CALGARY — A world-renowned ski resort in Alberta has admitted to cutting down a stand of endangered trees, although it hasn't been decided yet how large of a fine will have to be paid.
The Lake Louise resort in Banff National Park was charged after it came to light in 2013 that employees had cut down some trees along a ski run. The Crown alleges at least 39 endangered whitebark pine were felled.
The resort was to go to trial on Monday, but a representative pleaded guilty on two charges — one under the Species At Risk Act and the other under the Canada National Parks Act.
"The first count is ... for cutting down whitebark pine in a national park and the second count is ... for harming flora in a national park without a permit," federal prosecutor Erin Eacott said outside court.
"If we can get a guilty plea instead of running a trial, it is a great outcome."
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.
The case has been put over for a week while the prosecution and defence finalize an agreed statement of facts.
The two sides are to argue at a later date on how large a fine the resort should face.
"It's going to be a battle of experts ... in the area certainly of the flora in the national parks and the circumstances upon which the species at risk were cut and the number of trees that were cut," said defence lawyer Alain Hepner.
"Lake Louise has been a good environmental and corporate entity for years and they want to accept responsibility — and have and will."
Hepner said the fine is likely to be substantial.
"The act calls for substantial fines," he said. "I think when the judge decides on which experts to accept and comes up with a number — in terms of the number of trees — she will impose the appropriate fine, but that all has to be litigated."
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.
She said prosecutions under the Species At Risk Act are rare. There have only been about a dozen convictions since it was introduced 10 years ago.
— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter
Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press