Visitors to Alberta's Jasper National Park will soon be able to get "an iconic" tourism experience by walking alongside a glacier, Environment Minister Peter Kent announced Thursday.
The minister responsible for Parks Canada said the federal government has approved the environmental assessment done for the Glacier Discovery Walk, a project proposed by a tourism company that already operates in the national park.
The approval of the assessment means Brewster Travel Canada has been given the regulatory green light to go ahead with its venture.
"I'd like to assure you and all Canadians that as a world leader in conservation, Parks Canada would not approve this project if there were environmental concerns that could not be addressed," Kent said at a news conference in Ottawa. "The Glacier Discovery Walk in Jasper National Park, I believe, will very quickly become an iconic Canadian tourism experience."
Brewster Travel Canada wants to build a viewing platform that would extend over the Sunwapta Valley at the end of a 400-metre trail along the Icefields Parkway, and Parks Canada agreed to consider the idea, subject to public consultation and an environmental assessment.
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Kent and Brewster president Michael Hannan, who was also at the press conference, said the consultations were robust, transparent and inclusive.
Critics 'disappointed' by decision
But there have been critics of the project who lobbied the government not to approve it because of concerns over privatizing part of a public park and the potential effects on wildlife and the landscape.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society said it was "extremely disappointed" with the government's decision.
"We're opposed to this massive development because the long-term impact it may have on wildlife in the area, including mountain goats and other sensitive species, is simply not known," Eric Hébert-Daly, the group's national executive director, said in a news release.
The group said the tourist attraction is driven more by commercial interests rather than ecological ones and that it's not appropriate for a national park.
The company, however, says that it is committed to sustainable development and that through the interpretive walk visitors will learn about glaciers, ecology, geology, and about the aboriginal and social history of the area. The trail will also be fully accessible, regardless of the mobility limitations of some visitors.
The tourism company, which has commissioned a number of its own studies, said it expects the environmental impact of constructing the glacier walk to be "minimal."
An educational experience
Hannan said the trail will give visitors an educational experience and allow them to truly engage in a landscape that is a "unique world wonder."
"We're very proud of this opportunity to bring a new experience to Canada's national parks and we're very proud of the environmental assessment process that we went through because we think we took a lot of time, effort and really did a fantastic job," he said.
Hannan wouldn't disclose the cost of the project, but said visitors can expect to pay an admission fee of between $15 and $29.
Because Jasper Park is a national park, it was up to the federal government to give a green light to the project.
Parks Canada has said the proposal is consistent with land use zoning provisions for the park, it doesn't intrude into the lands managed as declared wilderness areas, and that it won't involve "incremental development" such as new buildings or transportation routes because Brewster already operates in the park at the Icefield Centre.
It also said its consideration of the Glacier Discovery Walk does not signal a change in its policies on commercial development.
Kent defended the project against the criticisms, saying there are already commercial operations within national parks and that Parks Canada is fully meeting its mandate. He also said the new tourist attraction will be built on an existing parking lot and that no species will be lost because of it.
"There's a balance that we've achieved and I think that when it's fully in place many of today's critics will become fans," he said.
The environmental assessment did identify some "mitigations" that will be addressed as the project moves into its final design and construction phases.
Greg Fenton, superintendent for Jasper National Park, said there are concerns about mountain goats being displaced during construction, but that the company said they are unlikely to materialize. Parks Canada plans to monitor wildlife to ensure it is not adversely affected by the glacier walk.
He also told the news conference that the public viewing areas along the parkway may get more visitors if people don't want to pay to use the viewing spot on the new trail, and upgrades to those facilities may be made as a result.