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Environmental groups raise concerns about proposed Calgary-to-Banff passenger train

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By Colette Derworiz in Calgary

Conservation advocates and experts are concerned a proposal for a Calgary-to-Banff passenger train is chugging along without addressing some key environmental issues in and around the national park.

Liricon Capital Inc., the lead private-sector proponent, is touting it as a hydrogen-powered transportation solution with lower greenhouse gas emissions than driving.

The company says it has received support from municipalities and the tourism industry, but the Alberta government has told the Globe and Mail it won’t invest in the $1.5-billion train as it stands because the financial risks are too high.

Environmental organizations — including Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Yellowstone to Yukon and Bow Valley Naturalists — and some scientists say the proposal also has environmental risks.

“This is one of the most important conservation landscapes in North America,” Tony Clevenger, a senior wildlife research scientist with the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, said from Banff, Alta. “It also happens to be one of the busiest in terms of transportation infrastructure.

“The thought of this new rail line, which would be really close to the existing rail line, is really troublesome — not just in the park, but outside the park on provincial lands and Stoney Nakoda (First Nations) as well.”

Concerns include wildlife deaths along the rail line — particularly grizzly bears, which have been hit and killed on the existing track — and the fragmentation of wildlife habitat in Alberta’s already busy Bow Valley.

Josh Welsh, Alberta program manager for Yellowstone to Yukon, said passenger rail to Banff isn’t a bad idea.

“We see it as a means to potentially provide a sustainable transportation vision that could work for wildlife, people and the planet,” he said.

But, he added, there’s not enough information or collaboration to know whether it works for wildlife.

“The Bow Valley is already being squeezed by development.”

A recent report by the Canmore, Alta.-based organization found the mountain town’s footprint has grown five times in 50 years. It focused on grizzly bears because “if you take care of grizzlies, you take care of a lot of other things.”

The report found bears have lost about 85 per cent of their original habitat in the Bow Valley.

“So, when you talk about another piece of linear infrastructure, which a train line is … we are talking about cutting up the habitat, disconnecting wildlife,” he said.

Devon Earl, conservation specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association, said the Calgary-based organization has similar concerns.

“We don’t think there has been adequate assessment of how wildlife will be impacted,” she said.

She also questions whether a train would actually reduce cars on the highway, saying bus service may be more cost-effective.

Liricon has said Parks Canada needs to consider raising the entry fee to Banff National Park for private passenger vehicles and expanding bus and shuttle service between park attractions.

Parks Canada said in a statement that its first priority is to protect the ecological integrity in national parks, but it’s “not currently reviewing a proposal for passenger rail in Banff National Park.” Any review, it added, would look at policy and legislation, including the Impact Assessment Act and park priorities.

Jan Watrous, managing partner with Liricon, said a study shows the train could carry about 11 million passengers annually and reduce highway traffic.

“The fact that the passenger train will be a zero-emission hydrogen train and significantly reduce vehicle traffic … means human and wildlife mortality on the highways will be dramatically reduced,” she said. “The specifics of the hydrogen solution and wildlife mitigations will be determined through consultation.”

The company has said it’s considering using technology such as lighting or sound to warn animals about approaching trains and reduce wildlife deaths on the tracks.

Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biologist with the University of Alberta, said she spoke to Liricon about that idea, which came out of some research she led.

Although early tests show it can be effective for some wildlife, she said “there’s a lot of untested terrain in a warning-based system.”

St. Clair said there could also be challenges with wildlife crossing structures that go over or under the tracks.

Clevenger, who specializes in wildlife crossings, said he’s heard the company was looking at underpasses to align with those under the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park.

“That’s very simplistic and completely unfeasible,” he said. “You can’t put in an underpass on the new rail line without putting an underpass on the (Canadian Pacific Railway) main line. You’d have to do both.”

Clevenger said the measure would reduce already-compromised wildlife habitat.

A passenger train, he added, could end up increasing overall traffic to the national park.

“It’s a landscape that is just overflowing with people,” he said. “I don’t think they can manage it.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 15, 2022

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Alberta

Alberta announces combined $187 million in addictions and homelessness funding

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By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

The Alberta government has announced more than $124 million over two years for addiction and mental health services in Edmonton and Calgary, with another $63 million aimed at reducing homelessness in the province over the same period.

The funding for Edmonton and Calgary will go toward increasing treatment spaces while expanding addiction services, with $70 million earmarked for capital spending and $54 million to assist operations.

A 75-bed, co-ed long-term treatment facility is planned to be operational in Edmonton by the end of 2023, while a similar facility is to be built in Calgary by early 2024.

The $63 million is to support steps outlined in the government’s action plan on homelessness.

Premier Jason Kenney stressed his government’s recovery-based approach to the addictions issue when he announced the funding Saturday, calling British Columbia’s recent move to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs in January “reckless.”

“In the area of addressing addictions, there are many that believe recovery is a false hope. It’s not possible, and instead what we should do is actually to facilitate dangerous addictions rather than to offer an off-ramp to freedom from addiction,” Kenney said during the announcement at Edmonton’s Herb Jamieson Centre.

“The whole point is to give people a fighting chance to escape from the grips of addiction so they have the opportunity to build a new, safe fulfilling life.

“Recovery works. It’s not a new concept or an untested Utopian theory,” he said.

Under the Alberta plan, the number of winter shelter spaces will be expanded in communities like Edmonton, Wetaskiwin and Lethbridge, and in rural communities where there is an urgent and unmet need.

All provincially funded shelters will also provide round-the-clock access seven days a week, while funding will be equalized between community-based organizations in Edmonton and Calgary.

The funding will include $5 million to create up to 450 additional shelter spots in Edmonton, bringing the number of emergency spaces in the city to over 1,000.

The plan also includes $2.5 million in 2022-2023 to test the so-called service hub model in two pilot programs in Calgary and Edmonton. These six-month long programs will connect people directly with support and services such as addictions recovery, housing and emergency financial support, beginning this fall.

Meanwhile, the addictions funding will be used to increase the ability of direct outreach teams through Edmonton police and Alberta Health Services to provide support and overdose prevention services. The same expansion of services will also be carried out in Calgary.

Edmonton police chief Dale McFee lauded the fact that housing options include support for mental health and addictions as he personally thanked Kenney for the new funding.

“This is the biggest single investment that I’ve ever seen over the course of my career in actually addressing the system versus putting more money into silos that are actually generating a lot of the problem,” McFee said at the announcement.

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said the funding would tackle the root causes of homelessness, and also praised the fact the province was delivering on a request to provide enhanced plans when prisoners are discharged from corrections facilities.

In July, the city requested a hub where social workers, firefighters and peace officers could work together to reduce crime and address a spike in violence downtown, in nearby Chinatown and and on the transit system.

“These investments show our collaborative approach is working, and together we are making life better for struggling Edmontonians,” Sohi said at the announcement.

But NDP Critic for Seniors and Housing Lori Sigurdson said in a news release that Kenney’s government has cut funding for housing, noting buildings that could have opened months ago are sitting empty because the government hasn’t provided operational funding.

“The money announced today does not even begin to address the deeper need for permanent supportive housing, social housing and affordable housing in this province,” she said.

According to the province, over 6,400 Albertans were experiencing homelessness— including nearly 4,000 using emergency shelters or on the streets — as of Jan. 31.

Alberta saw more than 1,600 opioid-related deaths in 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.

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Alberta

Five years later: Waterton Lakes National Park plan considers fire recovery

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Waterton – Like the land itself, a new management plan for Waterton Lakes National Park is marked by a powerful wildfire that tore through the southern Alberta park five years ago.

The 2022 plan, tabled in Parliament this summer, sets the park’s direction for the next decade. It includes dealing with climate change and invasive species and considers ways to strengthen Indigenous relationships and connect with Canadians.

The Kenow Wildfire, however, led to a major change from the previous plan. The fire burned more than 19,000 hectares — approximately 39 per cent — of the mountainous park in September 2017 and damaged many popular picnic areas, campgrounds and hiking trails.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate,” Parks Canada’s Locke Marshall, who’s the superintendent in Waterton, said in a recent interview. “We’ve had a lot of support from the federal government.”

Marshall said some of the damaged infrastructure was already being replaced before the fire, but other areas required a complete rebuild.

“There’s been a lot of work that has been done,” he said. “Initially, when the fire went through, our parkways were not available, so we had to work on them to get them ready to go.

“We lost our visitor centre, but we were already in plans to build a new one. Many of our picnic areas got damaged. We’ve done a lot of work on our trails.”

Some areas, such as roads and bridges around Red Rock Canyon, are still being rebuilt and the Crandell Mountain campground is still under construction, he said.

Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at Thompson Rivers University in B.C. and Canada Wildfire’s scientific director, said the fire also affected a lot of the park’s natural landscape.

“It burned a good chunk of the park with high-intensity severity,” he said. “The effect on the vegetation and the soil was severe because it was hot and dry.”

Flannigan said he’s interested to learn more about how the ecosystem has recovered in the park in the five years since the fire.

“I’m hoping Waterton uses this as an educational opportunity to inform the public about fires and regeneration and biodiversity and wildlife,” he said, noting there can be positive changes.

Marshall said Parks Canada has learned a lot and will continue to learn from the wildfire through various research projects.

“This has probably been an opportunity that we really haven’t seen in the past — and that’s just to see what the effects of a widespread fire, a fairly intense fire, has on a landscape and how the landscape itself recovers from it,” he said. “And also how that recovery may be affected by changes to the climate that we’ve seen in the last several decades.

“So, it’s a really good opportunity for science.”

The research, he said, could take decades to complete. He noted there’s already some visible changes in the forests.

“There has been a bit of a transformation,” he said. “A lot of the forests were predominantly conifers — pine, spruce, Douglas fir. In some places … we’re seeing more aspen trees, shrubs and in some places … because of a drier, warmer climate, we may see areas that were once forested will be open meadows now.

“There’s definitely a change in the landscape.”

The plan notes the fire also revealed more than 70 new archeological sites and expanded 170 known sites in the area that burned.

“It was a really good opportunity for some of that archeological work to be done,” Marshall said.

“We’ve been able to involve our nearby Indigenous communities, in particular members of the Blackfoot Confederacy — the Kainai and Piikani — in looking at that landscape and seeing it in the context of their traditional knowledge of the use of the place.”

Marshall said they continue to work with the communities to document the sites, which the plan suggests will be complete by 2025.

Overall, he said, the new management plan shows the agency’s ongoing commitment to protecting the park.

“It deals with the fire,” said Marshall, “but it also deals with our day-to-day operations related to visitation and how we manage the ecological and cultural integrity of the place.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2022.

— By Colette Derworiz in Calgary. Follow @cderworiz on Twitter.

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