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Environmentalists, Îyârhe Nakoda elder appeal glamping development in K-Country

Appellants to Skyridge Glamping, a project proposed for a 2.83 hectare site across from the Kananaskis Country Golf Course off Highway 40 in the Kananaskis Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ), argue the area is an important wildlife corridor in addition to being on the traditional hunting grounds of the Îyârhe Nakoda.

KANANASKIS COUNTRY – A proposed glamping development in Kananaskis Country is raising concern among environmental advocates, wildlife specialists and members of the Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation.

Appellants to Skyridge Glamping, a 2.83-hectare project proposed for a site across from the Kananaskis Country Golf Course off Highway 40 in the Kananaskis Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ), argue the area is an important wildlife corridor in addition to being on the traditional hunting grounds of the Îyârhe Nakoda.

“It’s not just me and another appellant. There’s a lot of people that are not happy about this,” said Ken Hoover, founder of Protect This Park, a local initiative that advocates for Kananaskis and its inhabitants, working alongside First Nations.

“Because this falls under a PLUZ, the same conservation considerations are not being given to it as say, a development in the Evan-Thomas Provincial Recreation Area, which it borders. It’s actually scary because we’re pretty much in the last bastion of the wild here and if we’re going to be using all these PLUZs … cutting red tape and looking for ways to develop these areas without an actual forward-thinking plan, well, it’s going to quickly become an issue.”

The project was conditionally approved by the Kananaskis Improvement District Subdivision and Development Authority before it was appealed and referred to the Land and Property Rights Tribunal, with a hearing on March 9.

Christel Postel, co-owner of Ridgeback Glamping Inc., the disposition holder of the development land, said in an email the glamping project is focused on being a “quiet, small-scale, low-impact retreat.”

It would feature a maximum of 20 year-round “self-sufficient [geodesic dome] glamping units, incorporating awe-inspiring views and surroundings,” she said, further noting that historical, environmental and wildlife surveys have been conducted, with the disposition approved based on those surveys.

Further wildlife surveying would also be conducted prior to any site activity.  

Hoover called upon Ryan Phinney, a bear management specialist who has volunteered with Alberta Parks, and who led the bear aversion program in Kananaskis from 2015-2020, as an expert witness to speak to environmental concerns during the hearing.

In his remarks, Phinney said the area where the development is being proposed is a natural wildlife corridor for elk, grizzly bears and other native species.

“When presented with the proposal of this development, I saw several red flags that will have a ripple effect for years to come,” he said.

Phinney noted it is common for elk in Kananaskis Country, which are notoriously shy of humans, to travel east to west from Centennial Ridge to the golf course and into the Evan-Thomas drainage.

The area is also one of few wildlife access points to the east, including Elbow Pass, Wasootch Ridge and Mist Ridge as the ranges create natural barriers running north to south.

“Grizzlies and other wildlife will use these natural corridors to move east-west to East Kananaskis and the East Slopes or foothills,” said Phinney. “Many male [grizzlies] will travel from B.C., over Burstall Pass, follow the [Kananaskis] river to Galatea, cut over to The Wedge and use the Evan-Thomas to traverse the area undetected.”

Interrupting these natural corridors with more human development and activity, he said, “can alter how wildlife use the land, creating stress for the animals and furthering habituation to humans.”

“From my experience in this valley and my vast experience with the bears here, knowing how they use the landscape, this development is very detrimental to the health of the grizzly bear population,” said Phinney. “It is one of the few areas or pinch points throughout the entire valley in which they can still freely move through with little to no human interference.”

Postel and her partner, Robert van de Straat, of the Netherlands, formerly ran and then sold a glamping business in New Brunswick before relocating to Alberta in 2019 with intent to start up a similar operation.  

They also own and operate Gears of Travel, a Calgary-based overland vehicle rental business, and noted they are acutely aware of the balance of increased visitation and resulting environmental challenges in K-Country.

“Visitation in Kananaskis has increased substantially over the years and we strive to find a fine balance between human and nature that will positively affect this interaction in a safe and controlled environment whilst managing environmental stewardship,” said Postel.

But environmental concerns are not the only reason for the appeal.

The other appellant, Îyârhe Nakoda elder Una Wesley, whose Stoney name is Wa Na Thna Wiya, meaning Grizzly Sow, said the site is also part of her First Nation’s traditional hunting grounds and is of great cultural importance. The Nation also has a long-standing land claim to the area with the federal government.

While operating as Ridgeback Lodge in New Brunswick, prior to selling their business and relocating, Postel and van de Straat had reached out to Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation chiefs and council to review and discuss development plans, though, they said they did not hear back.

Hoover explained that in his experience working with Indigenous peoples through Protect This Park, building a relationship based on trust is not as simple as sending emails.

“A lot of people don’t know how to go about building that relationship the right way, but it is an important step if you expect to work together,” he said.

Wesley was unable to speak to the Outlook in time for publication, however, Hoover said he and the elder have been working together closely on the appeal, though their appeals are separate. They have also worked together on other initiatives concerning Kananaskis and the grizzly bear population through Protect This Park.

“This is her grandfather’s traditional hunting and camping grounds, right where they’re going to develop this,” said Hoover. “That’s why she is appealing it, to make sure all the bases are covered because there could be historical artefacts from when her family camped there from a long time ago.”

In response to the proposed development, Hoover said they reached out to the surveying head for Alberta’s Archaeological Society, Darryl Bereziuk, with their concerns. However, they were unhappy with the response they received.

Quoting an email from Bereziuk, Hoover said the society was unaware of the proposed glamping project “because there are no previously recorded sites in the immediate vicinity and the lands do not exhibit notations on a listing of historic resources, from the perspective of archeological resources.”

The email further states that it is “unlikely” that the society would issue requirements to complete a historic resource impact assessment for the project, as a result.

But oral tradition – the way the Îyârhe Nakoda have long passed down generational knowledge and history – says otherwise.

“Oral tradition … some people pooh-pooh it because they see it as just a story,” said Hoover. “The stories, yes, they’re oral tradition, but they are also facts, and they are of great historical importance with impacts to families.”

Wesley, who previously ran her own tourism-based company in the region called Sacred White Bison Footprints, argues the same opportunities that are being afforded to other tourism-based operations, were not afforded to her, despite having historical claims to the area.

The federal government announced in March it was making investments to support the tourism sector in the prairie provinces through a Tourism Relief Fund administered by PrairiesCan. Skyridge Glamping, among others, was listed as receiving $500,000 to target improved winter visitation through its year-round glamping experience.

Hoover noted it is upsetting the government has already allocated funding to the proposed development and said it doesn’t give him much hope that the project will be halted.

Postel clarified the funding is being treated as a repayable loan with disbursement based on purchases made throughout 2023 toward the development.

If it goes forward, Hoover and Wesley hope other considerations will be given to protective and cultural measures important to the wildlife and Indigenous peoples of the area, including building electric fencing around the development to prevent human-wildlife interaction as well as conducting a ceremony on the land prior to any building or removal of natural resources.

Among Wesley’s requests, she also hopes any harvested trees are at least used with the intent of trying to build a bridge with the Îyârhe Nakoda, including the use of logs to make tipi poles and to be used for firewood for an upcoming Sundance in June.

A decision from the LPRT regarding the development is expected around the end of the month.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

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