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Action Alert: Speak up for Banff’s ecosystems

March 19, 2024

Fenland-Indian Grounds Wildlife Corridor Secondary Passage

The Fenland-Indian Grounds Wildlife Corridor is threatened by increasing human activity and encroaching development. This portion is slated for removal under the current Banff Railway Lands Area Redevelopment Plan. Photo by Kennedy Halvorson.

Dear valued AWA members,

As you may have heard, plans are underway to rehabilitate Banff’s historic train station and grounds near the town’s west entrance. The current proposal features intercept parking for over 1000 vehicles and accommodates for a potential passenger train service and gondola terminus.

There’s now an opportunity for you to speak up about this plan by submitting comments or registering to speak at an upcoming public hearing set for March 20 at 10:00 a.m. at Banff town hall.

The plan, officially known as the Banff Railway Lands Area Redevelopment Plan (ARP), is a planning document that conveys a vision for the future direction of the region and the objectives that would help attain that vision.

AWA, along with other ENGOs in the region, is concerned that the vision laid out in the ARP fails to best serve the town of Banff and would threaten the biodiversity and ecosystem connectivity within the National Park and the greater Bow Valley. AWA encourages members, particularly those who live, work, recreate in the area, to provide input and help shape this document into one that maintains and improves the ecological integrity of Banff and the surrounding region.

Key concerns:

  • The developable area left in Banff is limited and should serve the goals of Banff National Park, townsite, and public first above private interests.
  • The ARP does not provide planning to help address private vehicle congestion in Banff National Park and the Bow Valley in the near-term and lays future policy directions that threaten the region’s ecological integrity.
  • The addition of 410 new parking stalls and expansion of human footprint on the north side of the railway lands further narrows an already constrained and threatened wildlife corridor.
  • Justification for the removal of this existing habitat is predicated on rehabilitation and enhancement of habitat east of the north parking lot, but according to the ARP timeline this work would not begin for another decade.
  • Increasing intercept parking for private vehicles in Banff is a short-term solution to reducing traffic congestion in the townsite, as these stalls will inevitably fill up without other concurrent mass transit strategies that remove vehicles entirely from the area.
  • The town’s best interest is not being prioritized, as evidenced by the proponent’s inclusion of personal interests like the gondola terminus and parking stalls planned to be allotted specifically to gondola visitor use.

Background:

Mountainous terrains and flat, forested valley bottoms characterize the Bow Valley, a region rich in biodiversity. As one of the few east-west passages across the Rockies, its natural connectivity is critical for the movement of iconic species like grizzlies and cougars. The same features that make the Bow Valley an essential wildlife corridor make it an attractive region to live, work, and recreate, but recent research has found that existing development in the region has reduced connectivity by 85 percent and the amount of high-quality habitat by 35 percent. Ensuring the long-term health and resilience of the Bow Valley necessitates all future planning and development to maintain and/or improve ecological integrity.

In its current state, the planning area already has 490 parking stalls on the south side of the railway tracks and 170 stalls in front of the Fenlands Recreation Centre — the addition of more intercept parking, specifically the plan to pave an additional 410 stalls north of the train tracks, would further narrow the Fenland-Indian Grounds Wildlife Corridor and result in the direct biodiversity loss of 1.7 hectares of native habitat known to be used by local wildlife. This would contradict the Recommendations for Improving Human-Wildlife Coexistence in the Bow Valley co-published by the town of Banff in 2018, which advised reducing human footprint in nearby wildlife corridors. Creating additional parking for private vehicles also undermines ongoing initiatives to reduce traffic volumes in the National Park and Banff townsite. Proponents of the ARP anticipate requiring 140 stalls in the summer and 575 in the winter for their own demand, which would reduce the intercept parking available to visitors of the town. The Transportation Impact Assessment within the ARP’s appendices reveal that these stalls are intended as parking for people using a potential gondola service to the proponent’s ski resort.

The inclusion of a gondola terminus and mention of future service in the ARP is confusing, as although cited as “aspirational,” it is frequently mentioned in the appendices that inform the ARP. It is also a project that has already been denied. In 2020, Parks Canada (PC) rejected the same proponent’s proposal to build a gondola up Mt. Norquay, asserting “there will not be further consideration” of the project. The issue of the gondola has been intensively discussed for years, with the ministry giving clear direction to the proponents and town that such a gondola would not be in conformity with PC’s duty to maintain, restore, and improve the ecological integrity of Banff National Park. Leaving planning for this project within the ARP following this decision seems in direct opposition to PC’s authority on the matter.

The need for a comprehensive regional transportation strategy in the Bow Valley has been long recognized — reducing overall traffic would decrease congestion, travel times, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the number of wildlife strikes, while improving accessibility, ecological outcomes, local livelihoods, and visitor experience in the region. The Calgary-Bow Valley Mass Transit Feasibility Study, prepared for the town of Banff in 2018, evaluated multiple mass transit options including bus and rail scenarios. The report found that the capital costs to implement a bus system were 34 times less than that of a train, with annual operating costs also less than half that of a comparable railway service. Buses would have similar ridership numbers, and would use existing infrastructure, working with instead of expanding the human footprint in the region. Parks Canada’s 2022 Expert Panel on Moving People Sustainably in the Banff Bow Valley report noted a staged approach to mass transit would be required to address current issues, identifying an expanded bus service as an adaptive, flexible, and scalable solution in the interim before other options.

This is important, because the ARP provides just four dedicated stalls for buses and no planning for a bus station, but includes planning for another aspirational project, a passenger rail service. Many of the benefits to the town claimed by the ARP are actually associated with a future passenger rail service, which itself poses significant ecological concerns to the region and is well out of the scope of this project. The Banff National Park of Canada Management Plan released in 2022 notes extensive work is already required to mitigate wildlife mortality on the existing railway, and that twinning the track and expanding associated infrastructure in the park would further “augment these challenges.” As some of the last developable land within the town’s perimeters, the ARP should prioritize planning for solutions that can be realized in the near-term like an expanded bus service, which builds on the success of existing regional mass transit services like Roam.

The agenda item to be commented on is “Public Hearing for Proposed Bylaw 479, Banff Railway Lands Area Redevelopment Plan.” Comments and/or requests to speak can be submitted through the Town of Banff’s online form or emailed to Municipal.Clerk@banff.ca prior to the public hearing. More information about the public hearing and process can be found here.

Please do not hesitate to contact AWA Conservation Specialist Kennedy Halvorson if you have any questions or concerns about this request.

Thank you,

Kennedy Halvorson

cs1@abwild.ca

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. 

Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
The winds will blow their own freshness into you, 

and the storms their energy,
 while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
- John Muir
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