Punching a highway through the Howse Pass is a ridiculous notion that will never come to light, say people who have seen the issue rise and fizzle numerous times before.
Howse Pass cuts through the Continental Divide, running from Saskatchewan River Crossing, southwest of Nordegg and then down the Blaeberry River gorge to Donald Station, northwest of Golden, B.C.
The idea of building a highway through the pass was most recently floated by Stettler-Drumheller MLA Rick Strankman, who raised the issue from an economic perspective. Strankman believes the economies in his riding and in neighbouring areas of Saskatchewan would see substantial benefits with a more direct route to the West Coast.
Following Strankman’s initiative, Conservative MPs Blaine Calkins, representing Wetaskiwin, and Blake Richards, from Wild Rose, recently discussed potential for building the highway during meetings with Clearwater and Lacombe county councils.
A study completed in 2005 for a Central Alberta group indicates that a route through the pass would shorten the trip from Red Deer to Vancouver by 95 km
It isn’t worth it, say Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling and Nigel Douglas, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Society.
“I nearly wilted when I saw that (Strankman’s proposal),” said Flewwelling.
“Every six years, somebody dredges it up. They don’t realize that there’s been a lot of background work done on it.”
The sheer challenge of building a highway along the Blaeberry River is daunting enough, regardless of the other obstacles and the impact on the local ecology, said Flewwelling, who joined Dorothy Dickson and other members of the Red Deer River naturalists for a horseback tour of the pass in 1989.
From the top of the Continental Divide, the Blaeberry tumbles down to the Rocky Mountain trench, the lowest point in the Rockies. It’s steep and treacherous, he said.
“It would be a very, very expensive road and you’re going to save 60 miles. Come on. I really can’t see the point in resurrecting this other than for political purposes,” said Flewwelling.
Douglas also said he can’t see the highway ever being built, primarily because the pass lies within the national park system, which is operated under the principles of protecting and preserving wilderness and natural environments.
However, he is concerned that Stephen Harper’s federal Conservative government is motivated primarily by profit with less regard for environmental issues. Douglas cited the recent decision to allow the Brewster Skywalk development in Jasper National Park over howls of protest from thousands of people who were worried about its impact on the pristine wilderness that the park system is supposed to preserve.
“To be able to build a major highway through the middle of a national park and have minimal environmental impact is just ludicrous, really,” Douglas said from his office in Calgary on Thursday.
“Everybody realizes it is a ridiculous idea and it’s been laughed off in the past. This is such a sort of outlandish program, it’s difficult to take it seriously. I really hope this is just one individual trying to make the news.”
There would be a “huge battle” if the idea develops into a serious proposal, said Douglas.
“This would serve to organize the people who do appreciate national parks and what they’re supposed to be for.”
The National Parks Act states that their first priority is the maintenance or restoration of ecology integrity through protection of natural resources and processes, he said.
“National parks are the best of the best. Thanks to the farsightedness of people going back over 100 years, we benefit from the national parks today still and these wonderful natural environments, which are being protected,” said Douglas.