3 Ways Sunshine Village is Trying to Grab More Protected Parks Land

Sunshine Village is apparently not content to operate within the well-defined confines of its lease and permit agreements. The ski resort’s insatiable appetite for more and more of Banff National Park and Mt Assiniboine Provincial Park land is clearly evidenced.  Here’s 3 ways that Sunshine is taking more than it should.

3 Areas of Sunshine Village Expansion

  1.  Wawa Ridge – Wawa Ridge is well beyond the lease boundary of Sunshine Village and yet it is the location of four radio repeaters that are owned by the company.  On a regular basis Sunshine Village employees leave the ski area lease boundary and use snowmobiles and occasionally helicopters to maintain and service the radio-communications installations.  Below Wawa Ridge is Wawa Bowl and the two out-of-bounds runs known as back-door and side-door that are so well used they become packed and bumped.    As always – giving Sunshine an inch leads to trying to take a mile.  Sunshine’s recent internal planning includes expanding the lease boundary to include Wawa Ridge and Wawa Bowl and possibly placing a lift from Bourgeau parking lot to the top of Wawa Ridge.  This lift line would be in full view from Banff.  Already Sunshine Village has extended its operations beyond the lease boundary through installation of the radio-communications repeaters.  Attempts by SSV Watch so far to find reference to a public consultation process and issued permits for these installations have turned up nothing.
  2. Sunshine Meadows and Rock Isle Lake.  During the winter season of 2010/11 Sunshine Village operated commercial snow-cat tours beyond its permit boundary with BC Parks.  These tours were operated mainly for the benefit of paying guests at the Sunshine Mountain Lodge.  Hotel customers were driven by snowcat into the world-famous Sunshine Meadows and to the shores of Rock Isle Lake where a fire was lit for their private enjoyment.  Sunshine only recently concluded a renewal of its permit with BC Parks and must have been fully aware that the only activity permitted in this area was for search and rescue and late-season cross-country ski team training.  They went ahead and did it anyway and in so doing seemingly breached the BC Parks Act.  BC Parks put a stop to the activity but so far Sunshine Village has not been charged even though the activity was unlawful and an offence under the Act.  It appears the owners and executive managers responsible for this have been given a free pass to avoid prosecution.
  3. The Sunshine Access Road.  For years now Sunshine Village has regularly overflowed it’s parking capacity with the lease area boundary at the Bourgeau base area.  Sunshine’s answer to this is to just keep parking cars all the way down a public road well outside the lease boundary.  Hundreds of cars are now routinely parked under direction of Sunshine employees along 8km of narrow, winding avalanche threatened public road with insufficient regard for public safety, environmental protection, wildlife and the legal limits of the lease boundary.  Parks Canada lets it happen and apparently does not even charge Sunshine Village a fee for the land use.

Until recently one Sunshine Village senior manager has been directly responsible for all three examples of Sunshine Villages expansionist conduct.  Ken Derpak has held the position of VP Operations and General Manager for the last six years.  During his time in this position Derpak directly oversaw the operations that include the Wawa Ridge repeaters, the Rock Isle Lake snow-cat tours and the overflowing parking operations on the access road.  In a recent press release, Sunshine Village announced that Derpak has now assumed the role of Senior Vice-President Planning, Development, Government and Regulatory Affairs.  

There was a time when environmental interest groups such as the Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society (CPAWS) took a very close interest in the affairs of Sunshine Village.  Lately however Sunshine Village has been flying under the radar and pushing it’s operational and environmental impact boundary with little regulatory or public oversight.  That needs to change.  Sunshine Village operates in Banff National Park and Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park which are both part of a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We really need to start taking that fact seriously when it comes to commercial activity within the parks.  A good way to start is by holding Sunshine Village accountable to the provisions of its lease and permits and by demanding that Parks Canada and BC Parks do their job to regulate the company’s operations properly.

Do your part to protect our national and provincial parks – please share this information with everyone you know across Canada and internationally including environmental movements, politicians and media.  And let’s all keep a close eye on Ken Derpak in his new role with Sunshine Village.

Sunshine Access Road Overflow Parking – Where Will It Stop?

With only a few months left until the new ski season, park visitors can look forward to more unsafe mayhem and congestion on the Sunshine Village Access Road.   What’s the purpose to having a lease if Sunshine Village can just ignore it and take over adjacent areas of Banff National Park and a public roadway and do as it pleases?  Why does Parks Canada condone it ?

On multiple days during the ski season when the Bourgeau parking area at Sunshine Village becomes full, customers are routinely directed by Sunshine Village employees to park their vehicles along the side of the access road.  On a busy day cars are often parked along almost the entire length of the access road from the lease boundary at Bourgeau to the Healy Creek trailhead and parking lot, a distance of 8.5 km.  Sunshine Village runs this parking operation which includes;

  • Placement of signage designating shuttle bus stops along the public access road.
  • Operation of shuttle busses solely to transport, pick-up and drop-off Sunshine Village customers along the length of the public access road.
  •  Placement of Sunshine Village employees on the public access road to stop, direct and park traffic.

The extended parking operation gives rise to numerous concerns including the following:

  1. Year after year, Sunshine Village has repeatedly and routinely extended its parking operations well beyond its lease boundary and is now using up to 8.5 km of public roadway in Banff National Park as an overflow parking lot.
  2. Vehicles are parked in very close vicinity to known active avalanche paths.
  3. Traffic control by Sunshine Village employees may result in vehicles becoming delayed, stopped or even stuck in the middle of the road in avalanche paths, areas of poor traction and in areas of poor visibility.
  4. The roadway is obviously not designed for a high-intensity mid-winter parking operation.  The use of the road to park cars results in narrowing of the available road surface which can be further narrowed by encroaching snowbanks.  When cars are parked along the access road there is often insufficient room for two vehicles to safely pass each other in opposing directions.
  5. Members of the public (including children) are dropped off and picked-up at various locations and are subject to increased risk of injury or death from moving vehicles on the roadway (including cars, buses, commercial trucks, snowplows and emergency vehicles) as they try to manage ski or snowboard equipment, control children and access their vehicle or the shuttle bus.
  6. Members of the public whose vehicles are parked on the access road are often less experienced with tasks and safety cautions associated with the environment they find themselves in.
  7. During mid-winter the access road activity occurs during periods of low daylight or even darkness and members of the public are left on the roadway without benefit of any assistance or lights to guide them or to warn approaching vehicles of their presence.
  8. The period of highest pedestrian activity along the access road coincides with the period of highest egress traffic flow as the Bourgeau parking lot empties and a steady stream of vehicles travels back down the access road towards Banff.  At the same time, shuttle buses are dropping off crowds of customers all along the same roadway.
  9. The speed limit on the roadway does not reflect the hazards associated with, and created by the parking operations and is inconsistent with the much lower speed limits in effect in the main Bourgeau parking lot.
  10. Emergency vehicles (which regularly respond to the ski area) may be delayed by the parking operations, traffic control, narrowed carriageway and excessive numbers of people on the road who may be encountered at any time and any location along the roadway.
  11. Every season there are incidents where vehicles slide off the road or into another vehicle.  How long will it be before one of these incidents includes a pedestrian family trying to get back to their car?
  12. The road is regularly used for day-time deliveries by large trucks including semis and multiple large buses.  At times these deliveries include dangerous goods such as explosives for avalanche control and bulk diesel, gasoline and propane.
  13. Sunshine Village is not the only reason this road is used.  Park visitors use the road to access the back-country.  These visitors are significantly inconvenienced by Sunshine Village operations on the roadway.
  14. It’s unclear what legal authority Sunshine Village has to stop and/or direct traffic on a public roadway or what type of training its employees have for this work.  This workplace is no longer the parking lot it is a public roadway with all the associated hazards.
  15. It’s unclear to what extent Parks Canada and the taxpayers will have to bear the costs of any liability arising from this operation.  As this area is outside the lease on a public road the legal consequences of an injury or fatality may be quite different from an incident within the Sunshine Village lease.
  16. How much garbage results from this operation.  There are no garbage bins placed at the shuttle-bus stops.  Who is responsible for a garbage check and clean-up along the access road and how far does that extend to either side of the road for garbage pushed off by snowplows or blown by the wind.  Sunshine Village reduced its on-hill summer clean-up crews to a skeleton staff this past summer.  It’s unlikely they bothered with the access road.
  17. To what extent does this intensive parking operation result in toxic spills from fluid leaks.  Hundreds of vehicles parked on a repeated basis throughout the winter has a cumulative effect that that has not been designed for.  Who is monitoring and assessing this possible effect on the adjacent lands and run-off?
  18. To what extent does the parking operation impact wildlife along such a long unbroken length of repetitive high-intensity activity. This area is known to be frequented by black and grizzly bears, cougars, wolves, ungulates and other wildlife.  Sunshine Village operates from early November to late May and use of the road for parking is completely at the company’s discretion during that period yet no wildlife monitoring seems to be associated with the operation.
  19. The intensive roadside parking operation is not consistent with the minimum public safety, environmental and visitor service standards that should be expected of a world-class destination like Banff National Park.

It is apparent that Sunshine Village has adopted this overflow parking as a routine part of its operations and is using the public road on an ad-hoc basis as an extension of the parking lot beyond the designated lease boundary.  This practice is being done to increase the company’s parking capacity in excess of that available by complying with the existing footprint and lease boundary.

It’s maybe time that someone started asking some questions about all this, such as:

  1. On what basis is Parks Canada permitting and regulating the access road parking operations by Sunshine Village and pursuant to what empowering legislative and regulatory provisions and due process?
  2. Is there any provision for an additional financial payment or compensation by Sunshine Village to Parks Canada for the additional land use?
  3. What due diligence and public consultation process has occurred (if any) and when?  In particular have there been a related public safety study (including snow safety study for related avalanche hazards), an Environmental Impact Assessment and wildlife studies and any related consultations with municipal emergency services, RCMP, special interest groups, external experts and/or the provincial government transportation regulators.  To what extent does any due diligence and public consultation support the current extended parking operations on the access road?
  4. Has Parks Canada required and approved a Sunshine Village operations and parking plan to mitigate identified hazards and designate emergency response roles and responsibilities arising from the operation (e.g. Motor Vehicle Accident, Avalanche)? Ski Patrollers are told that their response area ends at the parking lot lease boundary, yet clearly the company’s parking operations go well beyond that point with no emergency response plan.
  5. How does the extended parking operations at Sunshine Village comply with the 2006 Parks Canada Ski Area Management Guidelines, which specifically restrict any consideration of parking lot improvements at Sunshine Village to the “existing footprint” and which does not result in “incremental expansion”.
  6. If the lease boundary is not the perimeter of allowable Sunshine Village parking operations where is the perimeter?
  7. What is Parks Canada’s proposed strategy to properly manage this issue in the future, or maybe there is no plan and it will just continue indefinitely?
  8. What does this obvious overflow situation say about other impacts at the ski area? For example if the parking lot is no longer sufficient for visitor numbers, is the ageing sewage treatment plant also in danger of exceeding capacity?

Perhaps the most important question for the future management and integrity of the Mountain Parks is should we be expecting more from the federal government agency charged with regulating commercial activity within the parks?  It appears that Parks Canada has gradually permitted increased on-hill capacity at Sunshine Village without ever considering or addressing parking capacity limitations.  This exposes a serious flaw in the practice of permitting the replacement and upgrade of facilities on existing footprint in the absence of a comprehensive long-range plan for the operation.  Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.  Give them a permit to replace a lift and they’ll take another 2km of public roadway to park the extra cars.  This short-sighted approach to ski area planning in the park has resulted in a ridiculous, inappropriate and unsafe situation for which there appears to be no solution or intention of finding one.

It doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to understand that any development that increases capacity increases related impacts, even if restricted to existing footprint on-hill, as in the case of replacing a fixed grip double or triple chair with a high speed detachable quad chair or replacing the gondola and increasing its capacity and speed.  By progressively adding on-hill capacity beyond the available parking capacity the company’s operational impacts have been allowed to overflow in a seemingly unregulated manner beyond the lease boundary, which detrimentally affects adjacent areas of the Park as well as public safety and visitor experience.  It’s pretty simple math really – the trouble is that no one at Parks Canada seems to be putting 2 and 2 together.

The above photo less than a kilometer from the Trans-Canada highway shows the Sunshine Village access road during Christmas week 2010. This photo depicts many of the problems associated with the overflow parking use of the public road by Sunshine Village.  These include:

  • The Sunshine Village shuttle-bus is stopped to pick-up passengers in an area of poor visibility greatly narrowing and congesting the roadway right at the top of the most slippery hill section on the road at the “rock cut” corner.
  • Sunshine Village employees are stopping and directing traffic on a public road.
  • The available road surface is clearly narrowed considerably yet large vehicles, including emergency vehicles have to negotiate this narrow road.
  • Members of the public are wandering across the road with equipment in an area of high congestion with a slippery road surface and insufficient safety controls.

In a few months it will start all over again with yet another season of Sunshine Village overflowing its lease boundary and parking cars and blocking traffic on an avalanche threatened, narrow, winding, slippery, low-visibility snow-covered public road in contravention of simple principles of basic common sense and best safety practices not to mention numerous pieces of legislation.  Meanwhile Parks Canada blissfully turns a blind eye to it all and seems to be content to continue to do so.  Does Sunshine Village have a blank check from Parks Canada to park cars all the way to Banff.  Where does it stop?  Is Parks Canada even capable of fulfilling its mandate these days?  Take a drive up the Sunshine Village access road during the Christmas / New Year peak period and see for yourself.  This type of congestion and lack of planning is more commonly associated with inner-city traffic gridlock and certainly isn’t what most people would consider to be a “world-class experience” for visitors to Canada’s most famous national park.

Does anyone at Parks Canada even care?

________________________________________________________________

Parks Canada has been invited to provide comment on the issues raised above and will be given space on this site for those comments to be posted verbatim.

If you have safety, environment or other questions about the Parks Canada management plan (or lack of one) for the Sunshine Village access road please contact:

Ms. Pam Veinotte – Superintendent, Banff National Park
Parks Canada Agency
PO Box 900
Banff, AB
T1L 1K2 

Email: banff.superintendent@pc.gc.ca
Phone: 1-888-WARDENS (1-888-927-3367)

or use the online contact form at:
http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/banff/courriel-email-superintendent.aspx

What’s Good For The Goose Should Be Good For The Gander !!

An “off-roader” has been arrested and charged for driving on ski runs at Sunshine Village according to a news report in the Rocky Mountain Outlook.  The irony is priceless because just a few months ago Sunshine Village was doing much the same thing running commercial snow-cat tours  in an area beyond their boundary in pristine Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park.  Sunshine Village was ordered to stop by BC Parks but has not been charged.  The off-roader isn’t so lucky.

The off-roader would not even have gained access to the ski runs if Sunshine Village was properly controlling the access road.  There is a single point of access how difficult can it be to prevent the public from driving a vehicle beyond that point?  Notably Sunshine Village part-owner and VP of Marketing John Scurfield ordered summer manpower to be trimmed to a skeleton crew this summer - is the breach of security a consequence of Scurfield’s cutbacks?

A more important question however is why did Sunshine Village get a “Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free” card on very similar and recent type of conduct? Sunshine’s unauthorized commercial snowcat tours were in BC Parks jurisdiction while the recent off-roader was in Banff National Park’s jurisdiction.  Is BC Parks just more lax when it comes to enforcement of environmental protection laws?  Or does Sunshine Village get different treatment than individual members of the public ?

The question must be asked, can Sunshine Village be trusted to properly manage and protect the pristine environment within and around its operational lease and permit areas?  These incidents indicate there is a problem.  A higher standard of transparent oversight, inspection and enforcement by Parks Canada and BC Parks is necessary immediately.  The public should demand it.

It should also go without saying that if it’s appropriate to charge individuals for breach of environmental protection laws then it’s appropriate to charge Sunshine Village also.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander – or it should be!