Lake Louise gets Parks Canada deal
The rugged, raw, always-intriguing and ever-satisfying challenging terrain of Lake Louise has drawn me back for hundreds of ski-days over more decades than I care to count. Thus it was of more than merely journalistic interest to hear that, set in one of the trickiest business environments imaginable—a national park—Lake Louise has secured its future as a ski resort, year-round attraction and viable business by successfully concluding its four-year-long effort to create a Long-Range Plan meeting the approval of Parks Canada.
It’s impressive by any measure, not least because it’s getting harder, slower and more expensive to get anything done in Canada. The bureaucrats’ worship of process and dogmatic fixation on driving out the slightest environmental risks have driven other ski area operators mad with frustration. Yet despite its at times rocky history with Parks Canada, Lake Louise navigated to a result allowing it to build lifts, cut runs, add terrain, construct lodges, increase parking and accommodate thousands more skiers per day. An almost stunning result.
“It was a huge amount of work by so many people,” says Dan Markham, Lake Louise’s Director, Brand and Communications. “We worked so well with Parks Canada staff on all of this, and there was very strong interest by Parks Canada to find a win-win situation.” The result is “a major leap forward, a big step for us, and now we need to get the ball rolling.”
The Long-Range Plan’s (LRP) foundations are the earlier Site Guidelines agreement signed in summer 2015. It reflected Lake Louise’s belief that it had to secure its future, come what may. Key to cracking that nut was the company’s dramatic offer to Parks Canada to give up 47 per cent of its entire leased area—a net surrender of 697 hectares—in return for certainty over the rest, including the clear ability to plan and develop within that area.
Surprisingly to many, Parks Canada agreed, taking heat from some hard-core environmentalists who accused it of selling out. In reality, Parks Canada gained hugely, principally the Purple Bowl and Wolverine Ridge areas—both of them highly skiable but with high ecological values—plus other large forested areas. All will remain wilderness forever. In return, Lake Louise gained the right to prepare an LRP which, if successful, would also gain it a new lease.
Lake Louise is owned by Calgary entrepreneur and former mountain guide Charlie Locke, his wife, Louise, and their daughters Robin and Kim, who increasingly operate the business. The Site Guidelines reflected a lot of discussion within the family about how Lake Louise could best move forward—such as persuading Charlie to give up his dearly beloved Purple Bowl and Wolverine Ridge.
“Each new project required a Detailed Impact Analysis, and most of our work lay in doing our DIAs on each of the potential projects,” recalls Markham. “Every possible angle was considered—water management, waste management, fisheries, everything.” It was this item-by-item focus that, Markham believes, kept the process moving. Lake Louise hired a full-time director of environmental services. The detailed work revealed opportunities not just to protect the environment, but to improve what was already there, such as modifying roadways and culverts to reduce erosion and sedimentation or ease wildlife movement. “Parks Canada told us the package of DIAs we put forward was the most comprehensive plan in Parks Canada’s history,” says Markham proudly.
The company also engaged with environmental groups. “We listened to their recommendations and in some cases their ideas were better than our approach and we made changes,” says Markham. The spring of this year then saw a public engagement process. “There were a few people who of course said that nothing at all should ever be done,” notes Markham, but most of it, he chuckles, was “skier’s advice,” with “lots of people saying things like, ‘Put the new lift over here instead of over here,’ or ‘Don’t put a lift there, it’s my favourite hidden run.’” Lake Louise’s ability to work effectively with Parks Canada is especially impressive given the 2013 fiasco in which resort staff illegally if inadvertently cut down a number of whitebark pine.
Instead, September 5, 2019 will live forever as a key day in Lake Louise’s history. That day, Parks Canada’s CEO informed the company that the federal minister in charge had approved the LRP. “If you can get people to work with you, and get to a win-win, you can get places,” says Markham. “It’s not just us. Everybody at Parks Canada is proud of the work they did on the LRP and excited that it was approved by the minister.”
Lake Louise’s new, 42-year lease provides certainty to the resort—but also to Parks Canada and public skeptics. Any deviations from the plan, Markham notes, would require redoing the entire LRP, which he notes dryly cost a “loooooooot of money,” although the amount remains secret. The LRP’s only major deviation from the previous Site Guidelines is that the hoped-for new expert zone known as Hidden Bowl requires a mountain goat study and has been set aside. Otherwise, the LRP enables Lake Louise to proceed with all of the approved changes starting whenever the company wishes. “We’re building up, not building out,” says Markham. “We’re taking our best opportunities in what’s left in the leasehold to make the most of the skiing experience and help build the sport of skiing over the long term.”
From the user’s standpoint, the areas requiring improvement most over the next 10-15 years are lifts, terrain, facilities, summer activities and parking. A main focus is making the mountain friendlier to novice and early-intermediate skiers. “The progression for people from the Magic Carpet to the Glacier Chair is a big jump, and we don’t have a step in between,” says Markham. So an early project, he says, “Is to build the Lower Juniper Learning Area, with a new chairlift and graduated terrain, creating a nice transition.” The mountain’s far backside at the foot of Richardson Ridge also holds lovely, gentle forested terrain—called Prunepicker’s—and will become lift-accessed for the first time.
“We’ll be a much better resort to manage the learning of skiing and snowboarding, and we’re hoping that will help get more people into the sport, including new Canadians,” says Markham. “Our approach also allows us to be prepared for growth in the industry, not just skiers and snowboarders, but in terms of our diversified products, such as guided hiking and snowshoeing, educational programs and tubing. It will turn us into a broader, year-round resort.”
Once the initial priorities are fulfilled, other new lifts would extend from the new Lower Juniper lift to the saddle near the current Top of the World unload. Over time, the Summit Platter, a burly ride that accesses much of the resort’s best terrain, would be replaced by a chairlift running from that saddle to a new unload higher on Mount Whitehorn. That will improve access to the backside and to the newly inbounds West Bowl area. West Bowl is currently an outside-the-ropes, ski-at-your-own-risk area that is heavily travelled due to its ready access. It will be closed this season, and next season will reopen with avalanche control, a better entrance and a proper exit trail. Beyond all that, there may be still more lifts on the frontside as Lake Louise grows toward its planned build-out of over 9,000 skiers per day (up from the current 7,000).
The facilities needed to handle growing traffic will begin with a new, long-sought lodge atop the Grizzly Gondola on Eagle Ridge. That will also enable moving the focus of summer traffic from Whitehorn Lodge, an important wildlife area that has necessitated electric fencing, up into an alpine area with better views and improved access to alpine hiking trails. The base area will grow with a new extension on the Whiskey Jack day lodge complex, plus a reconfigured parking area to increase capacity by more than 1,000 vehicles. Over time, earthy but cramped Temple Lodge in the Larch/Ptarmigan area will be replaced.
The entire plan has an estimated capital value of $100-$200 million. Boasts Markham: “We’re going to have ‘What’s New’ every year for probably the next 15 years.”Alberta, Lake Louise, Parks Canada