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Conservation groups want Parks Canada to pump the brakes on Banff e-bike policy

Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN) and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) have fired off a letter to Parks Canada CEO Michael Nadler to voice concerns about a lack of transparency and public consultation, noting this “behind closed door decision-making erodes public trust.”
E-bikes are becoming a popular way to travel and can now be rented at local bike shops in town. Paul Clarke Photo

BANFF – Environmentalists are calling on Parks Canada to put the brakes on a new national policy that allows e-bikes on certain trails in Banff National Park.

Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN) and Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) have fired off a letter to Parks Canada CEO Michael Nadler to voice concerns about a lack of transparency and public consultation, noting this “behind closed door decision-making erodes public trust.”

The pedal-assisted e-bike policy allows battery power-assisted bicycles on trails open to regular bikes, subject to various power, design and speed limitations. Several trails in Lake Louise, including some within prime grizzly bear habitat, are now open to pedal-assisted e-bikes as a result of the new policy.

The case put forward by conservationists is that the greater speed, range and relative silence of e-bikes is likely to lead to increased visitor and wildlife conflicts, degradation of wilderness values, and ultimately, add one more stressor to an already struggling ecosystem.

“The new policy will allow motorized bicycles in the backcountry capable of going faster than the current speed limit on Banff Avenue,” they wrote to Nadler on June 12, referring to the 30-km/h posted speed on the townsite’s main street.

With the scoping phase of a new 10-year management plan for Banff National Park currently underway, BVN and CPAWS say Parks Canada staff at no time raised the issue of e-bikes, or hinted a new policy was in the works during stakeholder meetings.

In fact, given that e-bike technology is expanding rapidly, they say they and others have brought up this issue as one worthy of discussion during the management plan process, an issue they say was acknowledged by Parks Canada staff.

Reg Bunyan, BVN’s vice-president, said they were shocked this seemingly fait accompli national policy “appears to have come out of left field with no dialogue or transparency,” and has pre-empted the planning process.

He said it also highlights a continued trend of the agency not putting ecological integrity first in its decision making.

“This makes a mockery of Parks Canada agency’s commitment to be open and transparent in the park management plan process,” Bunyan said. “Trust has been eroded and promises broken.”

In addition, the conservation groups don’t understand what is driving this new policy, other than the agency’s own internal visitor experience culture.

The Outlookinitially requested an interview with Parks Canada about the new e-bike policy on May 10, shortly after Jasper National

Park announced it would allow electric bikes on trails where bicycles are already permitted as part of a pilot project.

Since that time, the Outlookhas asked made multiple requests for an interview on this subject, but was told no interview would be granted. An email statement was provided on June 19.

Prior to national direction on e-bike use, Banff put in a restricted activity order in June 2018 in locations in Banff, except for the Legacy Trail. National guidelines on bicycling on trails, including peddle assisted e-bikes, came out in February 2019.

With that, Parks Canada says each park or site has the authority to determine if e-bike restrictions will be in place, and on which trails.

Although there are several bikes trails in Banff field unit, such Spray River and Goat Creek trail, Cascade, Redearth and the 24.9-km one-way Lake Minnewanka trail, Parks Canada has so far said yes to the paved Legacy trail only.

In the Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay field unit recently allowed e-bikes on several designated bike trails in the Lake Louise area – Moraine Lake Highline, which lies within important grizzly bear habitat, Pipestone, Ross Lake, Tramline and Bow River Loop.

“These trails are used by many people for a variety of reasons including biking, rollerblading, walking and running,” the Parks Canada statement read. “Biking is a popular activity and the use of pedal assist electric bicycles aligns with the intended purpose of these trails.”

The Bow Valley Mountain Bike Alliance could not be reached for comment on its thoughts on the issue before the Outlook’s publishing deadline.

Bunyan said the policy appears to be no more than a thinly disguised means of getting around the definition of a motor vehicle in Parks Canada’s highway traffic regulations to accommodate a new visitor activity.

“Although we are just on the verge of a potential e-bike explosion, it’s not as if there’s a large lobby group of e-bikers out there,” Bunyan said, who is a retired resource conservation officer with Banff National Park.

In response to BVN and CPAWS, a letter from Parks Canada primarily addressed how the policy on e-bikes complies with national parks highway traffic regulations, but noted the agency limits use of bicycles to select trails to “minimize potential impacts.”

“The use of pedal assist electric bicycles is not expected to have noticeably different impacts when compared to regular bike use,” wrote Ed Jager, Parks Canada’s national director of visitor experience.

“As with all visitor activities, Parks Canada will be placing an emphasis on education and information for visitors, and will use compliance and enforcement as required.”

As someone who has managed an enforcement program, Bunyan said he can safely say this will be an “almost impossible nightmare to enforce.”

“It’s one thing to enforce wattage and speed standards in an urban area on a few key bike trails, but impossible in a dispersed backcountry situation,” he said.

Local and national conservation organizations have repeatedly taken Parks Canada to task to use the precautionary principle in decision-making – and say the e-bikes is a perfect example for this.

“Power speed, stealth and mass production will make it extremely hard to turn the clock back once this technology is embraced,” Bunyan said.

BVN is supportive of the concept of using e-bikes as one way of reducing town traffic congestion and parking problems. With consultation, e-bikes could potentially be appropriate on select paved pathways in national parks, for example the Legacy Trail.

“Cycling by any means also allows for a closer nature connection than driving a vehicle and is a wonderful way to enjoy our scenic roads such as the Bow Valley Parkway and the Banff-Jasper Highway,” Bunyan said.

Given the inconsistency with park policy and potential social and environmental effects of e-bikes, BVN and CPAWS want the policy to be suspended.

“We request that you put a pause on any approvals, pilots or other implementation until there is proper assessment and consultation, and it is considered in the context of the bigger vision for the Rocky Mountain national parks that is currently being discussed through the national park management review process,” they stated in their letter to Nadler.