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Alternative Culture Magazine

update: March 2006 [download pdf]

Jumbo Development--or Giant Mistake?

We are at a turning point in human development on the planet. The turning point is not a physical place, but rather a matter of choice. In more and more locations, the irreversible choices have already been made. In a few places, such as the Purcell Mountains in British Columbia (Canada's westernmost province), there is still time to reconsider the one-way trend of "development." But the prognosis is not good.

Is this another doom and gloom story of environmental disaster? Not yet. The issue presented here is emblematic of the state of our planet in 1996. Some legacy of our wild, natural heritage remains. Does the will remain to protect it?

British Columbia's Purcell mountain range, dividing the east and west Kootenays, is a dazzling spectacle of mountain peaks, glaciers, alpine lakes and meadows, rivers, and valleys of ancient interior rainforest. The Purcells are the home to a long list of animal and bird species, including grizzly and black bear, woodland caribou, elk, moose, wolf, wolverine, mountain goat, mountain lion, peregrine falcon, golden eagle, and northern pygmy owl to name just a few. These mountains echo the call of the wild.

The B.C. government has invited and is currently reviewing through its environmental assessment legislation a proposed year-round ski city for the Jumbo Pass area of the southern Purcell Mountains. At its completion, this 7,000-bed mountain city would include hotels, apartments, a subdivision, streets, stores, recreation facilities, a highway, a sewage plant and garbage containment area, as well as numerous trails, ski lifts, day huts, and helicopters. This extravagant development is being promoted to rich foreign tourists and would provide minimal benefit to the people of the Kootenays, while costing the B.C. taxpayer millions every year in services and maintenance. It would also pave the way for a sky's-the-limit, multi-million dollar highway over Jumbo Pass, linking the east and west Kootenays through Argenta.

Argenta happens to be the place I chose to make my home. With a stable population of 150, no stores or even a gas station, but small homesteads of craftspeople, woodworkers, artists, gardeners, and retirees, the lifestyle here would be changed beyond recognition, by such a major highway. An old story on the planet, but does it have no end?

Jumbo Pass is only one of two vital wildlife travel corridors within the fortress of mountains between the east and west Kootenays and is home to several endangered or threatened species, including the grizzly bear, wolverine, woodland caribou, fisher, bald eagle, American peregrine falcon, Least chipmunk, and red-tailed chipmunk. Numerous threatened or endangered subspecies are believed to inhabit the Jumbo Pass area as well.

The largest wilderness park in the southern interior of B.C., the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy, would sit a mere three miles from the Jumbo ski development, while the proposed highway would come much nearer to the park. The Purcell Wilderness Conservancy (PWC) was created in 1974 through a special order in council with the primary objective of preserving its vast wilderness quality. The Jumbo ski development would jeopardize the very essence of the PWC and threaten species whose home range extends outside the PWC.

Native Indians have used the Purcell Mountains for hundreds or thousands of years. Despite being the traditional inhabitants of the land, they have only been given consultative status in the decision making over the Jumbo ski development. Since the arrival of Europeans to the Kootenays in the 1800s, white settlers have established a history of non-obtrusive backcountry use of the Purcells, reflecting a deep respect and appreciation for the land. The small towns of the east and west Kootenays harmonize with this low-impact use and there is great potential for these towns to flourish, supporting small-scale, sustainable wilderness recreation in the Purcells.

Kootenay mountains

The center of the proposed development area is a rounded glacier at 9,000 feet elevation called Glacier Dome. It's accessible by a full day-hike from Argenta. I had the pleasure of going there a couple of years ago with three friends. We drove to a trail head, hiked a couple of hours to a popular camping area called Monica Meadows, then climbed up a spiny ridge to peek over at the glistening spectacle of ice and snowy mountains as far as the eye could see.

On top of Glacier Dome, I experienced the greatest scene of majestic beauty I have scene anywhere in a lifetime of mountain travel. And this was before the trek to the far side of Glacier Dome, where a thousand-foot drop shows a green gem called Lake of the Hanging Glacier. To my right, a more reasonable slope ran down to the Jumbo Creek valley: the main ski hill. Where I stood, a massive chair-lift would deposit skiers by the thousand.

So this was what all the fuss was about. No wonder the Italian developer, Oberto Oberti, was so enthused with the potential to attract big-bucks tourists here in large numbers. I felt privileged to have the place all to myself and a few friends. Too privileged? I felt a little guilty. What right did I presume to want to keep this spectacle to the hardy few?

Then I remembered the grizzlies, the caribou, the clear streams. And the spectacle itself: the irony of bringing a city to the wilderness, when doing so would replace the wilderness with the city! I could see the logic of the developer. The trouble was, it only worked so far before turning into a devastating absurdity.

In 1991, during a visit to Switzerland, then-B.C. NDP Premier Mike Harcourt was reported saying that his government welcomed the Jumbo Pass development proposal. Shortly after that, the B.C. government accepted the proposal for review under its Commercial Alpine Ski Policy (CASP) and later submitted it to the provincial environmental assessment process. By the end of stage one of the assessment in 1995, the government had received hundreds of letters of opposition to the proposal and been told at public meetings by an overwhelming majority of the people of the Kootenays that they didn't want the development. Despite such formidable opposition by those who would be most directly affected by the proposed ski city, and grave concerns over the project expressed by the Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Parks, Canadian Parks Service, First Nations, and Ministry of Transport, government sent the proposal to stage two of the environmental assessment.

The proposed Jumbo mega-development would negatively transform the social and environmental integrity of the Kootenays forever. We are at a critical point in time when we can move towards a truly sustainable future or slide further down the slope of global economic, social, and ecological destruction. If this development is to be stopped, the people of the Kootenays must unite and demonstrate in extraordinary fashion that they are absolutely opposed to the proposed Jumbo ski city.

At the same time, it can only help to have support from other voices join in calling for wilderness protection. We are all stewards of the planet's few remaining wild places. The next step--if the public demands it--is full public hearings before government makes its final decision.

Write: Premier or your MP, Parliament Buildings, Victoria, B.C., Canada, V8V 1X4.

Should wilderness areas be allowed to survive unmolested on this planet? We still have a choice.

--Original article by Matt Lowe of the Eco-Centre in Nelson, B.C., 1-250-354-4615

--Additions by Nowick Gray

photo by Steuart Gray

--May 1997

update: March 2006 [download pdf]

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