'Lack of oversight' led to Lake Louise resort cutting endangered trees, Crown argues in sentencing

The Crown says a lack of oversight on the part of a world-renowned Alberta ski resort led to endangered trees being cut down five years ago.

World-renowned Alberta ski destination pleaded guilty to charges late last year

In this file photo, a Colorado man hacks into a pine-beetle-kill tree to try to find a pine beetle. Whitebark pine trees, which the Lake Louise resort admitted to cutting down, are at risk in part due to beetle infestations. (Kristin Anderson/Vail Daily/The Associated Press)

The Crown says a lack of oversight on the part of a world-renowned Alberta ski resort led to endangered trees being cut down five years ago.

The Lake Louise resort in Banff National Park pleaded guilty in December to cutting down a stand of trees, including some whitebark pine, along a ski run in 2013.

The resort will be sentenced on two charges — one under the Species At Risk Act and the other under the Canada National Parks Act.

"The evidence will show that the managers of Lake Louise ski area were aware before the offence that whitebark pine was a species of concern and an endangered species that could not be harmed," Crown prosecutor Erin Eacott said Monday at the beginning of a week-long sentencing hearing.

"I also anticipate that the evidence will show that the work that was done on Ptarmigan Ridge was on a to-do list for Lake Louise ski area's trail crew for several months before the cutting occurred, and there was lack of oversight by Lake Louise ski area's management."

The Lake Louise resort in Banff National Park is undergoing a week-long sentencing hearing that started Monday after pleading guilty to cutting an endangered tree species. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The hearing is also to determine how many trees were cut down.

A total of 132 trees were removed at the site but the actual number of whitebark pine is being disputed. The Crown originally said 39 were removed, but the defence says the number is much lower.

Crucial for habitat, slope stabilization

The maximum fine under the Species At Risk Act for each tree destroyed is $300,000, while the maximum per tree is $250,000 under the National Parks Act.

The long-lived, five-needle whitebark pine is native to high elevations and is threatened by invasive disease, fire and climate change. It is considered crucial because it provides food and habitat for animals and helps stabilize steep subalpine slopes.

"The Crown is not arguing that the number of whitebark pine that were cut down at Lake Louise ski area had an impact on the overall whitebark pine population in Canada," Eacott told court.

"However, there's other reasons that we should be concerned about cutting whitebark pine as an endangered species in a national park."

Whitebark pine is at risk because of many factors, including the mountain pine beetle infestation. In this file photo, whitebark pine have succumbed to mountain pine beetles in the Gros Ventre area east of Jackson Hole, Wyo. (The Associated Press)

Park Warden Paul Friesen was the first investigator at the Lake Louise site in September 2014.

"It became apparent quite quickly ... a bunch of tree stumps on the ground and pieces of the tree that were discarded to the side," he said. "The entire length of this is approximately 300 metres long."

Friesen, now acting warden supervisor for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks, said some of the discarded trees were mature and up to eight metres high.

He said both visual examinations and DNA analysis were used to confirm which ones were whitebark pine.

"We identified multiple species were cut down at the site," Friesen said.

"There was whitebark pine, which was of course the most concerning to us, but in addition to that there were larch trees, fir trees. There was spruce trees cut down."