By Will Gladd: November 24, 2020
HPAC executive director Margit Nance and I recently had two meetings regarding free flight in the mountain national parks. We pushed hard for these meetings through the pandemic, and Parks also stepped up to make them happen after an insanely busy summer for them. Overall, they were both very positive and forward-oriented, but we are a small user group and it’s bluntly pretty hard to make our voices loud. Again, without Margit this would not be happening.
Some people may not be familiar with the decades-long journey we have been on with Parks. From the outside, and at times from my perspective, this has been frustrating. But big picture, we actually managed to get the National Parks Act changed in 2013. It used to flat out ban free flight of any kind. So, at a national level and after hundreds of hours of work with the federal government this was changed! I could write a book on what it took to make that change happen, but it’s simply incredible that it did. Again, thank Margit and the many people who helped us, it’s an incredible accomplishment. Then the process moved onto each national park; although paragliding is now an “approved” activity at the national level, individual parks can and do make their own policies.
Jasper was the “pilot” park, and we worked closely with a great team there to get a plan in place that broadly recognized that on the ground we were the same as any other user. We needed to stay out of areas closed to other users. We also worked with the Jasper Sky Tram to allow flying there, and together we all ran a “trial” period. Please see the JNP website at https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/jasper/activ/activ-experience/ete-summer/parapente-paragliding for more info. Overall this was great, but staff changes, and as the final policy was being completed, Jasper National Park closed a large area of the park to protect a critically endangered caribou herd. This was done without consultation with us, and unfortunately some new staff saw us in the same light as helicopters or other motorized aviation that are a real problem for caribou. This was a real surprise to us given the close work we had done with Jasper in the past, but we eventually got a meeting to talk about it all.
We met with senior Jasper Visitor Experience and Conservation Management staff and mainly discussed a large closure area in Jasper National Park. The people making that decision had not seen the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that HPAC had commissioned from Golder Associates, nor were they familiar with free flight, nor the research on ungulates and gliders. We managed to sort out that we didn’t make noise nor have the same impact as helicopters, but it took some time. It ended very positively with them agreeing to look at the Golder EIA we had completed for the national process, as well as the scientific literature. Brett Yeates is working on gathering new information by putting out an international call, and based on studies that may yield, they may revisit the Caribou closure areas. Until then we need to respect them, and note that flying from the Jasper Sky Tram is still allowed. We will follow up with research and re-engagement shortly.
Banff, Yoho, Kootenay
For this meeting, we were joined by Brandon Hopkins, a member of the Alberta Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association Board.
We met with senior policy officials representing Banff, Yoho and Kootenay parks, and again it was very positive. Several of the policy people in the meeting were very familiar with paragliding, and were generally positive. The big bad news is that they stated they would not allow flying in Parks ski areas as doing so was not allowed in the site guidelines established for those ski areas. The site guidelines define how ski areas can operate in their tenures, and are incredibly specific. From the outside it seems very strange that you can fly kites etc. in ski areas, but not fly paragliders. Flying is not specifically prohibited, but it is also not specifically allowed in the ski areas. Ski areas are lightning rods for the public; you may remember the infamous “White Pine” incident, where a ski area was fined very heavily for cutting down endangered white pines, and the massive public outcry followed as a result. So, Parks are very sensitive to what goes on at ski areas.
Again, we feel the Parks staff is fair here, it’s just how they look at it. I don’t think this is being difficult on their part, they are under a lot of public and internal pressure to keep the ski areas from expanding their activities. Our activity is very low impact compared to others, but I think at this point getting the ski areas opened up is going to be difficult for now unfortunately. If we get flying going in Banff/Yoho/Kootenay parks and the public starts to understand it better, then I think we can push forward here, but it’s not going to happen soon.
The discussion with Parks has often centered around what areas we will be allowed to fly or not fly in. We have continually worked with them, and generally positively, to agree that on the ground we are largely the same as other recreational users. Some areas are closed to skiers or hikers or climbers, and pilots also need to recognize these areas as closed to users. This is also important in order to reduce the work load on Parks—they shouldn’t have to choose our sites any more than they would choose climbing sites. Usually Parks staff understands this, and we have pushed hard for this as a principle from the very start. So, again, we went through this with the Parks staff for the Banff/Yoho/Kootenay team. They got it, and are going to work on identifying areas we can’t land or launch in vs. very small areas we can. I am hopeful this will happen in Yoho and Kootenay, but Banff may be more of a battle.
Banff National Park is difficult. It’s under very heavy scrutiny as it is very heavily visited, and in the public eye like no other mountain park in Canada. I think we did a good job communicating that this was an activity approved at the national level and that we needed to move forward with rescinding the Park Superintendent order that banned flying in Banff/Yoho/Kootenay, but we will see.
In summary, we had a very positive discussion, and Parks agreed we needed to get this resolved sooner rather than later. I believe Parks generally understands free flight and why we are a reasonable use of the Parks, but allowing “new” is never easy in a park. But they were positive, and asked us to “hold their feet to the fire” with another meeting in January. To Be Continued.