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Glamping development gets green light despite cultural, environmental appeals

“We’re still kind of digesting this, but we’re bridge-building – elder Una and I. We’re not happy with the decision, but we’re going to spring off it and something good is gonna come from it.”

KANANASKIS COUNTRY – Despite objections of cultural significance to Indigenous peoples and concern over wildlife habitat and migration, a section of land in Kananaskis has been approved for a 20-unit glamping development.

The Land and Property Rights Tribunal’s (LPRT) decision states the conditions of Ridgeback Glamping Inc.’s proposed 2.83-hectare project in the Kananaskis Public Land Use Zone address potential impacts to bear habitat and the migration of other native wildlife, and further, that cultural concerns could not be addressed in the development permit.

“The LPRT determined that the concerns raised related to bear habitat and bear migration had been sufficiently addressed during the lengthy provincial approval process and as conditions on the disposition and on the development permit issued by the KID (Kananaskis Improvement District),” states the decision document. “The LPRT further determined that the cultural and ceremonial conditions requested by one of the appellants would best be addressed by subsequent efforts on the part of the applicant, the appellant and the KID, and not as development permit conditions.”

The site of the proposed Skyridge Glamping is located 300 meters east of Highway 40, opposite Kananaskis Country Golf Course. Ken Hoover, a Kananaskis resident and founder of Protect this Park, and Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation elder Una Wesley, of the Bearspaw band, appealed the project separately over environmental and cultural concerns.

The project was conditionally approved by the KID Subdivision and Development Authority before it was appealed and referred to the LPRT, with a virtual hearing on March 9. Development appeals are rare in KID, with this appeal only the second.

At the hearing, Hoover called upon bear management specialist Ryan Phinney to speak to concerns about the area as a wildlife corridor for grizzly bears and other species.

Phinney volunteered with Alberta Parks and led the bear aversion program in Kananaskis from 2015-2020. In a letter supporting the appeal, he argued the proposed glamping development sits in a “pinch point” and is one “of the few areas throughout the entire valley in which [wildlife] can still freely move through with little to no human interaction.”

He also argued elk, black bears and grizzly bears use the area as a migration route, with some sows denning throughout that part of the valley.

Wesley supported this position, stressing the importance of the grizzly bear to the Ta Otha clan – descendants of the former Chief Ta Otha. Wesley said the area where the glamping development is proposed is an ancestral hunting ground.

Wesley v Kananaskis Improve... by Greg

The LPRT decision, however, stated the evidence Phinney brought forward was mostly general in nature and not site specific or well-supported.

“While it confirms the well-known fact that the valley is an important wildlife corridor used by grizzlies, it does not add significantly to the body of knowledge established by existing reviews taken into account during the planning and development application process,” stated the decision.

Ridgeback Glamping, owned by Christel Postel and Robert van de Straat, said they’ve submitted a number of background studies throughout the development process to this point including a conceptual plan, site servicing mapping, a stormwater management plan, environmental supplements, sensitive species surveys, and a wildfire risk assessment.

The applicants argue wildlife surveys for the area were also reviewed as part of the disposition process and that no concerns were found.

“During the site inspection, no wildlife or vegetation issues were identified. Deer, coyote and lynx tracks, among others which are common in the area, were seen,” reads the applicants argument summary. “There are development approval conditions relating to the mitigation of potential wildlife, including bears, along with a duty to report.”

The camping structures, originally proposed to be soft-sided, are now being proposed as hard-sided in consideration of wildlife mitigation.

As for cultural concerns, conditions that were requested by Wesley if the permit decision was upheld included the provision of space for onsite ceremonial activities and for sharing the importance of the area to the Ta Otha clan with glamping guests.

Wesley said the oral history of the Îyârhe Nakoda contradicts the findings of Ridgeback Glamping in their disposition and development permit applications, which found no historical resources or concerns within the proposed development area, and was supported by the LPRT.

The Land Analysis Tool, the Historical Resource Value exercise, and the Conservation Land Registry were consulted by developers in regard to the site. Legislation requires the minister to be notified of any future historical resource discoveries.

The LPRT decision stated while it “understands the importance of the requested conditions to the Ta Otha clan … the Tribunal does not support the addition of the recommended conditions to the development permit…”

The reasons included the applicant’s position related to the site’s “limited space, insurance limitations, and the fact that only activities approved by the disposition are permitted.”

According to section 15(b) of the KID Land Use Order, development conditions must be in strict compliance with the disposition.

The LPRT said it recommends Ridgeback Glamping, Wesley, KID and the Ministry of Indigenous Relations work together to determine the best course forward to acknowledge the cultural significance of the site.

Part of Wesley’s appeal argued proper consultation never took place between Ridgeback Glamping and Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation around site development.

Attempts were made, unsuccessfully, to contact the three Îyârhe Nakoda Nations of Bearspaw, Chiniki and Goodstoney for an administrative review, according to Ridgeback. As a result, an elder’s consultation and a physical review of the development area did not happen.

Of the other Alberta First Nations contacted, one conducted an administrative review and had no objection, two Nations conducted an onsite review with elders and did not find any historical artifacts or resources and had no objections to the development, and the other did not respond to 2020 or 2022 engagement requests.

Alberta Indigenous Relations deemed the consultation with First Nations adequate.

Ridgeback Glamping has said it would like to engage with the Ta Otha Clan and the Îyârhe Nakoda to present historic and cultural knowledge in each glamping unit moving forward.

Wesley said she is open to discussions and conversations have already begun between herself, Hoover, KID, and the province to look at creating a cultural centre for young people at a nearby site.

“I’d like to be able to educate our young people about our culture and important history there,” said Wesley. “It’s part of our survival.”

In response to the LPRT’s denial of the appeals, Hoover said he will be making a “call to action,” which might include a protest in May. He added many others are also opposed to the development.

“Support has been overwhelming to let this government know that the Bow Valley and sacred valley of Kananaskis should have better planning. [This project] highlights the disconnect the current UCP government has with our wildlife corridors and [its] little to no proactive or solutions-based approaches to human-wildlife interaction,” said Hoover.

“We’re still kind of digesting this, but we’re bridge-building – elder Una and I. We’re not happy with the decision, but we’re going to spring off it and something good is gonna come from it.”

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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