Jasper airstrip cleared for landings
Jasper pilots can fly—and land—freely once again.
After decades of battling in court with Parks Canada, parliament has justified a legal war for a small group of pilots who argued the federal government should keep Banff and Jasper airstrips open.
“I’m delighted,” said Jasper’s Bryn Thomas, who has contended closing the airstrips would sever important public safety links in unpredictable mountain corridors. In 1997, Thomas helped win an injunction on the crown’s attempt to close the airstrip. The former school principal summed it up to justice finally being served.
“Common sense has finally prevailed,” he said.
It has been a very long journey. Aviators have been pushing back against Parks Canada’s attempts to close the airstrip since the 1980s, when the suitability of airstrips in Canada’s parks was first debated. Alberta’s provincial court quashed a 1990 effort to shut down the Jasper airstrip but Parks Canada tried in 1994, then again in 1997, to ban private aircraft in all but remote national parks.
It was in November of that year that Thomas and fellow Jasper aviator Dan Bowen won an injunction to keep the Jasper airstrip from being closed. A federal court judge agreed with the pilots that an environmental assessment must be performed before deciding that the strip undermined wildlife protection. Bowen, who was killed in a plane crash one year after the injunction was awarded, was one of several pilots charged with violating National Park Aircraft Access Regulations during the dispute. However, the federal injunction held up against Parks Canada’s regulations: Bowen was acquitted and the charges against his fellow pilots were dropped.
Tom Bell was one of those pilots. On two occasions Bell was issued a court summons by Jasper wardens, only to have the charges fall apart in front of a judge. Last month, while surveying the Jasper airstrip under a blanket of fresh snow, Bell said he felt happy to gain a sense of closure.
“It’s been a long battle, I just feel relief it’s finally over,” he said.
Striking down successive park superintendents’ arguments that flying is an inappropriate activity in a national park, on February 13, 2013 parliament changed the National Parks Access Regulations, making Banff and Jasper available for emergency and diversionary use. While a Bow Valley study recommended closing Banff’s airstrip to recreational flying in the name of wildlife corridor protection, the Jasper airstrip’s ecological conditions are different. The results of the 2012 environmental assessment bore those distinctions out.
“Re-listing the Jasper airstrip for use by private recreational aircraft ... will not result in significant adverse environmental effects at the local or regional scale,” the document concluded.
To Jasper pilots, those words confirm what they’ve believed all along. “How many animals are killed on the highway or the railway?” said former West Yellowhead MLA Bob Dowling. Dowling, 88, no longer flies, but landed his aircraft on Jasper’s montane strip many times during the years of the facility’s uncertain status. “The argument that planes are harming wildlife is relatively easy to destroy,” he said.
The fight to keep national park airstrips open for emergency and diversionary use was backed by the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association. Reached at his office in Ottawa, COPA President Kevin Psutka said the victory shows that with persistence—and money—you can indeed fight city hall.
“If you push long and hard enough, eventually the dots will be connected and safety arguments will override politics,” Psutka said.
Parks Canada’s obligations include upgrading the registration booth and maintaining the airstrip as needed for safety purposes. Consistent with similar small airstrips, a landing fee of $5 per day or $50 per year will be put in place.
Thomas recalled a conversation 16 years ago with the late Dan Bowen, before the pilots dug in their heels.
“We knew we had two options: either roll over and walk away or say ‘no, this is wrong.’ We said ‘we’re prepared to fight.’”