I wrote briefly a few weeks ago about Parks Canada’s proposed site guidelines for Sunshine Village, the second largest ski resort in Banff National Park. Banff Sunshine operates a unique gondola and nine quad chairlifts within a UNESCO World Heritage site surrounded by spectacular scenery – the only resort to span two Canadian provinces. This document will govern the public-private partnership between Sunshine Village Corporation and Banff National Park through 2060. Currently, Sunshine’s capacity is capped at 6,000 skiers, though Sunshine says it only has enough parking for 4,500. The future could allow for more visitors – but exactly how is up for debate.
Site guidelines Parks Canada proposed last month set a new skiers at one time figure of 8,500 at build-out compared with the 11,500 settled upon at Lake Louise and 3,800 at nearby Mt. Norquay. Sunshine says it “reluctantly” agreed to the 8,500 number a few years ago even though the resort could theoretically reach 12,900 persons at one time (PAOT). The new Parks Canada plan includes a gondola reliever lift as well as three new lifts in Lower Meadow Park, Hayes Hill and Goat’s Eye II, areas which currently sit within the Sunshine lease area.
This afternoon, Sunshine Village answered back, advocating for significant changes to the Parks Canada proposal. In addition to the three lifts mentioned above, Sunshine wants to be able to eventually build three more lifts in the Bye Bye Bowl (along the Continental Divide), Meadow Park (near gondola section III) and Goat’s Eye Wildside areas, which Parks Canada proposes to remove from Sunshine’s existing leasehold in the name of conservation. “Parks Canada is taking every hectare of land that is not currently being used and in exchange not giving us the reasonable things we need to balance to the 8,500 PAOT,” says the mountain resort. “This is over-reaching and not fair to skiers and snowboarders, or to the ski company.” Fundamentally, the two sides seem to disagree on how many new lifts are needed to serve 8,500 future skiers at one time. Sunshine proposes to vacate limited areas of its lease to compensate for new terrain development but says it needs to add six lifts to meet demand while maintaining a positive guest experience.
A second point of contention is a reliever lift for the gondola. “We are the only major ski area on the continent that is dependent on one lift to access the resort,” says Sunshine’s new website. June Mountain in California and Silver Mountain, Idaho might disagree. The parks agency understands the need for a second lift but seeks something roughly parallel to the current gondola. Sunshine wants to build a tramway or gondola from its parking lot directly to upper Goat’s Eye Mountain. This lift could be built with just one tower and provide improved sightseeing opportunities in the summer compared with a 32-tower gondola or chairlift in the valley below. Further disagreements include possible parking solutions and a future volume of commercial space. The resort says Parks Canada’s plan is inconsistent with those agreed to with other resorts in Canadian national parks, namely Lake Louise, Marmot Basin and Norquay.
I’m struck by how different the Parks Canada process is from the National Environmental Policy Act mechanism many American resorts navigate collaboratively with the United States Forest Service. To be fair, only four U.S. ski resorts operate in national parks – areas which are quite small and unlikely to ever try expanding further. Amazingly, Sunshine says it learned of Parks Canada’s proposed changes at the same time as the public just 60 days before the deadline to respond in writing – August 19th. “We know from the past that activist environmental groups will launch a nationwide campaign to oppose anything in the site guidelines that would accommodate even modest visitor growth, even though any facilities improvement would occur within the existing footprint of the Sunshine lease,” the corporation says bluntly. “We asked Parks Canada for more time for the public to comment but have been turned down.” As such, Canadian citizens have three weeks to weigh in online and help shape decades of changes at Sunshine Village.