To get up the steep mountain slopes in the backcountry near New Denver, B.C., skiers and snowboarders spend strenuous hours using special gear to ski upwards toward the reward of one untouched run down on powdery snow.
For most people, those ridges are out of reach – they are too intense, complex and expensive for most skiers and snowboarders to get to.
But David Harley wants to make it a little easier by developing a backcountry resort in the West Kootenay region that he hopes will also help revitalize sleepy New Denver, an hour north of Nelson. He envisions the resort attracting backcountry enthusiasts with more than beginner skills who are looking for an authentic experience without getting themselves into trouble in dangerous terrain.
“The world doesn’t need another Whistler,” he said.
But while Mr. Harley’s dream of developing Zincton All-Seasons Resort has gotten some reluctant support, it is already attracting opposition from Indigenous groups, environmentalists and some within the existing ski community.
Backcountry skiing has gone from a fringe niche to an aspiration for many people who enjoy winter sports. Avalanche Canada, a non-profit that provides detailed forecasts to backcountry users, said more than 15,000 people took part in backcountry training courses in the 2020-21 winter season, a 50-per-cent increase from four years ago.
Mr. Harley, who is also the founder of regional outdoor sports chain Valhalla Pure Outfitters, notes that roughly 30 per cent of all ski boots and bindings manufactured now are made specifically for the backcountry.
Backcountry skiing is a very different sport from resort skiing. It takes place on land that is often deep in the wilderness and can be difficult for rescue crews to reach if something goes wrong. Skiers and snowboarders spend hours travelling through complex mountain terrain, many times just for a single, perfect run of untouched powdery snow. And avalanches are a constant deadly threat. The danger and difficulty associated with the sport are part of what has drawn so many people to it.
Search and rescue operations are running constantly to help inexperienced skiers and snowboarders who find themselves out of their depth in the backcountry. The BC Search and Rescue Association said provincial rescue teams were called out 86 times in 2021 for skiers and snowboarders alone.
Mr. Harley’s plan for a resort where 80 per cent of the property is backcountry access only would provide a centralized place for both new and experienced backcountry skiers to familiarize themselves with the sport in a slightly more controlled environment, where guides, local snow information and other resources are readily available.
Twenty per cent of the land would look like a regular ski resort, with multiple chairlifts, marked ski runs and a village with lodging.
The venture would provide an economic jolt to a community that is shrinking even as nearby cities such as Revelstoke and Nelson have experienced a surge of people moving in throughout the pandemic. Mr. Harley points out that he can’t take a guest for dinner, because there isn’t a single sit-down restaurant that is open past afternoon in New Denver.
But by basing his project in the Kootenays, he has stirred a community that is fed up with the amount of Crown land that has been allocated for private use. Vast expanses of Interior B.C. public land are under tenure, meaning private companies are allowed to conduct business operations there. Tenures are granted for extraction uses such as forestry, but also for tourism purposes such as guided mountain biking or heli-skiing.
“It makes it an unfavourable place for people to go ski touring,” said Judson Wright, lead guide of Kootenay Backcountry Guides in Nelson. “It becomes a busy place. When people go ski touring, they’re not looking for an area that’s covered in helicopters or tracks.”
The Zincton resort is being proposed on a piece of land that is one of the last easily accessible backcountry ski areas in the West Kootenay region, which is why many skiers and snowboarders have rallied against the project. That’s despite a promise from Mr. Harley that the entire resort would be free to access for anyone not using the lifts.
New Denver Mayor Leonard Casley said every time a company applies to have a commercial operation on public land, it’s a concern to his council, even if it’s not necessarily on municipal land.
People in the local community have complained about the way that some tenured operations try to limit access and get into confrontations with backcountry users.
“There’s no regulation. Once they get the tenure they’re basically left alone,” Mr. Casley said.
Another force against Zincton comes from environmental activists.
Nicky Blackshaw, a skier and hiker in Silverton, a small town near New Denver, is part of a local activist group called the Wild Connection. The organization said 2,700 have signed a petition calling on the provincial government to impose a moratorium on further commercial recreation tenures in the valley where the resort is proposed until land-use planning can be updated and take environmental impact into account.
“The biggest concern is this area is getting absolutely overrun with commercial recreation tenures,” Ms. Blackshaw said, adding that the government needs to examine the impact that the operations have on the landscape.
There are already multiple facilities for heli-skiing and cat-skiing – guided tours taking skiers up a mountain on large tractor-like vehicles with special tracks for the snow – right beside where Zincton is being proposed. People in the surrounding towns and Indigenous bands are concerned about the impact that another large operation would have on grizzly bear, caribou and wolverine populations in what is a critical wildlife corridor.
Mr. Harley said concern for the environment is a central part of his plan. He pledged to use 1 per cent of proceeds from the resort to help clean up toxic runoff and open mine shafts that contaminate water and threaten wildlife in an area that was booming in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the extraction of zinc and other metals.
He said the resort, which would also operate in the summer for cycling and hiking, would close off a large portion of land during those months to protect local grizzly bear populations at a time when they’re most active.
Area Indigenous groups are opposed to environmental impact that the resort could have.
Chief Byron Louis of the Okanagan Indian Band, which has claim to the land where Zincton is proposed, said the idea of yet another parcel of land in the valley being designated for commercial use doesn’t sit well.
“We need to start looking at natural capital. Everything has a value, you can’t take these things out without considering what the natural value is, because that directly impacts us,” said Mr. Louis, who added that his community relies on hunting and gathering high-protein foods from areas such as the proposed site.
“People say, ‘Oh, this is just one project,’ but if you start counting up the number of projects in there, then you start moving into what’s described as a cumulative effect.”
He said Zincton would have to prove how it can mitigate the environmental impact of a resort, and that the amount of damage by existing commercial operations has already had a detrimental effect on the well-being of Indigenous peoples in the Kootenays.
He pointed to a recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling that found nearby Blueberry River First Nation had its rights breached from decades of commercial extraction operations. The ruling led to a $65-million funding deal by the B.C. government for land restoration and protection of the Blueberry First Nations’ cultural practices.
“We are no longer in the age of consultation. We’re in the age of damages,” Mr. Louis said.
The B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said the proposed resort falls on Sinixt, Ktunaxa, Okanagan and Secwepemc lands, and that the First Nations will be consulted and accommodated where required.
Back in Nelson, Mr. Wright, the backcountry guide, says that even talking about the pros and cons of the resort makes him uneasy because of how intense the debate has become in the community. He notes that while there are voices on both sides, the voices against the resort are certainly more passionate.
Mr. Harley’s promise that the resort would allow unfettered access to people who aren’t using the lifts is Mr. Wright’s major concern. He points out other resorts and tenured operations have made access difficult in the past, even after promising otherwise.
But he also sees the potential for some sort of destination where people can dip their toes into the inherent danger of avalanche terrain before going on more challenging expeditions of their own.
Austin Hager, a backcountry skier and hiker in Nelson, says his own experience getting into the sport four years ago is why he supports the resort.
“With backcountry skiing, the barrier to entry is so high, there’s such a knowledge gap, and there’s really not a lot of environments that help people get into the sport,” said Mr. Hager, who added that existing avalanche courses in the area are sometimes booked up for the entire winter season.
“Having a space dedicated to backcountry education and safe usage is something we have to do, because with more and more people using the backcountry, there could be more accidents.”
He said any ski resort proposal in the province is likely to face pushback, but Zincton is a better alternative than a traditional resort with a massive network of lifts.
In the community, there is concern about the effect a resort would have on real estate prices after a BC Assessment report found a 23-per-cent increase in the average value of a New Denver home in July, 2021, compared with the year prior.
Mr. Casley, the mayor, says that one way or another, the town needs to find how to grow to avoid the threat of its health resources and schools shutting down.
The provincial government moved to reduce emergency-room hours at New Denver’s health centre in 2018, and that’s when Mr. Harley said he started thinking about the Zincton resort seriously.
The province has already approved the resort’s expression of interest, which is the first step in the application process. Next, it will rule on the resort’s formal proposal, which was recently submitted. After that, Mr. Harley would have to pass through a master plan review with the government.
In the coming years, the project may depend on whether Mr. Harley’s dream for the community is one that will be shared by others, and whether people will agree that a ski resort can bring prosperity back to the area.
“A lot of small rural communities really shortchange their kids because they don’t have skate parks, a hockey rink, a swimming pool,” Mr. Harley said, adding that the town’s inability to switch from a mining-based economy has led to the community deteriorating.
“We need to stop the slide.”
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