Ski hill pleads guilty to cutting down protected tree species

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Lake Louise Ski Area has entered a guilty plea to charges it faced under the Species at Risk and National Parks acts in court this week, but the case was postponed for an agreed set of facts to be presented to the judge for sentencing.

The company appeared in Calgary Provincial Court on Monday (Dec. 4), for what was scheduled to be the first day of 15 for a trial, after the ski hill entered not-guilty pleas over a year ago to three charges was facing.

Dan Markham, director of brand and communications for the ski hill, said defence counsel is working with the Crown to prepare a joint statement of facts for the guilty plea to move forward next Monday (Dec. 11).

The guilty pleas were made to the single charge under SARA of destroying whitebark pine trees, a protected species of tree as it is officially considered endangered, and a charge under the National Parks Act in relation to the clearing activity that resulted in the trees being destroyed.

A third charge under the NPA for breaching a leasehold agreement is anticipated to be withdrawn by Crown counsel Erin Eacott after a sentence is issued by Judge Heather Lamoreux.

“Today we pleaded guilty to the first two charges, but we have sentencing and next steps have to be based on an agreed set of facts,” Markham said. “If there is any outstanding facts not agreed upon, it would proceed with calling of expert witnesses.”

A total of 14 witnesses were scheduled for the trial, including tree DNA experts on both sides who were expected to testify as to the species and total number of trees alleged to be destroyed within the ski hill’s leasehold area.

Markham said while the company has agreed to the fact that whitebark pine trees were inadvertently cleared on its property in 2013 between Aug. 12 and Sept. 23, what has not been clarified publicly is how many trees were actually involved.

“The hope is that we can come to an agreement on that,” he said.

Whitebark pine is considered an important high-elevation tree which stabilizes steep slopes, influences the amount of snow melt by sustaining snow drifts, and provides critical food, cover and shelter for many species of wildlife.

Scientists involved in assessing its status as a species say the survival of whitebark pine has been threatened by the combined effects of fire suppression, climate change, mountain pine beetle outbreaks and a disease known as white pine blister rust.

The trees are found in seven of Canada’s national parks: Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Jasper, Banff, Kootenay, Yoho and Waterton Lakes.

Whitebark pine was listed under the act as endangered in June, 2012.

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