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Planning Kluane's future

Should more cabins and airstrips be built in the backcountry of Kluane National Park and its reserve? Should commercial jet-boats and hovercraft be allowed to ply the park's rivers and lakes?

Should more cabins and airstrips be built in the backcountry of Kluane National Park and its reserve?

Should commercial jet-boats and hovercraft be allowed to ply the park’s rivers and lakes?

Should snowmobiles be granted expanded access?

These are some of the questions posed at public meetings in Burwash Landing, Haines Junction and Whitehorse next week, as Parks Canada conducts a five-year review of the park’s management plan.

“It’s at the discussion stage at this point,” said park superintendent Sean Sheardown. “We’re going to the public to see what they think.”

Parks Canada finds itself tugged in opposite directions as it plans for Kluane’s future. On one hand, park bosses fret over declining use of national parks.

In Kluane, there are considerably fewer hikers, rafters and mountaineers exploring the backcountry compared to one decade ago. Overnight backcountry use is down 38 per cent over that period.

Traffic through the Kathleen Lake campground is also down 29 to 32 per cent over the same period.

Meanwhile, day visits have swollen, to around 10,500 visits annually, which far exceed the 2,000 to 3,000 predicted by the park’s 2004 management plan. This is largely thanks to Holland America’s cruiseline tours.

Overall, park traffic has steadily declined to 41,454 visitors in 2009, from 49,437 visitors in 2000.

On the other hand, opening up Kluane too much risks spoiling the wilderness that makes the park such a remarkable place.

“It’s a bit of a balancing act,” said Sheardown. “We don’t want to damage anything that future Canadians are going to inherit. At the same time, we want to get Canadians into these places.”

A consultation document rules certain developments “off the table.” Among them is use of all-terrain vehicles and Sea-Doos in the park.

But the document does toy with the idea of allowing motorboats to operate in some of Kluane’s parks and rivers.

“Currently there is significant rafting on the Alsek River, so motorboat access to Lowell Lake will not be considered,” the document states. “Is there another area in the park where such access might be considered? This might be using a jetboat, airboat or hovercraft where a group of visitors would travel with a guide.”

Snowmobile use could be expanded. Currently the machines are only allowed on the ice of Kathleen Lake, along the abandoned pipeline right-of-way between Haines Junction and Dezadeash Lake, and during several annual pre-sanctioned snowmobile trips for local residents.

Parks Canada is also considering scrapping the rule that requires park visitors to fly out of a different location than they flew in.

As it stands, the one-way rule is meant to encourage multi-day trips and keep disturbances to a minimum. Eliminating it would encourage day trips and make it easier to get into the backcountry.

Another proposal is to build huts in the backcountry, or to add a rental cabin at Kathleen Lake.

The park’s current management plan calls for much of Kluane to be covered with a strict form of protection, called a wilderness declaration. But that’s been put on ice for now.

“It was put off in the last plan because the Kluane First Nation and Champagne/Aishihik First Nations weren’t quite sure what the implications might be for tourism or expediting ventures they might want to offer,” said Sheardown.

Parks Canada still hopes a portion of Kluane will receive the wilderness designation, but “it may not be as large a portion as originally envisioned,” he said.

After the public meetings, any proposals would still need the approval of the park’s management board, executives at Parks Canada and, eventually, the federal Environment minister.

“Anything we propose still has quite a few filters to go through,” said Sheardown.

And the biggest controversy to hit the park in recent years receives no mention in the consultation document. That would be the proposal, made by the Kluane First Nation and Champagne/Aishihik First Nations in the summer of 2008, to lift the no-hunt zones that currently exist in places such as Kathleen Lake.

Several members of the park’s management board quit over the controversy, resulting in the board losing the quorum needed to make a decision.

The Environment minister only filled those vacant positions recently, said Sheardown.

“We actually just got the appointments for the park board a few weeks ago. We should be meeting here very soon to discuss the next steps.”

Consultations start on Tuesday in Burwash Landing’s Jacquot Hall, followed by meetings on Wednesday in the Haines Junction convention centre and Thursday in Whitehorse at the Yukon Inn. All meetings run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Contact John Thompson at