'I don't want to see this town ruined': Waterton folks threaten legal action, vigilantism over visitor centre

Parks Canada says it won't revisit its decision to build a new visitor centre inside the Waterton Lakes National Park townsite — a move that has sparked petitions and threats of legal and even vigilante action to stop the tiny southern Alberta village from being "ruined."

Those opposed to building new centre within townsite say Parks Canada is acting like a 'dictatorship'

Parks Canada says it won't revisit its decision to build a new visitor centre inside the Waterton Lakes National Park townsite — a move that has sparked petitions and threats of legal and even vigilante action. 0:53

Parks Canada says it won't revisit its decision to build a new visitor centre inside the Waterton Lakes National Park townsite, while cottage and business owners say they will continue to fight within — and possibly outside — the law to stop their tiny southern Alberta village from being "ruined."

Opponents of the  $7.6 million project are concerned about congestion, traffic and parking in the townsite 260 kilometres south of Calgary. They want the new visitor centre built on the outskirts of town like the old one, but Parks Canada has already rejected that option.

Dave Cruickshank says he owns "half of main street" — a restaurant, a book store, three gift shops and a jewelry store — and that Parks Canada has been operating like a dictatorship on this development.

Despite the fact he, like all residents and business owners, leases his land from the federal agency, Cruickshank says he's not afraid to speak out to try to stop the government from destroying the town. 

"They've already ruined Banff, it's a horror show. They're well on their way to ruining Jasper and now they're picking on Waterton park," said Cruickshank, 75.

Dave Cruickshank, 75, accuses Parks Canada of running a dictatorship over its decision to locate a new visitor centre in the Waterton townsite. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

He's so angry he's threatening vigilante action. 

"Vigilantism is generally breaking the law, I don't want to see this town ruined and I think that's the greater good," he said inside the dining room at one of his businesses.

It's hard to tell if he's serious, but there's no questioning his love for a community where he's spent the past 50 years running his various enterprises.  

Leased land

Cruickshank says the overwhelming majority of leaseholders and business owners in Waterton are against building the visitor centre inside the townsite, but that some residents are afraid to speak out because their leases with Parks Canada are coming up for renewal. 

There's only a few dozen people who are year-round residents in the town — many of whom are Parks Canada employees — but there are approximately 160 cottages in Waterton that are privately owned.

There's also a handful of business owners who own and operate the town's hotels, motels, restaurants and shops. 

They've all signed land leases with Parks Canada for the privilege of owning a summer cottage or running a business in one of Alberta's five national parks.  

Parks Canada plans to replace this nearly 60 year old visitor centre with a new facility within the townsite. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

The Waterton Lake Leaseholders Association claims an informal survey it did in August 2015 showed 94 per cent opposition to the townsite plan.

And while the current visitor centre is located outside the townsite, Parks Canada says it's old and too small.  

It was built in 1958 and is just 56 square metres (600 square feet) — not nearly big enough to accommodate the nearly half million visitors who drop into the park every year, according to the agency.

Block 39

Parks Canada announced in March 2016 that the new facility would be located on what's known in planning documents as Block 39, after dismissing the option of building it outside of town.

Block 39 is designated as a recreational reserve that is currently home to a playground, a water spray park, tennis and basketball courts and public washrooms.  

The playground was funded by locals, many of whom spend anywhere from a few weeks to a few months in the national park townsite each year.

The playground located on what's known as Block 39 was built with funds raised by local leaseholders and may be moved to make way for the new visitor centre. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Ross Uibel owns an ice cream shop, a clothing store and a motel in the town where he lives part-time during the summer months. He wants Parks Canada to reconsider the decision to build the centre on Block 39.

'It's going to be a zoo'

Uibel says it doesn't make sense to locate a visitor centre in town — it will generate too much traffic and exacerbate parking and congestion problems. 

"The location is a real, severe problem, we need to look at other options," said Uibel. 

"When you go into a national park or any other place, the first place you want to go is a visitor centre, not try to find it downtown. It's going to be a zoo."

The president and vice president of the Waterton Chamber of Commerce refused to be interviewed for this story, but did release a statement.

Some business owners and leaseholders say the new visitor centre should be built here at Parks Canada's compound site, just outside the townsite. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

"The Chamber of Commerce has made its view clear to Parks Canada on our recommendation of the location of the visitor's centre," it reads.

"Our main mandate is the enhancement of the visitor experience and marketing of Waterton Lakes National Park around the world. We will work with Parks Canada on whichever site is chosen."  

The chamber's vice-president, Shameer Suleman, would not tell CBC News what the organization's recommendation was regarding the new centre.

He suggested CBC contact Parks Canada for that information, but the agency said it had not received a recommendation from the group.

Cruickshank and Uibel would like to see the visitor centre located at the Parks Canada operations compound a bit further away from the townsite, just before the current centre near the entrance to the historic Prince of Wales Hotel — the location already rejected by Parks. 

Natalie Bevans is with the group Save the Waterton Field. Her family owns a cottage across the street from the proposed visitor centre. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Uibel says shuttle buses could bring visitors to that site to avoid the traffic, parking and safety issues that he says will result from the Block 39 option. He says the town is small enough that people don't need their cars. 

Internal emails

Natalie Bevans' family owns a cottage across the street from the park where the new visitor centre is set to be built and speaks for the group Save the Waterton Field, which received several thousand pages of documents under Access to Information requests.

The group says the documents reveal several Parks Canada managers expressed concerns about the townsite location, but feared their opinions were being ignored.

"That information will never be considered unless there is some opportunity for the consultants to consider it," wrote C. Locke Marshall, Waterton's Visitor Experience Manager in one email. 

This email, obtained by Save the Waterton Field, was written by Waterton's Visitor Experience manager. C. Locke Marshall raised concerns that his views were being ignored when Parks Canada was considering a new location for a visitor centre. (Save the Waterton Field)

Marshall was referring to a consultant who was brought in by Parks Canada "to undertake a third party review" of the two proposed locations.

In other emails, Marshall expressed concerns that traffic and parking problems associated with the townsite location could not be mitigated.

He feared people will skip visiting the centre to avoid congestion in town.

Waterton's acting asset manager raised concerns about the centre's site selection study in another email.  

"There are many questionable assumptions and misrepresentations throughout this document that must be addressed," wrote Allen Nelson.

"This project is far too important to push through without proper process," he added. "Once a site is selected there must be a defensible rationale for its selection and I am afraid this document leaves us open to scrutiny."

Opponents of the project say the emails show the site selection process was flawed and even suggests the findings were manipulated to favour the townsite location. The group wants park superintendent Ifan Thomas fired. 

Waterton Avenue is the main street through the Waterton Lakes National Park townsite. Opponents to the new visitor centre worry about congestion in the town. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

"We don't feel he has the confidence of the public to fulfil his duties as the superintendent in Waterton," said Bevans. 

She rejects any claim that her position is founded on NIMBYism.  

"This is an issue that affects every visitor to Waterton," she said.  "We want to see Waterton preserved the way it is for generations to come." 

Legal challenge, take two

Fraser Leishman and Gray Greenway, whose families own cottages in town, want the Federal Court to review the decision to locate the visitor centre in the townsite.

Their first attempt was dismissed earlier this year.   

That initial application for a judicial review missed a 30-day deadline — it was filed seven months late — and the judge refused to extend the deadline. The decision is now being appealed.

"The applicants have not established a reasonable explanation for their delay in commencing legal proceedings," said Justice George Locke in his decision.

The leaseholders argued the deadline was missed because they were waiting for the Access to Information documents to determine whether there were grounds for legal action. 

They contend the public was not properly consulted and the new location for the visitor centre contravenes the 2000 Waterton community plan.   

Locke said he would have "difficulty finding merit in the applicants' argument of inadequate public consultation," but added "there is sufficient potential merit" to the argument that the decision fails to comply with the Community Plan. 

Despite that, Locke cautioned: "This is not determinative." 

If the appeal is lost, some leaseholders promise a legal challenge of the development permit once it's issued. 

Parks Canada defends decision

Parks Canada is standing by its decision and disagrees there is any opposition to the project within the organization.

"I believe the managers, if I spoke to them, would all say they stated their concerns, they were expressed, they were discussed, they were debated and the decision when it was made is one that they are supportive of," said Pat Thomsen, executive director of Pacific and National Mountain Parks for Parks Canada.

Pat Thomsen is the executive director for pacific and national mountain national parks, with Parks Canada. She says the decision to locate the visitor centre in the Waterton townsite is final. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Thomsen says the site selection study was just one factor in the decision-making process.  

"I don't have concerns that important information was not considered, was not looked at," she said.   

"I do believe we followed a proper process, I do believe the challenge is, it's not widely a popular decision for some groups and that is the nature of public decisions." 

She added the decision is final and will not be re-visited, and she fully supports the work of the park's superintendent.  

"I have a great deal of confidence in Mr. Thomas, the work he's done on this file and the integrity with which he operates," said Thomsen.

The community is now being consulted on three different design options, one of which would result in the removal of the spray park and playground.

Option 1 for the proposed visitor centre in the Waterton Lakes National Park townsite. (Parks Canada)
Option 2 for the proposed Waterton Lakes National Park visitor centre. (Parks Canada)
Preliminary design for Option 3 of the planned visitor centre in Waterton Lakes National Park. (Parks Canada)

Thomsen says Parks Canada has "engaged" a traffic engineer to look at ways to mitigate the impact of having the centre located in the townsite along Windflower Avenue.  

As for the compound site that was considered outside of town, Thomsen says it doesn't fit in with their long-term strategy for Waterton.

"Waterton is an iconic place and providing people an opportunity to embrace the townsite, which is the centre for our visitors, is also one of our goals that we see as very important," she said. 

'Dictatorship'

Cruickshank, however, doesn't consider the issue dead. He says opponents could occupy the parks office — or the new visitor centre location — to protest the decision, and that he's not worried about any possible repercussions from Parks Canada.

"My leases don't come up 'til 2042 and I'll be 100 years old and probably dead, so I don't care. I'm more concerned about what happens to this quaint little town they're trying to ruin," he said. 

Uibel says he'd be willing to help pay for a legal challenge to stop the Block 39 location from going ahead.

"It's sad to see this kind of dictatorship happening," he said.

Parks Canada wants to start construction next year and plans to open the centre in 2019.

Ross Uiebel, 77, owns several businesses in Waterton. He says he's prepared to help pay for a judicial review of the decision to build the visitor centre in the townsite. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

About the Author

Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.