Ottawa is spending almost $21 million to help Waterton Lakes National Park in southwestern Alberta bounce back from a destructive wildfire that scorched nearly 40 per cent of it.
“This funding really is a kick-start to get some of that heavy lifting done to restore and rebuild Waterton to the icon that it is,” park Supt. Salman Rasheed said Friday.
A lightning strike in British Columbia in September 2017 ignited a fire that spread into Waterton and caused the whole park to be evacuated. The flames burned through 200 square kilometres and 80 per cent of the park’s hiking trails.
The visitor centre and other buildings were destroyed, but crews managed to stop the flames from spreading into Waterton’s townsite and saved the historic Prince of Wales Hotel.
Rasheed said the focus since the fire so far has been on safety. Dozens of sites were contaminated as day-use areas and petroleum storage tanks burned. Fallen trees posed hazards and needed to be cleared.
He said the first projects to benefit from the federal cash will be repairs to the scenic 14-kilometre Red Rock Parkway and a rebuild of the popular Bear’s Hump hiking trail.
Restoring the 16-kilometre Akamina Parkway and Crandell Mountain Campground will need more time for planning and design.
It won’t be known how extensive repairs will be until hydrology, slope stability and avalanche hazards are assessed, Rasheed said. It could be as simple as replacing burned guard rails and repaving the parkways, or bridges and culverts may need to be replaced.
Some money is to go toward monitoring and protecting the park’s ecosystem. Freshly burned environments may provide a blank slate for invasive species, Rasheed said. There will also be research, in collaboration with local Blackfoot people, into Indigenous archeological sites the fire unearthed.
Despite the fire’s effects, Waterton saw about 400,000 visitors last year — about on par with past years, Rasheed said.
“People are coming down and seeing the ecological response to the fire and we’ve been very happy with the visitation to date.”
Earlier this week, Parks Canada scrapped plans for a 107-kilometre cycling route along the scenic Icefields Parkway that runs through Jasper and Banff national parks.
Some of the $66 million that had been earmarked for that project is instead going toward restoring Waterton.
Calgary Liberal MP Kent Hehr, who made the announcement on behalf of Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, said there would have been federal help for Waterton regardless of the Icefields project’s fate.
“This is a crown jewel in our parks system and there is no doubt the government of Canada would have stepped up to the plate to ensure that this continues to be a vibrant place for our visitors … as well as do our level best to restore its ecological integrity.”