Silvertip Gondola proposal presents risks to wildlife and habitat in the Bow Valley

The Bow Valley is buzzing these days with talk of yet another gondola. This gondola is being proposed by Stone Creek Resorts, the corporation which owns the Silvertip Golf Course, as well as the residential development on the slopes of Mount Lady MacDonald (or Lady Mac, as she’s known locally). Locals first caught wind of the gondola at least a decade ago, but it seems the project is gaining traction of late and is now slated for a review by the Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB).

The Proposal

The Silvertip Gondola would have three stations:

  1. One in the town of Canmore;
  2. One in Silvertip Village; and
  3. One upper station at the old Tea House site (about ¾ of the way up Lady Mac).

The upper station would include a day lodge, suspension bridge, trail network, and viewing platforms. A total of 14.8 hectares of land would be developed. To read the proposal in full, click here. To see a map of the project, click here.

Mount Lady MacDonald

The Process

Stone Creek Resorts has submitted a Terms of Reference (ToR) for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that will examine both the gondola and the associated infrastructure development. This ToR is open for public feedback until June 13, 2022.

CPAWS Southern Alberta has drafted comprehensive comments regarding improving the ToR, but we’ve also made it very clear that this project should not be approved. Comments on the ToR will be used by Alberta Environment and Parks to write the final ToR, which will be used by Stone Creek Resorts to solicit a company to conduct the EIA. This, in turn, will form part of the package of information that the NRCB reviews.

On the surface, it seems like a fair and just process; however, there’s more at stake here than ‘just’ one gondola.

The Laws Need to Change

The summit of the proposed gondola would be located in Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park. Wildland provincial parks are a type of provincial park specifically established to preserve and protect natural heritage and provide opportunities for backcountry recreation. These parks are typically large, undeveloped natural landscapes that retain their primeval character. It’s difficult to see how a gondola would fit within the original management intent.

And, indeed, to allow this development to proceed, Stone Creek Resorts is proposing changing a section of Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park to a Provincial Park. If this change transpired, a gondola would be permitted. Additionally, the management intent stated within the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan would also need to be amended.

This is a grave concern for CPAWS Southern Alberta. The purpose of more protective forms of legislated designations, such as Wildland Provincial Parks, is to prohibit developments like this from happening and to prioritize ecological integrity in some of Alberta’s last remaining wild places. If a proponent can come in and change the boundaries to suit their development needs, then what’s stopping other developers from doing the same elsewhere? Why do we have Wildland Provincial Parks at all if corporations can arbitrarily change the boundaries when it suits their vision of development?

The Impact

Any time a development of this size and scope occurs, the ecological integrity of a site is impacted — and there can be a limit to how much mitigation is possible. In the Bow Valley, this is particularly significant given the cumulative effects of development that have already been observed over the past couple of decades.

Recent research shows that overall connectivity in the Bow Valley is down 85%. Put simply: The more we develop, the more we detract from overall connectivity. And the truth is, the Bow Valley is at a tipping point. With each development proposed in a wildlife corridor or habitat patch, this Valley increases its chances of losing carnivores, like grizzly bears and wolves, for good.

Grizzly Bear in the Bow Valley

Importantly, Lady Mac is also home to bighorn sheep who enjoy its steep, south-facing meadows. Eagles migrate close to the peak during their summer migration. Migratory birds create their summer homes in the forests along its lower elevation slopes. Many of these species stand to have considerably less access to important habitat should this development proceed.

On top of which, the area already plays host to one of the most popular hiking trails in Kananaskis, and arguably one of the most popular summit trails in Alberta. There are already impacts of abundant human use on wildlife movement through the Silvertip corridor, and that will be greatly increased with a gondola up the mountain.

We’ll be following this proposal closely and continue to update folks as it progresses. Once there is an opportunity for the public to comment, we’ll let you know. In the meantime, there is certainly no harm in contacting Alberta Environment and Parks and letting them know that you have concerns regarding a gondola going up Lady Mac by leaving a comment on their general feedback form.