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Proposed hotel in picturesque Rockies park raises ire

Maligne Lake visitors must currently leave before 5 p.m. Opponents of a proposed hotel warn guests would impact animal trafic at other times of day.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Three former Parks Canada executives are urging the federal Environment Minister to say no to the construction of a lodge on Maligne Lake – the iconic body of water in Jasper National Park that is one of the most photographed places in Canada.

The trio wrote in an open letter to Leona Aglukkaq on Wednesday that approval of the 66-room hotel proposed by Maligne Tours would contravene Parks Canada's policy to limit development in its mountain holdings and open the doors to further commercial enterprise in critical ecosystems.

Maligne Lake is the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies. Its high peaks and calm waters have served as the inspiration for countless artists including Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven.

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There is a chalet, a day lodge and a boathouse on its shores. But the lake, which sees 2,000 visitors on any given summer day, is currently a 9-to-5 attraction.

Maligne Tours says it wants to create accommodations that will "enhance" the Maligne Lake experience and allow visitors to enjoy its nearly pristine beauty around the clock.

But the former Parks Canada executives – Nikita Lopoukhine, who is a former director general, Stephen Woodley, who is a former chief ecosystem scientist, and Kevin Van Tighem, a former superintendent of Banff National Park – say the lodge would threaten the natural elements that make the lake so special.

The lake area is home to a caribou herd that has dwindled to just five animals. It is also the habitat of grizzly bears and harlequin ducks which, the former parks executives say in their letter, are "sensitive species" that would be harmed by the overnight accommodation. And, they write, "there is no doubt that businesses and corporations would use the approval of this proposal as a precedent to try to secure new developments and expansions elsewhere …"

Harvey Sawler, spokesman for Maligne Tours, said he has great respect for the letter writers. "But they are also experts at reaching for the hot buttons, and they know that the words 'grizzly' and 'caribou' and these things set off flares," Mr. Sawler said.

And "in some ways," he said, "they are a bit out of step with the Parks Canada that we know today which is reaching much higher on the experiential side as opposed to just the preservationist and protectionist side."

Mr. Sawler said the company's aim is to "contemporize" the Maligne Lake experience and meet consumer demand. And "the reality is that the maximum number of people who would be on site during any one of the operational nights at the lodge is only a couple hundred people, versus several thousand per day."

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Ted Laking, a spokesman for Ms. Aglukkaq, said Parks Canada is reviewing the request to open Maligne Lake to development but no decision has been made.

Mr. Lopoukhine said in an interview that a lodge would contravene the rules put in place when he ran the parks agency to protect the wildlife and ecosystems that Canadians hold dear.

"There would be no doubt that the people who would pay for that high-end room would have that opportunity of looking out over the lake from their cocktail party. And that's all wonderful," he said. "But is that really improving the visitation objectives of Parks Canada? Is that meeting the fundamental objective which is getting people to understand the value of nature?"

Éric Hébert-Daly, the national executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), said a lodge would increase traffic at sunset and sunrise – the two most sensitive times of the day for movement of wildlife across the Malign Lake landscape.

"It's not about preventing people from experiencing the park," said Mr. Hébert-Daly. "It's about making sure the infrastructure you put into that park isn't going to take away from the very thing people are coming to visit."

Editor's note: A previous version of this article said incorrectly that an image of Maligne Lake was on the back of the five-dollar bill. In fact, that lake has not appeared on Canadian paper currency.

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