The future of a controversial $86.4 million paved bike trail between Jasper and the Columbia Icefield, eventually extending to Lake Louise, appears somewhat uncertain due to funding.
Money set aside in the 2016 federal budget for a 107-kilometre long multi-purpose trail from Jasper to Wilcox campground was tied to a federal finance department stipulation for infrastructure projects being implemented within two years.
Parks Canada officials say the 123-km extension to Lake Louise is in a “holding pattern,” while public consultation has been extended to allow for more meaningful Indigenous consultation on the Jasper-Columbia Icefield portion of the trail.
They say a public review of the draft detailed environmental impact analysis is expected in late 2017 when the public and Indigenous process is complete, but add there is now no timeline for the project.
“After the consultation periods, if the decision is to move forward with the concept, new project timelines would be established,” said Audrey Champagne, spokesperson for Parks Canada. “Parks Canada would work to obtain the continued financial support for this project with the original budget 2016 funding.”
The $86.4 million budget for the project includes construction of the trail from Jasper to Columbia Icefield, as well as an environmental analysis and design to continue the trail to Lake Louise in future.
Just shy of $70 million is from the 2016 federal budget and another $20.5 million is from Parks Canada’s budget. The federal budget money had to be spent within a two-year time frame, but Parks Canada has been working to get an extension until 2019-20.
Conservationists, who are opposed to the bike trail for various reasons, including negative effects on grizzly bears and caribou, say they believe this funding dilemma with the timeframe could mean the end of the project.
They say they can’t imagine how cash-strapped Parks Canada – particularly given it’s exploring the possibility of selling off $8.3 billion of parks highways, bridges and dam infrastructure – would get the funding to proceed if budget deadlines are passed.
“It’s an exorbitantly expensive project and we’re hoping this means the project as originally conceived is dead in the water due to lack of infrastructure funding,” said Reg Bunyan, who’s on the board of directors for Bow Valley Naturalists.
Bunyan said there is a real need for an open dialogue about cycling opportunities in the national parks, but that discussion needs to be framed around economic and policy issues, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion.
“All of these need to be part of a proper public process and incorporated into management plans,” he said.
“I can understand the attraction when the money floated down from the feds, but it’s not the way to do things.”
Officials with the Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment (AMPPE) say they have heard nothing from Parks Canada regarding any changes to funding dedicated to this project.
“AMPPE is still in support of this project being pursued based on its merits,” said Casey Peirce, the group’s executive director. “We still regard the project as being worthwhile for providing new opportunities for access to the park.”
A memo from Parks CEO Daniel Watson to Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, obtained under Access to Information legislation earlier this year, outlines how the project came to be in the first place.
The memo, which was dubbed secret, was in response to a request from McKenna for information on the project, including “the background of the project, its inclusion in budget 2016 and next steps”.
Watson wrote that in December 2014 executives in the mountain parks got together to discuss a concept for construction of a 230km trail from Jasper to Lake Louise.
The estimated cost in 2014 over a four-year period was estimated at $160 million, according to the memo.
“As no source of funds to support the initiative was available at the time, it did not advance,” wrote Watson.
Watson said Parks Canada then revisited the 2014 proposal in 2016 in light of a request by the federal finance department for infrastructure projects that could be implemented within two years.
Given the two-year time constraint, he said, Parks Canada submitted a proposal with a reduced scope of work than the original proposal, specifically a 107 km section of trail from Jasper to the Columbia Icefield over three years.
“The funding program included the environmental assessment and design work for the 130 km segment from the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre to Lake Louise,” he wrote.