through critical habitat for four species at risk, so that in and of itself should be enough to stop this,” said Woodley.

“The most worrying of this is the Brazeau caribou herd, which is clinging to life, and two of the threats Parks Canada has identified in its caribou strategy are habitat fragmentation and loss and human pressures and both of those are going to be increased by this project.”

She said she was shocked to see Parks Canada staff discussing ways to get permits to destroy critical habitat.

“If critical habitat for endangered species isn’t safe in a national park, where is it safe?”

She also pointed out that what’s even more revealing is what was not found in the documents.

“Nowhere in that document is there ever any mention that this is a world heritage site,” said Woodley. “Clearly the agency is not taking that seriously.”

A 2016 background document suggests Parks Canada officials have some of the same concerns, particularly when it comes to induced development.

“Trail use is likely to be high and will induce further development … or at least demands for further development.”

According to the documents, pullouts and rest stops may need to be built every five to 10 kilometres and the trail would also need to be connected to campgrounds and other infrastructure, which would require more asphalt. The documents also mention the possibility of building trail spurs to Athabasca and Sunwapta Falls, but there is no money set aside in the current plan for either. The cost to maintain the trail once it’s built has also not been considered.

“This is not going to be one corridor, this could lead to a whole new raft of development pressures in those sensitive valley bottoms,” said Woodley. “That is completely out of step with the legal priority that ecological integrity be the first priority in all aspects of park management.”

In March, Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change, told an audience in Banff that the government was committed to a renewed focus on ecological integrity and conservation.

In the documents there was also plenty of concern about mitigating environmental damage and human-wildlife conflict, particularly between grizzlies and cyclists.

Some of the suggestions included manually removing berry bushes along the edge of the trail or using herbicide. Other suggestions included, reducing the speed limit, clearing long sightlines and encouraging cyclists to carry bear spray.

In January CPAWS called on McKenna to reject the proposed trail and reinvest the $86.4 million to restore science and conservation programs.

“When you look at what their legal priority is and the behaviour on this project they’re completely out of sync,” said Woodley. “This is inconsistent with their mandate, it’s inconsistent with their commitments and it’s just another indication that the Parks Canada agency is more focused on tourism development than on conservation.”

Paul Clarke
[email protected]

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