‘We did our best:’ Sentencing argument delay for ski resort that cut down trees

CALGARY — Sentencing arguments for a world-renowned Alberta ski resort that admitted to cutting down some endangered trees have been delayed for seven months — much to the frustration of the judge hearing the case.

The Lake Louise resort in Banff National Park pleaded guilty last week to two charges — one under the Species At Risk Act and the other under the Canada National Parks Act.

The resort had been charged after it came to light in 2013 that employees had cut down some trees, including whitebark pine, along a ski run.

Lawyers spent hours in court Monday trying to find a date for sentencing arguments, which are to include opinions from expert witnesses about the number of trees cut and the environmental impact.

The earliest date available was July.

“We have to admit defeat … defeat in the sense that it is slower than the court would like to see a case of this type move. It is what it is,” provincial court Judge Heather Lamoureux said 2 1/2 hours after ordering the lawyers to find an earlier date.

“If I didn’t have a courtroom, I was considering just convening court in Lake Louise,” she said. “If that was the final straw and we couldn’t get a courtroom, I would have found another place for you to have the hearing.”

Lamoureux said a shortage of clerks made an earlier date impossible.

“We did our best and I recognize that, so I’m going to go with the date in July.”

The Crown alleges at least 39 endangered whitebark pine were felled.

The long-lived, five-needle pine is native to high elevations, and is threatened by invasive disease, fire and climate change. It is considered crucial because it provides food and habitat for animals and helps stabilize steep subalpine slopes.

Lawyer Alain Hepner, who represents Lake Louise, said those involved spent over an hour with the court’s case management office trying to find five consecutive days.

“It underscores the ongoing problems,” Hepner said.

The major factors in sentencing are how many whitebark pine were cut down and any environmental impact.

“The entire issue is the number of whitebark pine,” Hepner said. “It will affect ultimately the fine that the judge will impose.”

Federal prosecutor Erin Eacott said 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.

“The experts will be part of it, determining the number of trees, and there will be other evidence about the aggravating and mitigating circumstances that will be appropriate for the sentence,” she said.

The sentencing hearing is scheduled for six days starting July 9 — regardless of summer holiday time, Lamoureux said.

“I want to be very clear,” she said. “Unless you’re in the hospital, July is the date we’re going.”

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