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Suspended glass platform not for acrophobics

Suspended glass platform not for acrophobicsTourists take in the views from the newly opened Glacier SkyWalk near the Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park, Alta., Wednesday, May 7, 2014.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

JASPER, Alta. - The newest tourist attraction within Jasper National Park is not for the faint-hearted or the acrophobic.

Depending on the foot traffic, you can feel the Glacier Skywalk sway just a little as you're looking through a glass floor almost 300 metres straight down to the valley below.

The $21-million attraction charges $24.95 per adult for access to a glass-floored observation platform that extends 30 metres above the Sunwapta Valley. The Skywalk opened to the public this month.

And while the views are stunning, the privately owned glass deck in the sky, just off the Icefields Parkway, is not without controversy.

Many environmentalists and residents of Jasper believe it is unnecessary and poses a risk to wildlife, particularly mountain goats and bighorn sheep. The Alberta Wilderness Association says it represents "encroaching commercialization" into the national parks.

"We're not convinced it really adds anything to the park. Anyone who wants to go to a national park wants to see, experience and appreciate nature," said conservation specialist Sean Nichols.

"When you take a glass-and-steel structure and stick it in the middle of nature one wonders what's really natural about that? In my mind it's so gimmicky. That's the thing about gimmicks. At the end of the day they're a hook to bring people in, but they don't add anything."

The project passed a federal environmental assessment in 2012 and was fully endorsed by Parks Canada.

"It really provided a unique fit in terms of expanding the range of services and experiences for visitors to the park," said Greg Fenton, field unit superintendent for Parks Canada in Jasper.

Fenton said steps were taken to provide environmental protection for the mountain goats and bighorn sheep in the area.

Brewster Canada, the travel company that built and operates the attraction, agreed to avoid construction during lambing season and worked fewer hours a day during building to accommodate animal movement.

"Brewster is required to implement an ongoing wildlife monitoring program just to make sure the protections of the environmental assessment imposed on the project are meeting the requirements," said Fenton.

The glass floor is the focal point for visitors. It's packed with tourists looking for spectacular photos. Employees do a continuous circuit with brooms to brush away dust and keep the surface bright and shiny.

Alison Saunt and her husband Paul from Manchester, England, stopped on their way from Banff to Jasper.

"It's pretty amazing, but when you look down, it's not good," she laughed. "But once you get your bearings, it's spectacular and feels pretty safe, but there is a slight movement isn't there?"

The area where the Skywalk is located was already a popular viewing point for years before the project went ahead.

"The actual idea for this actually came from one of our drivers. He drove this highway often and just said it's an incredible viewpoint and it's a great place to give visitors a new opportunity to check it out," said Juliette Recompsat with Brewster Travel Canada.

"The footprint of the whole attraction itself is no bigger than the viewpoint that was previously here.

"To us the environmental concerns and any controversy no longer surround this project. Now that it's built we've seen a lot of great reactions from people."

— Follow @BillGraveand on Twitter

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