POLITICS
02/09/2012 10:47 EST | Updated 04/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Jasper Glacier Walk: Controversial Project In National Park Gets Green Light (VIDEO)

OTTAWA - A controversial glacier walk in Alberta's Jasper National Park has been given a green light.

Environment Minister Peter Kent announced approval for the project on Thursday.

Brewster Travel Canada plans to build a multimillion-dollar interpretive boardwalk and a glass-bottomed observation point 30 metres over the Sunwapta Valley on the Icefields Parkway north of Banff.

The minister said construction will be largely on an existing parking lot and won't disrupt the ecology.

He said Parks Canada will monitor the project for any environmental problems.

"The government of Canada's determination was made following a robust and inclusive review process, which included open houses, extensive consultation with the public and aboriginal stakeholders, and careful consideration of public comments under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act," Kent told a news conference in Ottawa.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, which has opposed the project, said it was disappointed with Kent's decision.

"The long-term impacts on wildlife in the area wasn't known," said spokeswoman Anne-Marie Syslak.

The walkway may affect the ability of animals such as mountain goats to move between different ranges, Syslak said.

"The environmental assessment wasn't adequate, in our view, to protect ecological integrity of the area," she said. "Without knowing that, we felt it was wholly inappropriate for them to approve the development."

Although the society doesn't oppose all for-profit development, Syslak deplored what she called the trend toward commercialization in the parks.

"We want to make sure that our national parks are staying true to their wilderness values and being true to the National Parks Act, which prioritizes wilderness."

She said the walkway will replace the public parking lot at the base of the icefields, forcing tourists to either walk some distance or take a Brewster bus to the site.

Kent said he isn't worried about ecological fallout.

"As a world leader in conservation, Parks Canada would not approve this project if there were environmental concerns that could not be addressed," he said.

The minister predicted the walkway will eventually become an iconic tourism destination.

Brewster president Michael Hannan said his company has an impeccable environmental record and more than a century of experience.

"Brewster Travel Canada has been guiding and interpreting the mountain national parks to Canadians for over 120 years, and over that time we've built a solid reputation for providing meaningful, world-renowned, Canadian national park experiences," he said.

The sweeping 400-metre boardwalk and observation platform is an award-winning design that will give visitors a unique experience, Hannan suggested.

The Tourism Industry Association of Canada welcomed the decision.

"The glacier discovery walk will be a compelling addition to Canada's tourism product, and will provide a great opportunity for Canadians and international travellers alike to connect with Canada's mountain national parks in a unique way," said president David Goldstein.

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