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Federal court rules Parks Canada can mull tent cabins in Jasper park

Last Updated Feb 12, 2016 at 5:40 pm EST

Spirit Island in Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park is shown in this undated photo. Parks Canada can consider new developments in national parks even if they go against management plans, the Federal Court has ruled.That means a proposal to set up overnight tent cabins at Jasper National Park's iconic Maligne Lake can proceed to the next step. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Cook

Parks Canada can consider new developments in national parks even if they go against management plans, the Federal Court has ruled.

That means a proposal to set up overnight tent cabins at Jasper National Park’s iconic Maligne Lake can proceed to the next step.

“I see no reason in law or logic why Parks Canada cannot invite Maligne Tours to proceed with Phase 2 of the concept review,” wrote Justice James Russell in his decision, released earlier this week.

In 2014, Jasper National Park management decided it would allow the company to move forward with a proposal for 15 overnight tent cabins at the much-loved lake. That meant Maligne Tours could begin preparing a more detailed plan and park staff could begin considering its environmental impact.

But the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Jasper Environmental Association pointed out the park’s management plan forbids any new overnight accommodation outside townsites. They said that plan has the force of law and any proposal that contravenes it should be immediately dismissed.

They also argued allowing new cabins in a place that has never before had overnight accommodation would threaten habitat for caribou and grizzlies and likely lead to more human-animal conflict.

But Russell concluded it makes no sense to separate park development from the evolution of its management plan.

“It would mean that no conceptual proposals for development could be considered … that required consideration of an amendment to the management plan,” he wrote.

“If amendments to the management plan can only be considered at a macro level and without regard for development proposals, then Parks Canada and the Canadian public will be deprived of valuable and, in my view, necessary input.”

Russell did agree with the environmental groups that final approval of the Maligne Tours proposal would require amending the plan, which Parks Canada also acknowledges.

Jill Seaton of the Jasper Environmental Association took heart from that.

“Under the last government, they might well have got that amendment,” she said. “I don’t know if they will under this one — the mandate letter sent out to the minister of environment said they want to limit development in the parks.”

Fraser Thompson, who represented the environmentalists in court, said the implications for the management of other parks aren’t yet clear.

Parks Canada welcomed the ruling.

“The ruling is confirmation that Parks Canada acted in accordance with the law,” the agency said in a statement.

“If a proposal were to go forward, there would be opportunities for public engagement and a detailed environmental impact assessment would be completed prior to a final decision by Parks Canada.”

Maligne Lake is the world’s second-largest glacier-fed lake. Its 22-kilometre length is ringed with spectacular, 3,000-metre peaks.

Parks Canada’s decision and the resulting court action was in response to proposals in 2012 from Maligne Tours, which has offered commercial services at the lake for decades, including boat excursions, a cafeteria and a store.

In addition to the tent cabins, Maligne Tours also wants to restore a historic boathouse, add a restaurant and lounge and offer interpretive activities. The company says such attractions would increase the lake’s appeal to urban youth and to new Canadians, two groups Parks Canada is keen to reach.

The upgrades would also bolster the company’s bottom line. It says demand for boat tours has fallen by about half since 2005.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960