Recommended closures put winter recreation at risk
Winter winds of change are blowing in Jasper National Park as Parks Canada considers the precarious positions of caribou and backcountry users in the wilderness.
Scientists are recommending full closures of some of Jasper's most popular backcountry destinations from November 1 to March 1, starting next winter.
"People haven't comprehended the severity of this (proposal)," said Jasper resident Loni Klettl, an active backcountry skier and founding member of the Jasper Trail Alliance. "This park will be shut down."
Caribou scientists are recommending winter closures on trails in the Tonquin and Whistler valleys, sections of the south boundary and the entire north boundary of the park. The proposed shutdowns will reduce significantly both cross country skiing and alpine touring opportunities in the park and it will cut off access to four backcountry lodges or alpine huts.
The strategy is designed to help protect Jasper's dwindling caribou, which number around 175 individuals in four distinct herds.
In a public information session on February 28, members of the public will get the chance to comment on the proposal, but they'll also be encouraged to contribute to the discussion. Parks Canada is promoting the opportunity to put forward new winter recreation areas in the Jasper wilderness, suggesting to some
that the closures are a done deal.
"This seems like window dressing," one user posted on the Jasper Trail Alliance Facebook site.
Moreover, by sealing off virtually all of Jasper National Park's accessible winter terrain—in other words, those areas that are within reasonable proximity to roads, retain good quality snow and bear relatively few avalanche hazards—Klettl says there are no areas left for winter backcountry users to consider, even if they wanted to put new suggestions forward.
"There's a reason why our ski fathers picked those areas," Klettl said.
The Maligne Valley, for example, which was first explored on skis in 1922, offers a multitude of backcountry destinations, and because most trails start at above 1500m, access to alpine and sub-alpine terrain is achievable for skiers or snowshoers of varying degrees of fitness. The Bald Hills, which overlooks Maligne Lake and is Jasper's most used backcountry destination in the winter, is a practical place to introduce school groups to the basics of travelling in avalanche terrain because the ascent is a six kilometre cruise up a fire road.
"Anyone can get to the top of the Bald Hills," Klettl said.
Or anything. Scientists have shown that ski-packed trails enable wolves to prey on caribou. And even though the Maligne herd's population is known to be only six individuals, the Species at Risk Act mandates wildlife specialists to make every attempt at recovery.
"We're not giving up on them, nor should we," said John Wilmshurst, Acting Resource Conservation Manager for Jasper National Park.
While other recovery endeavours include managing predator-prey dynamics and even working with the Calgary Zoo to breed new individuals, the proposed winter closures focus on what the Caribou Recovery Strategy calls Facilitated Access. Parks Canada believes that its recommended closures will stop giving wolves an unnatural advantage and will allow an already marginalized species to bounce back.
"If a skier goes in there and breaks a trail we're jeopardizing the caribou population," Wilmshurst said.
The closures, recreational users maintain, will jeopardize a rich history of winter recreation in Jasper, and perhaps its indefinite future. Dale Didduck, owner of Gravity Gear, says beyond the hit to his ski equipment rental business, he is saddened to think that his boys might lose the chance to become future ambassadors for the winter sports he loves.
"Future generations of kids will never get to know these places," he said. "That's heartbreaking."
Parks Canada takes a different long view: "Canadians have told us repeatedly that they want us to protect caribou," Wilmshurst said, noting that the upcoming workshops will be an opportunity to align recreational use with caribou conservation. "Imagine what we'd be left with in the country if we gave up on all the small populations out there."
Winter backcountry users aren't giving up either.
"If turnout to the workshops is poor that will simply reinforce the notion that winter backcountry use in Jasper is minimal and insignificant which would pave the way for extensive winter closures," said Carol Doering, an active cross country skier and member of the Jasper-Hinton alpine club.