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“Glacier Discovery Walk” Project to Go Ahead in Jasper

February 13, 2012

Another day, another commercial development in the heart of once-valued wilderness. In my last post, I advocated for opposing the “Glacier Discovery Walk” project. Perhaps it was naive, but it seemed like there might be a reprieve. On January 31 many of us received this email update from the Jasper National Park Superintendent’s office: “Parks Canada will take additional time to complete its determination regarding an environmental assessment of Brewster Travel Canada’s proposed Glacier Discovery Walk on the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park. A final determination will be made public in the coming weeks.”

I guess “in the coming weeks” meant “a few days from now”, since barely more than a week later — on February 9 — the following release came out: “Today, the Honourable Peter Kent, Canada’s Environment Minister and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, announced the decision to move forward with negotiations with Brewster Travel Canada’s proposal for a Glacier Discovery Walk project on the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park. The Glacier Discovery Walk project will be subject to mitigation measures identified through the environmental assessment process.”

More description of the decision can be read in the Parks Canada press release. In it, Minister Kent is quoted: “A major challenge in Canada’s national parks is to manage development in order to protect the area for future generations, while offering visitors the opportunity to enjoy and understand the national parks,” Minister Kent added. “During the public consultation process, we heard from many Canadians representing many perspectives. We recognize and appreciate the passion all Canadians feel for our national parks.

Perhaps it’s overly obvious, but protecting the area for future generations would be less challenging if we “managed” development by doing less of it. While it’s great that our passion for the park was recognized, clearly it wasn’t particularly heeded.

With all due respect to the Minister & his staff, the team managing Jasper National Park, and Brewster Travel Canada, in my opinion this decision does not reflect well on Canada. It does not exemplify visionary leadership in preserving our dwindling wild places. Rather, it promotes commercial tourism interests and “ease of access” over conservation, and adds just one more layer of human engineering as an interface between us and the natural world. It increases the risk of glitzy infotainment delivered in a theme park context as a replacement for true understanding.

In the press release, Minister Kent extolled the project as an “innovative and accessible way for visitors of all ages and abilities to have a state-of the-art experience, ‘a view from the edge’ of the landscape.” He further stated, “We are proud of this new exciting way for visitors from across Canada and around the world to experience the amazing vistas and learn about our unique ecological and cultural heritage while promoting economic activity and jobs in Jasper and the surrounding areas.” That sounds great, and I’ll grant the value of some level of accessibility for a wide range of visitors. But in my view we don’t need the parks as showcases for engineered innovation in tourism features, nor to deliver more “state-of-the-art”, i.e. artificial rather than natural, experience. Nor should promotion of economic interests be a high priority of parks policy.

To me, this development flies in the face of what I believe about the mission of our National Parks system. I don’t agree with the assertion by Blake Richards, Member of Parliament for Wild Rose, Alberta, that “our mountain parks draw people from all around the globe to enjoy the unparalleled beauty of our province of Alberta. And it is enhanced opportunities for visitor experiences, such as the Glacier Discovery Walk, that will help to keep them coming back again and again.” I believe the wilderness by itself is what drew people to visit, and it is sufficient in its own right. I’ve talked to countless people from many places across the world, large numbers of whom have nothing like this left in their home regions. None of these folks have ever expressed to me their desire to come to visit our parks… if only we had more built-up infrastructure within them. Quite the opposite, in most cases!

Well, enough ranting. At this point I guess the project will simply go ahead, regardless. We can only hope it’s going to be less bad instead of more bad, thanks to the whatever is meant by the “mitigation measures identified through the environmental assessment process.”

Perhaps it’s not a dead loss. I hope I can get a hot burger & fries while looking out through the glass and steel construct, and listening to my MP3 player. Oh yeah, and learning about the glaciers…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. HeatherL permalink
    February 13, 2012 14:14

    This is truly a sad day for Canada and Jasper. Visionary? I think not. Capitalism at its finest once again.

  2. February 14, 2012 10:25

    Hey Royce,

    Great post; you summarize my feelings exactly. If money is the issue, then maybe we need to alter our priorities and support the Parks so that they don’t have to resort to artificial constructs to ‘draw’ people. These kinds of man-made structures isolate people from nature, not bring us closer. If you want a great view, go for a hike on a high mountain ridge. A busload of tourists piling out on the glass walkway, elbow to elbow, gawking for 30 seconds down the gorge, does little to instill a profound awe of nature in people.

    It would also be nice if the politicians didn’t appear so ‘ra-ra’ in support of this development — is that their job, to champion private enterprise? Or are they trustees for the public of this incredible natural heritage? I would be interested to see what financial arrangement was made between Parks and Brewster.

    BTW, I bet you won’t be able to eat fries and a hamburger on the glass walk–might despoil the glass if you drop it.

  3. February 14, 2012 10:57

    Sam, in that case they should add a McDonald’s franchise to the plan. Clearly a gaping hole in their revenue model & planning. For the grease spots and wrappers thrown over the side, they can hire some cleaning crews, and create more jobs. Or perhaps deploy a fleet of Roomba’s designed for alpine conditions & terrain — that would be innovative and state-of-the-art!

    I agree with you re: funding. I would pay more for access to the parks to avoid having tourist trap facilities like this. But I suppose that’s not a viewpoint that will hold much sway in policy circles. Development and “progress” seem to be considered as universal goods in their own right, not to be challenged in virtually any context.

    I’ve said in the past that things like employment, economics and so on should not be top priorities of the National Parks system. It’s not that I’m naive — resolving conservation issues can only be done in the context of a viable economic model. That’s just modern reality. But that doesn’t mean the economic model always & only should be based on for-profit, infrastructure development-heavy, commercial developments. We’ve already put in the Icefields Parkway, the Columbia Icefield Center, and numerous other engineered tourism facilities. (And that’s setting aside everything around the town centers themselves, at Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper, etc.) Where does it stop? In fact, does it stop, or do we just get periodic lulls in the erosion? Probably a rhetorical question.

    You’re absolutely right. The National Parks (and provincial parks & lands as well) are held in the public trust, they’re not just resources to be exploited by business. There needs to be a sustainable alternative economic model to solve the funding of conservation without continuing to pave over top of the very thing that people are trying to experience…

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