Banff’s $67 Million Dollar Joke

As usual, it is a rant that gets me back onto my blog train. This time around, it’s the federal government’s announcement last Wednesday, July 15th, that the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park is going to get a $67 million dollar facelift widening its shoulders to create a bike path between Banff and Lake Louise (under the guise that the changes will make it safer for cyclists and motorists, alike).

Fresh on the heels of a series of government sell-outs/development approvals in the core of our mountain national parks — the ridiculous Skywalk at the Icefields in Jasper, the Mt Norquay gondola in Banff, and the Marmot Basin ski hill expansion in Jasper in the heart of endangered mountain caribou range — this decision to widen the Bow Valley Parkway reeks of business interests getting their way once again within our national parks at the expense of ecological integrity (y’know, that minor thing the entire parks system was created to protect).

Will wildlife sightings along the Bow Valley Parkway become a thing of the past?

Who does this “infrastructure improvement” benefit? Certainly not the wildlife along the Bow Valley Parkway. Anyone that has driven the Trans-Canada Highway between Banff and Canmore in recent years can attest to the extraordinary popularity of the new Legacy Trail (a paved bike path that runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway between the two resort towns) and it’s easy to count the impact it’s had on local recreation between the towns. Yesterday, I drove that stretch of highway at 2:30 p.m. and counted 113 cyclists, runners, mountain bikers, skateboarders, and roller skiers using the 21-kilometer pathway. So now imagine how many recreational users are going to take advantage of the proposed new bike path along the Bow Valley Parkway, with broad, paved, 2.5-meter shoulders, and a leisurely, winding route through gorgeous montane and subalpine forests and meadows. It will be a zoo. A zoo without any animals in it, that is.

A number of years ago I was invited by Parks Canada to be on a Bow Valley Parkway (BVP) stakeholder committee to determine the future direction of the BVP in terms of wildlife management and visitor engagement. Specifically, one of our key tasks was to help determine whether or not Parks Canada should close certain parts of the Parkway during key times of the year to protect wildlife.

The process was long and drawn out over years worth of meetings, research, and communication between stakeholders. I held a unique position on the committee in that I was a member of the business community (I had business relationships with all three resorts on the BVP), yet I was also a vocal environmental advocate in the community, so I had close ties to many of the Parks representatives and the environmental organizations.

In the final meeting of the committee, I abstained from attending and instead submitted a seven-page letter which I had the chair of the committee read out loud. I knew that I was a potential ‘swing’ vote and I also knew that my decision was likely going to alienate myself from either the business community or the environmental community. Yet my choice was clear, despite the fact that closing the BVP during critical times of the year would impact my photography business directly financially, I was 100% in favour of the closure and chastised those who were putting their own business interests ahead of the interests of the park’s wildlife.

From April 1st to June 25th each year now, the Bow Valley Parkway is closed to all traffic (including bikes and pedestrians) from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. each night to “give animals free rein to use the area and feed in the critical spring months following winter hibernation.” Designed specifically to provide some relief to grizzly and black bears to forage on the BVP’s wide right-of-ways that green up early each spring, the closure has also benefited local wolves, cougars, elk, and deer, among others.

The BVP closure was implemented to allow animals to feed freely along the roadside

The committee that I was a part of never did discuss widening the Bow Valley Parkway or making a designated bike path along it. Safety was not an issue, nor was increasing recreational use. After all, we had just agreed to decrease use. What we did discuss was how to make the BVP more wildlife-friendly so that visitors could see more wildlife along it: light more prescribed burns, create more meadow-like habitat using selective logging and thinning, add speed bumps to reduce speeding. 

We definitely did not discuss how we could turn the BVP into a wildlife-free zone during daylight hours, which is exactly what this proposed bike path and widening of the road will do for all but the most habituated animals. It’s not hard to see that there will be a dramatic increase in bike and foot traffic, and that wider roads with broader shoulders will likely lead to an increase in speeding and reckless driving from locals and tourists. And it’s critical to note that widening the Parkway will take away at least 5 meters of vital right-of-way, this same valuable roadside foraging habitat that the mandatory spring closure was supposed to allow animals easy access to.

So with more traffic, more disturbances (roadside wildlife reacts far more negatively to cyclists, for instance, than to vehicles), and less roadside forage for animals to eat, the end result is going to be a Bow Valley Parkway with a lot fewer wildlife sightings. It’s a lose-lose situation: park visitors that drive the BVP to see wildlife lose out on that chance, and park wildlife loses out on getting to eat the fabulous roadside buffet of grasses, dandelions, willows, and berries that currently exists on the Parkway.

And that doesn’t take into account the enormous, disruptive impact the construction process would have on everyone (wildlife and humans) for several summers in order to widen the road.

Would the widening of the BVP make it safer for motorists and cyclists as the July 15th federal announcement highlights? Absolutely. The road that has never had a cycling OR vehicular fatality on it would continue to be just as safe as it always has been, maybe even more so (a number of cyclists wondered aloud on Twitter this week why an already safe road needs to be made even safer). Meanwhile, the 1A highway west of Morley in our federal riding really does not have shoulders on it (the BVP actually already has shoulders and is quite easy to pull over safely on, particularly given the 60 km/hr speed limit) and is a constant source of fatalities, yet not a dime will be spent on that piece of infrastructure which runs through the Stoney Nakoda reserve. Maybe that’s not as sexy as announcing big funding for our premier national park with the national election around the corner?

And what’s being missed in all of this is that our national parks should not be prioritizing road biking over ecological integrity. People can road bike anywhere in the world, they cannot drive a beautiful, scenic 60 km/hr road and have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see bears and wolves anywhere in the world.

If the federal government really wants to spend that $67 million on something useful, then I suggest they use it to enrich existing wildlife habitat along the Bow Valley Parkway to truly enhance the visitor experience for everyone from wildlife photographers like myself to the family of five from India that is visiting Canada for the very first time in the hopes of seeing a wild bear in the mountains.  Spend that money on clearing the right-of-ways along the Icefields Parkway so that visitors and locals alike can see more wildlife along there and avoid collisions with animals that can step straight onto the road from the dense cover that lines that road for much of its length. Or take those valuable dollars and continue to build wildlife fencing along Highway 93 South in Kootenay National Park, which has long been a killing field for everything from moose and wolves to deer and bears.

And if you really have to build a bike path between Banff and Lake Louise, do it where it belongs: right beside the Trans-Canada Highway just like the existing Legacy Trail.

Got a Comment? Agree or Disagree? Let me know in the Comments section below.