Parks Canada's stamp of approval for a multimillion dollar observation deck in Jasper National Park has sparked a debate if the country's national parks are headed on a slippery slope towards privatization.
The Glacier Discovery Walk, the brainchild of an American-based tourism company, was cleared by Parks Canada on its environmental assessment on Thursday, much to the shock of various environmental groups who say a "tourist gimmicky trap" has no place in a national park.
"This is meant to signal to genuine advocates of the park that this government intends to pursue private profit at the expense of park principles," said Jim Pissot of the Canmore, Alberta-based WildCanada Conservation Alliance. "They fled to Ottawa because they didn't want to receive the outrage of Western Albertans who actually use the park."
This isn't the first time that private companies have worked in Canada's national parks, but the Glacier Discovery Walkway has become the most visible example of this recent phenomenon.
Brewster Travel Canada, which is behind the project, won't disclose how much construction will cost but Parks Canada estimates roughly 8 to 12 million.
The interpretative trail is imagined as 400-metre trail leading to a glass-floored observation platform that juts out 30 metres and 280 metres high. The facility would sit 6.5 kilometres up Alberta's Icefields Parkway along the melting Athabasca Glacier. Brewster plans to charge somewhere between $15 to $29 for visitors to access the interpretative trail and estimates that visitation to the Glacier deck would jump 219 per cent to 262,987.
That federal environment minister Peter Kent took the unusual step of making the announcement in Ottawa instead of local park superintendent just further cemented the fact the project was under political pressure to be approved, critics charged.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said she was surprised at the result of the environmental assessment (which hasn't yet been made available to the public and was delayed for several weeks), given the large volume of complaints Parks Canada has received.
"This sets a really dangerous precedent for our national parks," Ms. May said, adding she was "convinced the pressure came from much higher than Peter Kent."
Mr. Kent, however, flatly denied the Conservative government had any pre-conceived agenda for the park and said the environmental assessment was robust and thorough.
"As with all things in the protection and conservation of our natural spaces, we balance that protection for future generations with reasonable access for Canadians," Mr. Kent said. He denied this signaled an increasingly privatization of national parks, adding each future project would be evaluated on its individual merits.
The design for the Glacier Discovery walkway recently beat out entries from 60 nations to win a future-projects award at the prestigious World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, fuelling Brewster's conviction that the project will be a hit with the public.
"We think this will be a world tourism icon, situated in Canada's national parks, going forward into the future," the company's CEO Michael Hannan said.
Despite the minister and Brewster's assurances the plan will be viable, Parks Canada staff have quietly expressed their concerns about the success of similar projects in other national parks. A 2009 staff letter, which Mr. Pissot obtained from Parks Canada under the Access to Information Act, outlines the virtual lack of support from the public for new recreational activities in the neighbouring Banff National Park.
"It does seem that people are looking this place as being defined by its wildlife and nature, its alpine beauty, its mountain culture and its wilderness adventure -- and worrying that we could be drifting from those elements," wrote Kevin Van Tighem, the then superintendent of Banff, , oft heralded as crown jewel of Canada's park system.
"If that is the case, then further confusing our brand identity with things that people don't associate with their concept of a park experience could cost us further loss of market, not gain us increased market share," Mr. Tighem stated.
Mr. Tighem told the Globe that the response he saw back in 2009 was that visitors wanted the national parks to have an ecological and educational component.
To that end, Brewster says the interpretative walkway will sit on a pre-existing parking lot, with minimal environmental impact.
Parks Canada had to parse through some 2,000 formal submissions from the public before giving the green light to Brewster for the Glacier walk.
Avaaz.org, one of the groups that has complained, has collected more than 180,000 signatures on its "Save Jasper National Park" petition, said the campaign's director Emma Ruby-Sachs, a Canadian living in Chicago.
"Yes, Parks Canada charges fees to enter the national parks, but that still feeds into public coffers," Ms. Ruby-Sachs said. "Canadians don't want their national parks to be money makers for an American-based company."
With files from Dawn Walton