Glacier walkway leads to bitter conflict

Parks Canada is trying to reverse a steady decline in attendance

January 16, 2012

CALGARY, AB, Jan. 16, 2012/Troy Media/ – Ah, Canada’s national parks – majestic mountains, brilliant wildflowers, vast tracks of untouched wilderness, and wildlife everywhere – it’s what’s Canada is known for around the world.

It would seem the bureaucrats in Parks Canada have the easiest job in the world, tending to assets so valuable and so closely tied to Canadian identity they are next to sacrosanct.

Yet, the reality is anything but. Parks finds itself embroiled in controversy as it aims to mollify passionate naturalists on one hand while also meeting an aggressive mandate from the federal Conservatives to boost both attendance and revenue.

Attendance in Canada’s 209 national parks and historic sites has been in a slow, steady decline: down seven per cent from 2006-07 (21.8 milion) to 20.2 million in 2010-11. Parks Canada is trying to reverse that decline, achieving a 10-per-cent increase by 2015. As part of that effort, it is funding a $50,000 study to identify potential sources of new income.

Among the potential attendance-boosters, Parks is contemplating ways to allow the creation of attractions that open some national parks up to recreationists who have neither the time, skill nor inclination to become experts at exploring Canada’s backcountry. Last year, the agency decided it would open the door to such previously banned activities as via ferrata (essentially metal grips for non-expert mountain climbers), ziplines and canopy walks.

Parks advocates were troubled by those proposals, despite assurances that nothing would be allowed  without local consultation. But it’s the latest in those money-making schemes that has been a lightning rod for the swelling concern among Canada’s increasingly militant conservationists, who fear the ‘Disneyfication’ of our national park system. It’s the proposal to build an elaborate viewing platform adjacent to the world-famous Columbia Icefields, located in western Alberta, midway between the tourist towns of Lake Louise and Jasper.

Brewster Travel is pitching a 400-metre interpretative trail with a glass-floored observation deck reaching 30 metres out into the Sunwapta Valley. The so-called Glacier Discovery Walk has received international acclaim for its design, but at the same time bitter criticism from conservationists who describe it as the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ that could eventually undermine the integrity of Canada’s national parks system.

An online petition hosted by the international activist group had gathered nearly 140,000 signatures by the beginning of this week. ‘The plan would not only spur development, but would give an American company the right to charge each of us for entry into parts of Jasper park,’ the petition declares.

For its part, Brewster argues on its website that the new walkway will improve safety, reduce wildlife mortality and enhance viewing. It adds: ‘Brewster has operated the Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure for 42 years serving over 15 million guests with an impeccable environmental track record in one of the most sensitive wilderness environments in Canada.’

The glacier walk controversy highlights a dilemma the keepers of Canada’s parks have faced for decades: Is it the duty of government to ensure Canada’s parks remain pristine wildlife refuges, or should some level of development be allowed to encourage urbanites to get out and explore? Further, will making the parks more accessible actually achieve the goal of increased revenue and visits?

We live in an urban age, the first time in human history when Canadians can travel through their entire youth without an outdoors experience. Without exposure to the wild, some fear, Canadians literally never discover what they’re missing.

It’s well-known that the vast majority of visitors to the national parks in Alberta spend most of their time on pavement. The busiest and most successful attractions in Banff National Park include visits to the chain stores in the Town of Banff, rides up the gondola on the edge of town, and short hikes in nearby Johnston Canyon, which is overrun with tourists on summer weekends.

Getting into the back country is saved for the 10 per cent of park visitors who seek out an authentic wilderness experience.

It seems that Parks may be missing the point in its desperate quest to get Canadians back into national parks. The decline in attendance may have more to do with aging Baby Boomers cutting back on physical activity, the effect of urbanization and – perhaps most importantly – the insidious side-effects of an economic recession that has cut into family incomes.

If that’s the case, then building elaborate boardwalks that will cost been $15 and $30 to access on top of the park fee will hardly to the solution to the attendance malaise. The magic of Canada’s national parks to the world has always been their rough, unspoiled nature. Any attempt to smooth off those rough edges threatens to undermine the very quality that makes them unique.

Will a glass walkway bring urbanites out into the wilderness? The novelty will certainly have some effect. But if Parks Canada sees salvation in such gimmicks, it is almost certainly in for bitter disappointment.

Doug Firby is Troy Media’s Editor-in-Chief.

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