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Majesty under pressure: Canada's Banff park

Environmentalists, developers square off over expanding towns and resorts, while wildlife are squeezed out of habitats

`What marvels the mountains hold for those who motor, climb, ride! Skyline trails where you look out across a sea of peaks rippling away into tinted infinity. Old Indian trails through primeval forest where every step reveals new wonders.... Lake Louise, the place the rainbow calls home.' - 1930 Canadian Pacific Railroad brochure for Banff National Park

ABOUT 4 million people each year set out for Canada's crown jewel, Banff National Park, eager to gape at unbroken mountain vistas, glimpse elk and bear, and breathe crystalline air. The question is: Will that unspoiled natural splendor be there when they get there?

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This is a genuinely startling question to Canadians, many of whom see this 2,500-square-mile park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains as a powerful symbol of their huge, untamed land. How on earth could it be spoiled?

Yet to enter the once wildlife-rich Bow River Valley that leads into Canada's oldest national park, created in 1885, is to discover a natural wonder under siege by human development.

To get to Banff, travel west from Calgary on the TransCanada Highway. You'll know you're heading in the right direction when the twin smoke stacks and white plumes of the LaFarge cement plant come into view. Just beyond the plant is a huge, limestone quarry - the source for the plant - that used to be Exshaw Mountain.

Beyond Exshaw, still a few miles from the park entrance, is the boom town of Canmore, population 7,000. Real estate prices are soaring in the town of Banff, so many who work in the park now live in new Canmore subdivisions carved into the valley.

But there is nothing, really, to prepare the first-time visitor for the town of Banff itself.

Set in an idyllic basin beneath the looming peaks of Rundle, Norquay, and Cascade, the city of Banff is quickly losing sight of them. At street level, the mountains are often hidden behind big new buildings, which contribute to what some call the ``canyonization'' of Banff. Entangled in traffic, pedestrians and cars vie with tour buses belching diesel exhaust.

Throngs of tourists

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In the summer this town of 7,615 swells to 50,000 or more. Throngs three and four abreast march the sidewalks past the golden arches of McDonalds, past hotels, drug stores, and ski stores, past the fur shops and liquor stores.

The masses drawn to Banff are finding a unique tourist experience amid the great outdoors, city officials and local businessmen say. Though thousands of visitors come to camp out, many others prefer hotels, restaurants, and bus tours. These folks need and demand better facilities, officials say.

``We are a tourist resort,'' says Oswald Treutler, deputy mayor of Banff. ``We are competing with the rest of the tourist resorts in the world, and we want to be up to snuff.''

But others worry that increasing the pace of development inside Banff in order to keep up with Colorado resort towns like Vail and Aspen - which are not inside parks - is warping the philosophy of what national parks are for.

``Banff is the second oldest national park in the world,'' says Harvey Locke, president of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). ``It is an international symbol of wilderness, and it is being destroyed from within by the forces of greed - by people who want to exploit it for profit.''

Most development in the park today is aimed at boosting what environmentalists call ``industrial tourism.'' That is the trend by corporate-owned resorts to increase the number of park visitors by appealing - with convention centers and other amenities - to those who have only marginal interest in the park's natural features.

Just outside the center of town, the view of the lush Spray Valley has long been dominated by the lone, imperial-looking Banff Springs Hotel. Today, however, it is adjoined by less majestic worker-housing units that now ring the hotel. The new worker housing was needed because a new convention center now occupies space that formerly housed hotel workers.No single development is causing Banff's trouble, Mr. Locke says. It is the cumulative effect of years of small and large changes. Over the last 12 years, nearly half a billion dollars worth of building permits have been issued for construction in the park, he says.

``You can combine all the development in Yosemite, Yellowstone, Great Smokey Mountain National Park, and the Grand Canyon and they still don't add up to what's in Banff,'' Locke says. ``It's an ecological disaster.''

His concerns are echoed in a June report by the Brookings Institution, a liberal Washington policy think tank. Comparing United States and Canadian national parks and park services, the report describes Banff park development as ``unique in its excess.''

``Most Americans are not quite prepared for what awaits them in Banff,'' writes the report's author, William Lowry, a political-science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. ``Intense congestion, pollution, traffic jams'' await summer visitors.

California's Yosemite National Park, which receives 3.5 million visitors annually and is often criticized for crowded conditions and overdevelopment, is comparable to Banff, the report says. Yosemite may have more traffic, but Banff has more buildings, it says.

``What is occurring in Banff would not be tolerated in the US,'' says Paul Paquet, a University of Calgary biologist who has done years of research on the handful of wolves still living in the park. ``I can't think of another North American park where development has been as extensive as in Banff.''

Awakening suddenly last fall to the growing number of new development proposals ranging from expanded ski operations, to convention centers, to new hotels, Canada's federal government in January finally applied the brakes.

To the delight of environmentalists and the fury of developers, Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy announced a two-year moratorium on all new development in the park. Projects already under way could go ahead, the government said.

Projects still proceeding include the Banff Springs Hotel's plan to add nine more holes of golf onto the 27 holes it has already; a new convention center at nearby Lake Louise resort; a widening of the TransCanada Highway; a new subdivision in the town of Banff; and a new ski slope at the Sunshine Village ski area.

Humans vs. wildlife

Unfortunately for park wildlife, most of these new developments are in the critical ``montane'' region of the Bow River Valley. The montane makes up just 5 percent of the park's area, but is by far its most productive wildlife area.

The low, grassy montane gets little snow in winter, providing key feeding and watering areas for elk, bighorn sheep, and predators like bear and wolves.

Humans are essentially competing with animals for space in the montane - and the people are winning, biologists say.

Grizzly bears, wolves, cougars, lynx, wolverines, otter, and moose have been ``displaced or eliminated'' from the Bow River Valley, says a study released in May by a team of academic, provincial, and federal biologists studying wildlife corridors in the Bow River Valley.

Even though one goal of Canadian national parks is to provide a ``core'' refuge for animal species, it is increasingly clear that being inside park boundaries is little protection. Thousands of animals are killed annually on the TransCanada highway and railroad tracks in the park.

But the elimination of wildlife habitat through expanded development poses the most serious long-term threat to park wildlife - especially to carnivores like bears and wolves.

According to a 1993 study by Michael Gibeau, a Banff park conservation biologist, the long-term viability of the black bear population in the park ``is tenuous,'' and the mortality rate of adult coyotes ``exceeds that of exploited populations in unprotected areas.''

As for grizzly bears, perhaps 50 remain in the entire park, Mr. Gibeau says. ``There may not be enough grizzly bear habitat left to maintain the population,'' he says. ``That's fairly serious for a

national park.''

An intriguing effect of development is that the streets and byways of the town of Banff have become an elk refuge. Like animal characters from a ``Far Side'' cartoon, Banff elk now understand that they can avoid what predators remain by loafing around town, some biologists say. The result is that several generations of elk have been born in the city and are unafraid of humans.

Despite this superficial symbiosis, unhappy encounters between elk and humans have become more frequent since 1987. Any human with a camera nosing up to a cute elk in Banff may not find a shy creature at all, but one that will run him over. In 1993, there were 61 reported elk attacks.

Testing political will

With evidence growing that park animal populations are on the run, environmental groups like CPAWS and the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) want a permanent ban on development in the park. Banff has become a test case, they say, for the direction development will take at other Canadian national parks like nearby Jaspar, Yoho, and Kootenay.

It may also indicate how the park service will resolve its own ambivalent role.

In the 1980s, there was shift among Banff park officials toward ``natural preservation,'' the Brookings study says. But more recently, it says: the ``shift has been countered by the political clout of pro-development interests.''

``Senior parks officials want to put a perpetual happy face on development because they don't want the tourists to be uncomfortable,'' says Michael McIvor, an AWA spokesman who lives in Banff.

Caught between warring developers and environmentalists, Banff park officials are today cautious in commenting on development issues. Acting Banff Park Superintendent Jillian Roulet seems to reflect this institutional dichotomy.

Managing the park is ``a balancing act'' in which ``ecological integrity comes first,'' she says. Yet she adds there is also a need to weigh the impact of restricting development on economy of the province of Alberta. ``There will always be a need for rejuvenation of the tourism base, always a need for redevelopment,'' she says.

The battle for Banff blew up last fall after CPAWS, which is accorded the sort of mainstream credibility in Canada that the Sierra Club has in the US, sued the federal government over its initial plan to allow parking lot and hotel expansions at the Sunshine Village ski area.

But it was the subsequent two-year development ban and an ongoing five-year review of the management of Banff and three other mountain parks that many say has caused development interests to begin to merge.

Canada's fledgling ``wise-use movement'' - akin to the US organizations that appeared in the 1980s to argue development interests ostensibly on behalf of all Americans - is growing fast.``There was a lot of frustration among a group of fair-minded people who are park users, residents, and businessmen,'' says David Day, a past superintendent of Banff National Park, now an environmental consultant to businesses in the park. He is a founding member and chief spokesman for the Association for Mountain Parks Protection and Enjoyment (AMPPE), created this spring.

``These people [in the group] are moderates who favor a balance between use and preservation,'' Mr. Day says. ``We wanted to counter the media's advancement of the interests of small, narrowly focused environmental groups that are communicating a false message: that development in Banff National Park is rampant.''

Not all the organization's spokesmen appear quite so restrained.

In a May letter to Banff business people, Charles Locke, an AMPPE member and owner of the Skiing Louise, Ltd., ski complex at Lake Louise, revealed the depth of outrage brewing over a move by park officials to temporarily restrict some human activities due to seasonal wildlife concerns.

``It is evident that Parks Canada has been infiltrated by a group of Environmental Lunatics,'' Mr. Locke wrote. Coincidentally, Locke's proposal to build a new 280-room hotel at Lake Louise has been held up by the federal ban on development.

Yet the fast pace of building in Banff worries more than just environmentalists.

Canmore's dilemma

Just across the park boundary in nearby Canmore, the city council is weighing proposals for up to 16 new golf courses in addition to the one already in place. Land for new housing is in demand with more than a quarter of city homes owned by people who live out of town.

The sewage-treatment plant is at capacity. So are schools.

Yet the council is under steady pressure from two large development companies that own thousands of acres of land on the sloping mountainsides on either side of the city.

``There is still a small town atmosphere here,'' says Gareth Thomson, who sits on the town council. ``Those are things we stand to lose if development in Canmore goes haywire.''

The council recently formed a task force to come up with a growth-management plan. It has also called on the federal government to enlarge its study to include development in the Bow River Valley outside of the park's boundaries.

Amid the furor, Banff's Mr. Treutler says the alarm environmentalists have raised over park development is unwarranted.

``The squeaky wheel always gets the grease,'' he says. ``We are very conscious of the fact that we are surrounded by a national park. We don't want to destroy that - people should give us credit for being at least that smart.''

But some say history shows a need for caution.

``I remember the first day in 1956 when I visited Banff as a student - I saw a large number of bears in and around the town,'' says Valerius Geist, a University of Calgary biologist who has studied park wildlife.

``You'd be hard pressed to see a bear these days,'' he says. ``Banff is an extremely poor place to see wildlife. I tell people to go to Yellowstone.''

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