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Parks Canada challenged in court to fold tents on lake cabin concept

JASPER, Alta. - Parks Canada is being challenged in court over its decision to consider a proposal for overnight accommodation at a popular lake in Jasper National Park.

By not ruling out a plan for 15 tent cabins at Maligne Lake, the superintendent has rewritten the park's management plan, say two environmental groups behind the lawsuit.

"Instead of looking at every proposal for development within that framework, the superintendent has said, 'Well, here's a proposal that contravenes that framework — let's change the management plan,'" said Fraser Thomson, a lawyer acting for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Jasper Environmental Association.

"It's really flipping the management plan on its head."

In July, Parks Canada considered 14 proposals from Maligne Tours, a company that runs boat excursions and other operations at the lake, one of the park's biggest attractions.

Parks Canada turned down a plan for a high-end, 66-room hotel. But it agreed to consider the other 13 proposals, including the tent cabins.

Thomson said that breaks Parks Canada's own guidelines, which are supposed to rule out any new commercial accommodation outside park town sites.

"The decision to instigate an amendment to the management plan has been made and that's what we're really challenging here," Thomson said.

"If we weren't to challenge that now, and to make that challenge at a later date, the horses are already out of the barn and that amendment may have already been made."

Thomson said a court challenge is needed because of the precedent that could be set, not just in Jasper but in all national parks.

Maligne Lake is the world's second-largest glacier-fed lake. Its 22-kilometre length is ringed with spectacular, 3,000-metre peaks. A view of the lake's Spirit Island was featured on the old $5 bill.

Parks Canada's decision was in response to proposals in 2012 from Maligne Tours, which has offered commercial services at the lake for decades, including boat excursions, a cafeteria and a store.

In addition to the tent cabins, Maligne Tours also wants to restore a historic boathouse, add a restaurant and lounge and offer interpretive activities. The company says such attractions would increase the lake's appeal to urban youth and to new Canadians, two groups Parks Canada is keen to reach.

The upgrades would also bolster the company's bottom line. It says demand for boat tours has fallen by about half since 2005.

Many of the proposals have been controversial in the town of Jasper. Protesters have sometimes stationed themselves along the tight, winding road up to the lake to bring them to the attention of the up to 2,000 tourists a day who visit in high season.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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