Calgary

Letter warns UNESCO about Olympic impact in Banff National Park

A Canadian environmental group wants a United Nations agency to warn the federal government about the possible impact of holding Winter Olympic events in Banff National Park.

Banff already overloaded with visitors and carrying as much infrastructure as it can stand, group argues

A Canadian environmental group is warning a United Nations body about the possible impact of hosting Winter Olympic events in Banff National Park. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

A Canadian environmental group wants a United Nations agency to warn the federal government about the possible impact of holding Winter Olympic events in Banff National Park.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society has written a letter to UNESCO saying ski events at Lake Louise could threaten the values that have made the park a World Heritage Site.

"We are asking that the World Heritage Committee make a recommendation to Canada or a statement against large-scale events or development that would have negative long term impacts in the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site," said the letter sent in April.

A feasibility study presented to Calgary city council, which is considering bidding for the 2026 Winter Games, suggests Lake Louise should be considered as a venue for ski speed events.

Concerns have been raised about how the park would be affected by crowds attending the races, as well as by grandstands, media facilities and other infrastructure that would be required.

An Olympic bid committee has suggested that Nakiska ski resort might be an alternative. Nakiska is outside the park and was the site for ski events during the 1988 Winter Games.

However, a spokesman for the bid committee acknowledged that Lake Louise is still in the mix.

"They're exploring all options," said Chris Dornan. "Nothing's been finalized. It's a very early stage."

Banff National Park is part of the Canadian Mountain Parks World Heritage Site that includes Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho national parks and Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine and Hamber provincial parks.

"With rugged mountain peaks, icefields and glaciers, alpine meadows, lakes, waterfalls, extensive karst cave systems and deeply incised canyons, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks possess exceptional natural beauty," says UNESCO's description.

Canadian Alpine ski team member Manuel Osborne-Paradis pauses while training for the 2014 Sochi Olympics at Sunshine Village near Banff. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

UNESCO monitors its sites and can request member nations to report on them and propose ways to fix problems. The federal government is currently developing plans to improve Wood Buffalo National Park after UNESCO raised concerns about it.

The letter says Banff is already overloaded with visitors and carrying as much infrastructure as it can stand.

"Visitation to the Park has skyrocketed and the government of Canada has failed to safeguard the ecological integrity of the area. The park is bursting at the seams, and crowding, traffic and human-wildlife conflict have become major problems," it says.

"The scale, scope, and cachet the Olympic Games have will greatly and inevitably (exacerbate) the pressures and impacts the park is already challenged with."

Skiers leave the resort after a power failure shut down all operations at the women's World Cup downhill ski race at Lake Louise in December 2017. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The letter points to a 2016 Parks Canada assessment that suggests Banff's ecosystems are only in fair condition.

Dornan said no official venue proposals will be made for a while. He said concerns such as those raised in the letter will be heard.

"There's a lot of parties involved here. We're listening to everybody."

Lake Louise holds regular World Cup ski races.

A non-binding citywide plebiscite is expected for the late fall on whether Calgary should proceed with a bid.

The Parks and Wilderness Society said it's not opposed to the Olympics, just using national parks as a venue. It warned that doing so would increase controversy around an event that is intended to bring people together.

"The idea that the Olympics may be held in a national park and World Heritage Site is a contentious issue and will divide Canadians," the letter says.

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