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Mayor of Rocky Mountain House hoping to revive debate about viability of Howse Pass

The dream never dies.

Of course that is a matter of perspective. For some — those who fear the environmental impact of development in wilderness areas — the idea of a highway through the Howse Pass west of Rocky Mountain House is a recurring bad dream.

Once more, the push is on to see a highway built through the historically-designated mountain pass. The road could run from the Saskatchewan River Crossing area to just north of Golden, B.C.

Fred Nash, mayor of Rocky Mountain House, is chair of the Central Alberta Economic Partnership’s (CAEP) Howse Pass committee, which was struck last year and is now promoting a highway through the pass.

CAEP promotes economic development in the region and has about 40 municipal and other members, including the City of Red Deer and most of the surrounding communities.

Nash has been liaising with political representatives, provincial and federal government departments, industry and investment groups. At the same time he has dealt with several changes in the premiership of Alberta, and new provincial and federal governments.

Historically there has been strong opposition to a Howse Pass highway by environmental groups that seek to protect wilderness areas. Federal legislation prevents another road from being built through Banff National Park.

Nash admits the road ahead is a daunting task.

Despite that, he believes the timing might just be right to build the highway, which CAEP believes could bring a major economic boost to Central Alberta.

Nash said that a Howse Pass highway would turn Central Alberta into a warehouse distribution area. “The economic spinoff would be huge for Central Alberta.”

The idea to build a route through the pass has been kicking around as long as rivers have run through the mountains. Countless times the idea has cropped up. One of the most tangible actions was a pre-feasibility study in 2005 that stated the economic benefits outweighed the costs.

In 1978, Parks Canada designated Howse Pass a National Historic Site after it was determined to be of historic significance because it was an early trading route.

“Howse Pass is located on the border of British Columbia and Alberta. Beginning at the junction of the Saskatchewan and Howse rivers, it follows the Howse River to the confluence of the Freshfield, Forbes and Conway Creeks, to the Alberta-British Columbia border. From there it continues through Crown lands controlled by the Province of British Columbia to the junction of the Blaeberry River and Cairnes Creek,” Parks Canada states on its website.

Walter Moberly, an early railroad surveyor, determined in 1871 that Howse Pass was the best location for a railway line as it was 97 metres lower in altitude than Kicking Horse Pass, had no steep approaches, and it could be used for a road too.

The pre-feasibility study done 10 years ago was funded by Alberta Economic Development, the counties of Clearwater and Lacombe, and the Town of Rocky Mountain House.

It stated the potential starting point of the new 66-kilometer highway would be on Hwy 93, approximately 1.6 km south of Saskatchewan River Crossing. Once over the Howse Pass, the route follows the Blaeberry River in a southwest direction and connects to Hwy 1, 13 kms south of Donald, B.C.

The route would consist of 24 kms in Alberta (all within Banff National Park), and 42 kms in British Columbia. It would knock off 95 kms between Central Alberta and Vancouver.

By comparison, the Yellowhead Hwy 16 route goes through 76 km of national park and the Trans-Canada Hwy 1 goes through 126 km of national park.

The pre-feasibility study, done by Schollie Research and Consulting and HDR Economics, conducted an independent analysis of the costs and benefits associated with constructing a Howse Pass highway.

It determined that for each dollar spent, there would be $2.14 in benefits. The projected cost was $184 million in 2005 dollars, which is $217 million in 2015 dollars. The benefit today would be $465 million.

The study recommended a full economic and feasibility study and environmental assessment on the Howse Pass highway. That has never happened. Nash would like to see this as the next big step.

When Alberta was at one million people, the need for the highway was as strong but Alberta is four million in population now and British Columbia has 4.8 million, he said.

As the population grows there will come a time when another pass through the mountains will be needed, he argues. “So what is that magic number? We don’t know.”

Since the Alberta economy is on a bit of a downturn, it might be the opportune time to build the highway because it would create jobs and possibly cost less to build than when the economy is healthy, Nash said.

“But because the political landscape changed in the province, and federally, we’re sort of back to square one with some of our contacts.”

“There is some challenges, and we’ll address each one of those. … We can’t have all our eggs in one basket in oil and gas. I think the timing is right.

“We’re doing the front end work, and then it will get down to the nitty-gritty in the details.”

Nash suggests the highway could possibly be a public-private partnership, and possibly operate as a toll road. “There is means and ways,” Nash said.

“If you think of it on the negative, no no no, and every reason you can come with why is no, then it’ll never happen.”

The pre-feasibility study indicated five large bridges, 15 large culverts, two interchanges, 66 km of road and environmental studies would be required for a highway to go through Howse Pass.

Sean Nichols is a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), whose key area of concern is the central Eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Nichols said it is frustrating that the idea of a Howse Pass highway keeps coming back, calling it a “yo-yo stick issue.”

The AWA’s first concern is about putting a road through a national park, he said. Previous federal Liberal governments have said there would be no new highway development through national parks, Nichols said.

“Everything we’ve heard from the current government is they would be more interested in upholding that kind of policy.”

The pass is important for animal migration, and wintering habitat and breeding for elk, grizzly bears, mountain goats and wolves.

“(Howse Pass) is probably one of the most important parts of Banff National Park that remains intact and so we would be really frustrated, to say the least, to see any kind of development such as a highway through that,” Nichols said.

The 2005 report doesn’t address the environmental impact, he said.

As well, the weather in that area is really unpredictable, even for the Rocky Mountains, and sees a lot of avalanche activity. There could be significant closures through it if a road were built, Nichols said.

One of the areas of Alberta’s economy that is still really strong is the tourism industry, said Nichols. “So you would be building a road that would allow people to bypass some of our major tourism areas in Banff and Jasper.”

“If anything, I’d argue this maybe isn’t the right time to be doing that.”

Meanwhile Nash intends to keep talking about the idea, including at the Federation of Canadian municipalities conference later this year in Winnipeg.

Last September he flew his personal small airplane, equipped with an external camera, through the Howse Pass at 1,980 metres (6,500 feet).

The result was a five-minute video that promotes the highway concept. Nash provided the video to the Red Deer Advocate. It can be seen on YouTube.

Except for some logging roads , the video shows an untouched and remote wilderness area.

barr@reddeeradvocate.com

 
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