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Banff's Sunshine ski resort accepts site guidelines in face of closing business

An internationally known ski resort in Banff National Park has signed new site guidelines that include a plan for future growth — despite having grave concerns with it.

'Alternative is to lose our family business since 1981 and my life's work,' president writes

The gondola at Banff Sunshine Village ski resort is seen in this undated handout photo. The ski resort's management say they signed new site guidelines despite major concerns with the contents. (Banff Sunshine Village/The Canadian Press)

An internationally known ski resort in Banff National Park has signed new site guidelines that include a plan for future growth — despite having grave concerns with it.

In a letter sent this week to Banff park's acting superintendent, Sunshine Village president Ralph Scurfield said the ski resort is disappointed by how the plan might affect its operations.

The new site guidelines for Sunshine Village provide a framework for future use, growth and development at the resort until 2060.

"Despite our disappointment ... we accept the site guidelines as you have presented them," Scurfield said in the Jan. 21 letter. "The alternative is to lose our family business since 1981 and my life's work for the last 38 years."

Accept or lose lease

A letter from Michael Nadler, Parks Canada's acting chief executive, had informed the resort it could either accept the guidelines or lose its lease to operate.

Nadler goes on to say that should the guidelines not be accepted, Parks Canada would seek a new ski hill operator with a public request for proposals.

Sunshine Village was the last ski area in the mountain parks without the guidelines that allow for managed growth while protecting the environment.

Banff National Park and Sunshine Village ski resort have debated for years about how to best manage an influx of vehicles in the winter months. (Sunshine Village)

The guidelines, which were released online by Sunshine along with the letters, would establish permanent limits to growth.

They would allow the resort to have up to 8,500 visitors at a time — up from 6,500 — and build an additional 3,650 square metres of commercial space, add up to eight new ski lifts and develop up to 80 hectares of new ski terrain.

The guidelines remove 61 hectares with high ecological value from the lease.

'Heavy-handed' demands

The negotiations for a new lease, Sunshine spokesperson Kendra Scurfield said, suggest Parks Canada wants to make another major change after the current one expires in 2020.

Currently Sunshine's lease says Parks Canada will buy out the ski hill's infrastructure if the company's lease is not renewed, Scurfield said.

The 2020 lease, she said, would have a different end-of-lease agreement, with one of two options: either Sunshine would sell its infrastructure to Parks for $1 or remove the infrastructure itself and return the land to its natural state.

Kendra Scurfield's family has run Sunshine Village ski resort for decades. She says Parks Canada is being "heavy handed" in some of its demands. (Radio-Canada)

In an interview with Radio-Canada, Scurfield called the change "worrisome" because Sunshine built and paid for the infrastructure to last a lifetime.

"It seems a bit heavy-handed," she said.

Parking woes

For the site guidelines, Parks Canada rejected Sunshine's parking proposal, which included a 750-space satellite parking lot along the resort's access road, but the guidelines allow for more transportation and parking through a combination of transit and a parking structure of "no pre-determined size" at the base of the resort.

Scurfield said the parkade would be "cost prohibitive" to build, an eyesore, and could potentially block the movement of animals.

And if the company wants to grow to the permitted 8,500 daily visitor limit, she said they would need to accommodate far more vehicles.

Banff Sunshine Village ski resort is an internationally known ski resort in Banff National Park. The company has signed new site guidelines with Parks Canada. (Banff Sunshine Village/The Canadian Press)

Parks Canada was "completely appropriate" to take a tougher stance on Sunshine's lease than it has in the past, said Ian Urquhart, conservation staff member with Alberta Wilderness Association.

The association wrote a letter to the parks regulator opposing Sunshine's parking proposals and increased visitor limits over concerns of ecological integrity in Banff National Park, which he said is ranked only "fair" in several markers.

Ian Urquhart with the Alberta Wilderness Association says Parks Canada was right to be strict with Sunshine Village. (Radio-Canada)

He said government is more understanding of environmental impact in recent years. Since 2006, Parks Canada has stressed the need for mass transit to get people to ski hills, rather than encourage more driving.

"It strikes me that the owners of Sunshine view their operations there as if it's a right, that they have a right to operate there. They don't," Urquhart said. "It's federal land, it's the public's land and it's a privilege to be able to operate a ski hill in a national park."

Sunshine management feels the process was "flawed," Scurfield said, and they are trying to raise awareness of that in the public, given thousands of Canadians wrote into the public consultation.

"It is an emotional process for sure but at the end of the day, it's not about our family and the business," she said. "It's about Canadian families and the families that come out here to enjoy winter recreation."

Thousands wrote into the public consultation process for the Banff Sunshine Village ski resort site guidelines. (The Canadian Press/HO - Banff Sunshine Village)

Officials with Parks Canada said in a statement Thursday that they are still finalizing the guidelines and will release them publicly in the near future.

"Parks Canada continues to be committed to downhill skiing within the national parks," said the email.

"The Sunshine Village Ski area site guidelines will provide long-term predictability for the operator, while ensuring that ecological integrity, including the protection of wildlife, is the first priority for decision-making."

With files from Radio-Canada's Francois Joly and CBC News

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