Ski resort in Alberta charged with cutting down endangered trees

Lake Louise Ski Resort [Credit: Phil Wiffen]

An Alberta ski resort will face a hefty fine after pleading guilty to cutting down endangered trees.

The Lake Louise Ski Resort, located in Banff National Park, is a well-respected destination for skiers from around the world but recently came under legal scrutiny when it was found that employees had cut down a cluster of trees along the edge of a ski run in 2013. The trees were endangered whitebark pine, and at least 39 were chopped down, a violation of the Species At Risk Act and the Canada National Parks Act.

“The first count is . . . for cutting down whitebark pine in a national park, and the second count is . . . for harming flora in a national park without a permit,” Erin Eacott, a federal prosecutor, told the Canadian Press. The case was to go to trial this week, but since the resort pleaded guilty, the two sides must now negotiate on a penalty.

Fines for cutting down endangered trees can be substantial. Eacott said that the maximum fine under the Species At Risk Act for each tree destroyed is $300,000. The maximum per tree is $250,000 under the national parks act.

“Lake Louise has been a good environmental and corporate entity for years and they want to accept responsibility — and have and will,” said Alain Hepner, the resort’s lawyer.

A group of whitebark pine trees

The whitebark pine’s population has been decimated by the fungus white pine blister rust, which was introduced to North America in the early 1900s from Europe. [Credit: Richard Sniezko, US Forest Service]

Whitebark pine have been listed as endangered since 2012. These trees tend to be found at high elevations and are long-lived, often living upwards of 500 years. They are considered a vital part of the habitat and ecosystem of other plants and animals in the region. However, their numbers have been vastly diminshed by fire, climate change, and an invasive fungus called white pine blister rust.

Convictions under the Species at Risk act are rare — there have only been about a dozen convictions in the past decade. According to Shaun Fluker, and environmental law professor at the University of Calgary, the Act can punish those who harm species at risk, but not prevent that harm from taking place.

“The Species at Risk Act only prohibits people from damaging critical habitat or taking members of endangered species. It doesn’t actually prevent or stop governments from approving activities that lead to that in the first place,” he told the CBC. “The federal Species At Risk Act allows for those projects to go ahead and then waits until activity occurs that demonstrates that a species’ critical habitat has been damaged.

“If you want to protect endangered species, the best and most efficient place to do that is to prohibit state officials from authorizing that activity that is going to lead to that in the first place.”

 

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