Twenty years ago, with a faded orange rope lashed to my waist and an unfamiliar ice axe in hand, I stepped atop the rounded summit of Glacier Dome, in British Columbia's Purcell Mountains. My nerves were tingling after an ascent that led past cavernous blue crevasses and up precipitous pitches of ice, and the vista before me was dreamlike: wave after wave of jagged peaks and shimmering ice caps in every direction. A furious storm had passed during the night, leaving the land caked in a pristine blanket of white.
There were 12 of us, nervous and excited young men with peach-fuzz beards and brand-new Gore-Tex jackets, standing silently atop what was our first summit of an intensive three-month mountaineering semester. Our gruff Scots guide taught us the European tradition of respect upon reaching a peak: a rousing cheer of " Berg Heil." Loosely translated: "Long live the mountains."
In the stillness that followed, being new to the West and unaccustomed to such wilderness, my overriding thought was: This must be a national park. Of course, it wasn't, for British Columbia is blessed with vast tracts of such land and the government, on behalf of the Crown, manages a full 94 per cent of the province.
Unbeknownst to any of us, only months earlier, a Vancouver-based architect and developer had entered preliminary discussions with the B.C. Ministry of Lands and Parks over a proposed ski resort in upper Jumbo Valley, including the construction of a tea house and gondola station on the exact outcrop where we stood. It would be 15 years of travel - to many wild and remote corners of the planet - before I moved to the nearby community of Kimberley, and first heard of the proposed resort.
Suddenly Jumbo was everywhere. It was unavoidable; in newspapers, on the radio and adorning ubiquitous bumper stickers. Views were polarized, emotions volatile and the issues complex.
My initial views were mixed. I love to ski. (Who doesn't want to be first in line on a good powder day, especially knowing that the resort would be just a short drive away.) I also trust in travel as a basic force for good, offering sustainable economics alongside profound personal growth. Yet I've seen first-hand the damage the search for profit has wrought on hidden landscapes - my environmental sensitivity is no secret.
So, late last year, as whispers of a looming government decision began to swirl, I decided to dig, to attempt to uncover the bedrock issues at the heart of the Jumbo debate.
SETTING THE STAGE
Jumbo Valley, or Qat'muk (pronounced Gat Mook) as the local Ktunaxa Nation calls it, is a quiet drainage tucked deep in the Purcell Mountains.
For more than 20 years, determined developer Glacier Resorts Ltd. has battled fervent local opposition to a proposed billion-dollar, year-round glacier-skiing resort at the head of the valley.
For 20 years, the local Ktunaxa Nation has insisted that it will never abide such major development on what is, to it, profoundly sacred land.
For 20 years, a Byzantine legislative process has stumbled and staggered. Entire ministries have been reorganized and renamed. In the nine years it held the Jumbo file, the Environmental Assessment Office - a critical cog in the approval process - had its procedures streamlined and core act rewritten. At the same time, scientific techniques evolved, revealing earlier decisions to be based on faulty assumptions.
Twenty years of intense bickering over a complex array of subsidiary issues have rendered Jumbo a bitter and near undecipherable mess.
Now, two recent developments - a groundbreaking grizzly bear census and the Ktunaxa Nation's declaration that it will do everything within its power to protect the land - have changed the landscape of the battle.
THE DEVELOPER'S VISION
Vancouver architect and developer Oberto Oberti has a vision of creating a European-style ski resort - à la Zermatt or Chamonix - in North America. In 1990, Oberti's company, Glacier Resorts, identified the Jumbo Valley as a potential site, providing access to four large glaciers, offering commanding views and holding the potential for year-round skiing.
The proposed resort includes 22 lifts and gondolas, a high-elevation tea house and a 6,250-bed village at the base. On completion, the resort would include 369 hotel rooms, 240 townhouse units, 974 condo/hotel units, 143 single-family chalets, as well as retail outlets and restaurants. Compared with others, this resort village is small - company literature uses the word "boutique" - but Glacier Resorts promises runs that, compared with Whistler-Blackcomb, "will be longer, more dispersed and run over a higher and larger territory of glaciers."
"Final build-out will take several generations to achieve," says Grant Costello, senior vice-president of Glacier Resorts. The first phase of construction is predicted to take 10 years, and would see the installation of a gondola, two chairlifts and some base infrastructure. "If that is successful, then we'll make the decision to invest in further lifts."
The ski area would be accessible to international markets via a four-hour drive from Calgary or a two-hour drive from the regional airport in Cranbrook.
"Our goal is to build one of the most magnificent mountain resorts in the world," Costello says. "Jumbo will open up high alpine glaciers to the average Canadian, offering powder skiing and views that currently only heli-skiers can enjoy."
Independent MLA Bill Bennett, recently expelled from the Liberal caucus after a public clash with Premier Gordon Campbell, is one of the few provincial politicians who openly speaks in favour of the project. Bennett has a ferocious reputation - he once called resort opponents "professional chicken littles" - but he offers a succinct summary of the project's value.
"This will be iconic. And it is not just about skiing. You'll be able to take a cable car up to 10,000 feet and look down on Lake of the Hanging Glaciers. It is one of the most spectacular views on Earth. Skiing in the Kootenays is recognized regionally, but this will bring us into a new category."
It's all about critical mass, Bennett says.
"We [the Kootenays]are recognized as a good place to go skiing - but on a regional level, not with the same cachet as Whistler on a national level. The way to raise the profile of a region is with an iconic attraction. It [Jumbo]will bring the region into a new category, comparable with the Swiss Alps and French Alps. And once tourists come once, they'll come again. It becomes an anchor attraction for whole region."
Still, Bennett expects ongoing dissent.
"[The opponents]always find something to get [the governing bodies]to delay, some first nations thing, some grizzly biologist changes his mind, they always come up with something. And they've been clever with timing. The year before an election, they put the pressure on."
THE GRIZZLY BIOLOGIST
Enter Michael Proctor, one of North America's most respected bear researchers, who sent an open letter to British Columbia's Environmental Assessment Office this July.
Proctor, though, is no activist. And his credentials are unassailable. The 10-year grizzly bear monograph he is preparing to publish is co-written by every one of the 19 senior bear biologists in North America (which means they trusted Proctor with their data).
I call him at his mountain home, and a gruff voice answers the phone. "I'm a hard-ass research scientist. I expect my results to be passed along accurately. Misquote me, and I'll make your life miserable."
Pleasantries over, Proctor stresses that he never uses grizzly bears as a lever for conservation concerns.
"Environmentalists have been crying wolf about grizzlies for years, trotting them out as the problem of the day on everything. Now, when there is a valid concern - as we find with Jumbo - it can be very difficult to get the public's attention."
Along with several colleagues, Proctor was instrumental in developing hair-snagging DNA techniques, the new gold standard in bear research, and today is on the eve of publishing two major peer-reviewed papers. The first, a monograph which analyzes DNA from 3,100 bears stretching from Yellowstone, through Alberta and B.C., all the way to the Yukon, shows a series of small fragmented populations linked to a 600-strong core around Jumbo. These Purcell grizzlies are an "anchor" population, the southern-most unfractured population west of the Rockies, critical for providing stability to neighbouring, threatened populations.
The Lower Mainland and much of the Okanagan have already lost their grizzlies. Pull out this Purcell peg and who knows how far the bears might retreat.
"When I saw the results, it really hit home," Proctor says. "You need to connect small populations to a central core, or they simply won't last in the long term. It is like leaving a cruise boat in a Zodiac, and returning later to find the mothership gone."
The Central Purcells are the grizzlies' mothership.
Proctor's second study, a 10-year DNA survey of bears across the Purcell and Selkirk Ranges, provides a highly accurate - and troublesome - census of bears in the Purcell portion of this critical anchor population.
A decade ago, during Jumbo's environmental assessment, government scientists estimated the grizzly population in the region to be at 93 per cent of carrying capacity (the population an environment can sustain given available habitat, food, and water). Despite these robust numbers, government scientists voiced serious concerns about the effect a resort would have if placed in the centre of the population. Proctor's recent DNA results show bear populations to be almost half of what was previously thought. At 54 per cent of capacity, the land around Jumbo is fluttering just a hair above legal threatened status (50 per cent).
Grizzlies are long-living, far-ranging animals with sparse densities, which means that changes to their reproduction and movement patterns often take a long time to manifest, but have profound influence. Smoking as a teenager, Proctor suggests, is a good metaphor for incremental incursions into their habitat. You feel no immediate ill effects, which makes it is easy to ignore the fact you are sowing the seeds of cancer.
"To understand grizzly bears, you have to think big, both spatially and temporally," Proctor explains. "The proponent and the government have repeatedly promised that they'll monitor bear populations, and if the resort causes problems, they'll fix or mitigate them. Well, we have a problem right now: depressed populations across the whole Purcell range. It should be a huge red flag. Fix that first."
Glacier Resort's Costello locks horns with every voice of dissent. He brushes aside Proctor's concerns, saying the government "will respond to such allegations soon enough."
"The truth is there are no resident bears in Jumbo Valley," Costello says. "It is not a corridor of any sort. We've been studying bears there since '71, and I defy anyone to show me a passage over the peaks."
I ask Costello about the earlier studies.
"General observations," he says. "Hiking all through the Purcells with local backcountry enthusiasts identified the areas where grizzlies were likely to be encountered. Jumbo was definitely not one."
This is typical of discussions surrounding Jumbo. Statements issued by the two sides either contradict or, worse yet, bear no relation to one another at all.
So where does the truth lie?
Finding an arm's-length expert to gauge Proctor's and Costello's bear assertions is difficult, for every senior bear biologist on the continent is listed as a co-author on Proctor's recent monograph. At last I contact Stephen Herrero. Now retired, the former University of Calgary professor was long regarded as Canada's foremost bear expert, and has been the public face of bear education for nearly 50 years.
"I don't think you can have a stronger set of credentials than Michael's [Proctor] It is no stretch to say his work has changed the way we understand grizzly bear populations."
And the significance of the anchor population? "Michael has identified a very major connected population," Herrero says, "and the proposed resort falls right in the middle of that, significantly diminishing any chance of long-term health."
THE FIRST NATIONS
In a darkened conference room, inside the Ktunaxa Nation Office on the St. Mary's River, I sit down across from Herman Alpine and Ray Warden, both of whom grew up here in the Rocky Mountain Trench, south of Invermere. Herman begins, his voice deep and slow. The words come in his native tongue first, which he repeats in English after. The pauses are so long, his gaze so steady, that I shuffle in my seat.
The grizzly bear, Herman explains, is one of the Ktunaxa's principal spirits - a nupika - and Qat'muk (Jumbo) represents both the grizzly's spiritual home and the place it goes to heal. Oral tradition explains that, at the Creator's request, this nupika reluctantly made room for first humans (Ktunaxa ancestors) by retreating into the mountains. This act formed a reciprocal obligation between humans and bears, whereby humans must provide respect and moral action, including acting as stewards of the land.
For both this reason and concerns over the protection of wildlife populations, biodiversity and water quality, the Ktunaxa (pronounced too-nah-ha) have steadfastly opposed a major resort in Jumbo since the emergence of the proposal.
Nearly 20 years of negotiations with the provincial government have taken place in the hope that the project could be reconfigured to be compatible with their beliefs and values. Last November, that strategy changed. Herman and Ray were among 47 Ktunaxa who travelled to Victoria and stood for the first time in the B.C. Legislature and presented the Qat'muk Declaration, an unequivocal assertion of their intent for the Jumbo area.
The declaration (available at qatmuk.com) details the reasons for Qat'muk's profound importance, and concludes by stating the Ktunaxa will accept "no construction of buildings or structures with permanent foundations; no permanent occupation of residences" in the area.
Coming just days after Canada's ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - which includes the right to protect religious and cultural sites - the Qat'muk declaration is notable for two reasons.
First, the Ktunaxa are incredibly private about their culture. The desire for privacy, particularly surrounding the sacred, has been one of the nation's defining features through the centuries. "It was finally decided that we had to speak. Too much was at stake," Ray explains. "This place is about who we are as peoples."
Second, the Ktunaxa Nation generally is not opposed to development. It works in partnership with forestry giant Tembec and Fording Coal and has supported front-country ski-resort development in both Fernie and Golden.
"For us, the grizzly bear holds everything," Herman says slowly, repeatedly.
The Ktunaxa Nation has publicly committed to use all possible means to prevent the Jumbo project from proceeding, including legal action seeking to overturn any approval.
The sun has now set, the room is almost completely dark. It is several minutes before the two silhouettes before the window stir.
Herman sighs and shifts in his seat. "What I'm most afraid of is that I'll be called upon to fight."
It is clearly not the fight he fears, but the fact this long, tangled process may come to that end.
If counting bumper stickers were an accurate means of assessing opinion, just one drive through the Kootenays creates the impression a majority of locals are opposed to the proposed ski resort. Cruise any main street, from Nelson to Fernie to Invermere, and you'll quickly spot the distinctive "Jumbo Wild" sticker. Tellingly, they are not just on rusty Subarus, but fancy Lexuses and powerful pickup trucks as well.
In the normally polarized Kootenay landscape, the stand against Jumbo is uniting odd bedfellows. You would be hard-pressed to find any other case in which rod-and-gun clubs, guide/outfitters, trappers associations, snowmobile groups and even the powerful B.C. Wildlife Federation (the province's largest hunting lobby) are standing alongside the usual non-governmental organizations and conservation groups.
Of course there are pro-resort stickers out there (Log Jumbo, one says; Guns, not Grizzlies, another says) but it takes a dedicated search to find them.
Rallies are ongoing. Bruce Cockburn sang at one in 2008, and last weekend's was hosted by Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall, a vocal opponent. Well-known locals have spoken against the proposal, including Olympic Gold medalist Beckie Scott, who lived in nearby Panorama for years, and former National Hockey League star Scott Niedermayer, who grew up and still lives in nearby Cranbrook.
In British Columbia, local government holds the ultimate responsibility over land-use decisions, and one critical issue lost amid all the rhetoric is the Regional District of East Kootenay's controversial decision to abdicate this responsibility. Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald has fought vigorously for better representation and respect of local views. "Those that know the area best, and understand the project best, remain unconvinced of its viability or value."
Local outrage boiled over in 2008, when Glacier Resorts, without warning - and without consulting Ministry of Environment, local government or first nations - began bulldozing a new road. An eight-week blockade ensued, manned by more than 120 supporters (including busloads of Ktunaxa citizens) who stayed until the heavy equipment was withdrawn.
Are there any actual numbers to document public opinion?
Perhaps the most definitive of numerous formal and informal polls and surveys is a third-party random survey by McAllister Opinion Research of Vancouver in 2008 which reported 63 per cent opposed, 19 per cent in favour and 18 per cent undecided. (Results have a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)
Local opposition to ski-resort development is not the norm in the Kootenays. While Jumbo remained mired in controversy, the same developer proposed a massive expansion and resort development at the ski hill in nearby Golden. The city put the matter to community referendum, and the front-country development at Kicking Horse was approved by a staggering 93.8 per cent.
ECOSYSTEMS AND THE CHANGING WESTERN PSYCHE
Complicating the Jumbo debate is an assortment of hotly contested sub-issues, including the stagnant state of the ski industry, questionable economics, costs of avalanche control on a long access road (which would be born by provincial taxpayers), glacial melt (amazingly, despite a potential $1-billion investment, none of the specific glaciers have been studied), and the ability to ski during summer, given recent warming trends. Together, they create near-paralyzing confusion, and ultimately distract from the principal issues: the grizzly population and the Ktunaxa stand.
There is an extraordinary confluence between Proctor's staunch science and the Ktunaxa's spiritual commitment to the grizzly. Protect the bear, they both understand, and you protect everything else. For grizzlies are an umbrella and indicator species, showing the effect of problems before they have affected other species. Essentially, bears offer a window into the larger, deeper environment of a landscape. If they aren't doing well, as Proctor has shown to be the case in the Purcells, it tells us to pay close attention.
On a deeper level, though, Jumbo illuminates an inevitable crossroads facing the Western psyche. An unconscious but deeply held faith permeates this region, built on equal parts wealth and wilderness, abundance and freedom. But the frontier can't keep on giving.
If environmentalists are guilty of trotting out grizzly bears at the drop of a dime, the unflagging battle cry of developers goes something like this: If you are against the project, you are against jobs, against prosperity, against the future. Which poses a challenging moral question: Must we sacrifice the range and even existence of some species for our own advancement?
Proctor argues that this crossroads is not an either/or proposition. "We can protect wildlife values and prosper as a society at the same time. We just have to be smart about when and where we develop. ... The sad part is that we get caught in the old conservative versus liberal thing: We've got to make money off backcountry and sacrifice wildlife - or be poor. And that is simply not the case."
Glacier Resorts argues that it has passed every test and assessment placed in its path. Which is true. But it begs the question why the resort, after 20 years, has not been approved.
Bennett pins the proposed resort's status on the opponents, and their uncanny ability to make politicians nervous. But then he adds, "That is not really the way you should be running a province. Or encouraging investment in the tourism industry. Long answer, in terms of fairness and in terms of process, this is an example of the worst kind of government process possible."
It may be the only point on which both opposition and developer agree.
While the proponent's vision of transplanting a European-style resort to the heart of the Canadian wilderness has a certain appeal, it offers an even greater opportunity: to learn from and avoid the mistakes of the Continent. The Alps, with a history of heavy mountain development, have already squeezed the essential wildness from their peaks and valleys. For Europeans, "the West" - that mythical frontier beaconing on the edge of the human psyche - now lies here, in Canada, in British Columbia, in the vast unpopulated landscapes where bears (and the full palette of nature sheltered beneath their umbrella) still roam. And Europeans turn toward us, in droves, not to ski, but to reconnect with the wild.
The size of the resort itself - whether mega, boutique or a vastly reduced 1,000 beds - doesn't matter. It is the incursion itself, the 55-kilometre road into the centre of the Purcells, and the estimated half a million visitors a year, which threaten the wild balance. Standing atop Glacier Dome, decades ago, afforded stark clarity. Today, any simplicity is hidden behind complex feuds and smokescreens. I hope British Columbia's new Premier will be able to see through the confusion and protect the province's wild inheritance.
KEY PLAYERS IN THE JUMBO VALLEY DEBATE
Glacier Resorts Ltd.
The Proponent: Spearheaded by Italian-born, Vancouver-based architect Oberto Oberti, and backed by a mix of undisclosed foreign investors.
Jumbo Creek Conservation Society and West Kootenay Coalition for Jumbo Wild
Citizen coalitions opposed to the proposal.
The first nation that traditionally used, occupied and controlled the Jumbo Valley. (Note: The Kinbasket-Shuswap support the project, but their interest in the valley - which lies wholly within the Ktunaxa treaty negotiation area - is heavily disputed. This small band settled and was granted asylum within Ktunaxa territory during the mid-1800s. A recent report to B.C. Hydro by ethnographers Bouchard & Kennedy found no evidence that the Kinbasket-Shuswap band held exclusive territorial interest in the area.) The Ktunaxa have been unwavering in their opposition, and declared the area to be of profound spiritual significance.
District of Invermere
The closest municipality to the proposed resort. A motion of opposition to the project was passed in council.
Regional District of East Kootenay
The municipal government that holds jurisdiction over land-use issues in the Jumbo Valley, but which surrendered that control, in a highly controversial vote, to the Ministry of Natural Resource Operations.
Ministry of Natural Resource Operations
A new provincial ministry formed during B.C.'s recent top-to-bottom restructuring, now charged with making the ultimate recommendation on land use in the Jumbo Valley.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Editor's note: "Key Players in the Jumbo Valley debate" ran in the print edition of The Globe and Mail on Feb. 19. It was omitted from an earlier online version of the story.