National Park

Five years later: Waterton Lakes National Park plan envisions fire recovery

Like the land itself, a new management plan for Waterton Lakes National Park is marked by a powerful wildfire that tore through the southern Alberta park five years ago.

The 2022 plan, tabled in Parliament this summer, sets the park’s direction for the next decade. It includes the fight against climate change and invasive species and considers ways to strengthen Indigenous relationships and connect with Canadians.

The Kenow fire, however, resulted in a major change from the previous plan. The fire burned more than 19,000 hectares – around 39% – of the mountainous park in September 2017 and damaged many popular picnic areas, campgrounds and hiking trails.

“We were very lucky,” said Parks Canada’s Locke Marshall, who is Waterton’s superintendent, in a recent interview. “We had a lot of support from the federal government.”

Tourists look out over Waterton Lake after a wildfire years ago. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Marshall said some of the damaged infrastructure was already being replaced before the fire, but other areas needed full reconstruction.

“There has been a lot of work that has been done,” he said. “Initially, when the fire spread, our walks were not available, so we had to work there to prepare them.

“We lost our visitor center, but we were already planning to build a new one. Many of our picnic areas were damaged. We did a lot of work on our trails.”

Some areas, such as roads and bridges around Red Rock Canyon, are still being rebuilt, and Crandell Mountain Campground is still under construction, he said.

Mike Flannigan, professor of wildfires at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia and science director of Canada Wildfire, said the fire also affected much of the park’s natural landscape.

“It burned a good chunk of the park with high intensity gravity,” he said. “The effect on vegetation and soil was severe as it was hot and dry.”

Flannigan said he wanted to know more about how the ecosystem has recovered in the park in the five years since the fire.

“I hope Waterton uses this as an educational opportunity to educate the public about fires, regeneration, biodiversity and wildlife,” he said, noting there can be positive change.

Marshall said Parks Canada has learned a lot and will continue to learn from the wildfire through various research projects.

“It’s probably been an opportunity that we really haven’t seen in the past – and it’s just to see what the effects of a widespread fire, a fairly intense fire, are on a landscape and how the landscape itself- even gets over it,” he said. “And also how this recovery may be affected by the climate changes we’ve seen over the past few decades.

Hikers walk through a section of burnt forest after a wildfire in Waterton National Park. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

“So this is a very good opportunity for science.”

The search, he said, could take decades. He noted that there were already visible changes in the forests.

“There’s been a little transformation,” he said. “A lot of the forests were mostly made up of conifers – pines, spruces, Douglas firs. In some places we see more aspen, shrubs and in some places … due to a drier and warmer climate we can see areas that were once forested will now be open grasslands.

“There is definitely a change in the landscape.”

The plan notes that the fire also revealed more than 70 new archaeological sites and expanded 170 known sites in the area that burned.

“It was a really good opportunity for some of this archaeological work,” Marshall said.

“We were able to engage our neighboring Indigenous communities, especially members of the Blackfoot Confederacy – the Kainai and Piikani – looking at this landscape and seeing it in the context of their traditional knowledge of place use.”

Marshall said they continue to work with communities to document the sites, which the plan says will be completed by 2025.

Overall, he said, the new management plan shows the agency’s continued commitment to protecting the park.

“It deals with the fire,” Marshall said, “but it also deals with our day-to-day operations related to visits and how we manage the ecological and cultural integrity of the place.”