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Gondolas Up The Chief?

A resort developer wants to erect 15 towers and ferry tourists to the top of the famous monolith near Squamish. The Liberal government is open to the idea.

By Lisa Richardson 12 Aug 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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Every year nearly a half million tourists pull off the Sea-to-Sky highway and crane their necks to get their best view of The Chief, the second largest granite monolith in the world.If Peter Alder succeeds, that's all about to change. Oglers will get up close and personal with the Chief in a whole new way.

Alder, a Whistler-based ski resort development consultant, is pushing for an aerial sightseeing gondola running paying tourists, eight to a car, to the top of the Chief. There they would wander an observation deck to be constructed in a securely fenced off area that would cover the entirety of the second summit. 

That idea outrages some hikers and climbers who flock to Stawamus Chief Provincial Park for an unmediated experience of nature. Alder, who has declined to comment to The Tyee, is floating a proposal that coincides with a major expansion of the Sea to Sky Highway and, predicted by the government, large increases in traffic on that road.

Developer taking low profile

Squamish's Acting Mayor Sonja Lebans says that so far her council has only "heard from" Alder, "but we've have had no formal discussions whatsoever. It hasn't come before Council at all. It's been very low on the radar."

But The Tyee has seen documents submitted by Alder to various interest groups. Alder has submitted a proposal to the Squamish Tourism Committee. And the provincial government, which is on record looking for ways to make more money in B.C. parks, is aware of the proposal and hasn't said no.

It is not known what income the provincial government, or the District of Squamish, might share in, if any. The

District of Squamish, the Squamish First Nations, The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games and the Ministry of Transportation likely would all have some say in whether the project goes ahead.

Minister looks for local support

Minister for Water, Land and Air Protection Bill Barisoff confirmed to the The Tyee he has given Alder and any backers a homework assignment.  "If they're serious about this, which it sounds like they are, I've indicated to them that they need to go back to the community and convince the council and the community that this is a great idea, and worth amending the park's management plan."

Barisoff expects public meetings on the idea to be held in the fall.

15 towers, 22 gondolas

Documents laying out Alder's vision include 22 gondolas suspended from 15 towers, creating the capacity to move 880 people per hour up a 694 metre vertical rise. The hike up the Backside Trail to the Second Summit takes anywhere from an hour to three hours, depending on the hikers' fitness.  A gondola ride will whir them straight there in 5.6 minutes.

"If it does go in, it will definitely change the Chief," says Manager of the Squamish Chamber of Commerce, Karen

Hodson. She says a lot more discussion and information is needed before she and Squamish's Tourism Committee can decide whether Alder's gondola scheme "fits within the brand of Squamish."

The region's gigantic "trademark" would be ruined, argues The Squamish Access Society, a climbers' advocacy group. The "economic gains projected from a gondola will be outweighed by the erosion of the tourism equity built around Squamish's trademark: the outdoor recreation capital of Canada," said a May 28 letter from the SAS to the Minister of Water, Land and Air Protection.

The Chief, argues the SAS, "is now the most popular hiking peak in B.C. and Canada's most famous rock climbing centre, and it's simply unacceptable to suggest such a radically different paradigm."

Quadraplegic climber opposed

Brad Zdanivsky is a 28 year old climber, who also happens to be a quadriplegic. Having sustained a spinal injury in a car accident a decade ago, Zdanivsky has since attempted to climb the Chief twice.  "I've been fascinated with that thing since I was a kid."  He didn't get the chance to climb it while he was able-bodied, and that's fuelling his desire to climb it now.  He needs a host of special equipment, a team of 30 people and at least 18 hours of perfect weather.

A gondola up the Chief? "It should not be that casual," says Zdanivsky, firmly.  "Why not just carve our initials in the rock at the top? Why not turn the Grand Wall into a large screen plasma TV for advertising? Why not put up some waterslides on the Apron?  I think natural places should be respected.  And I think people should have to get up the Chief under their own steam.  I'm a climber. I think you should earn every inch you get."

Minister Barisoff acknowledges that the current park management plan rules out Alder's vision. But the plan can be amended. Barisoff told The Tyee that "decisions for developing new activities in areas such as this are guided by the park management plan, which represents the community's views on the area. The Management Plan for the Stawamus Chief was done in 1997, and it provides no allowance for a development of this type."

Critics fret about new powers

Opponents to the development, so far a loose group of local residents and recreation enthusiasts, are beginning to mobilise in response to the rumours, and a petition is being circulated. Some point with concern to the Parks and Protected Areas Statute Amendment Act, which came into force last December. The legislation enables the Minister to allow private interests to pursue recreational and tourism developments in parks if, in his opinion, development is "consistent with or complementary to" recreational values." Opponents worry the recently amended Parks Act and the Streamlining of Official Projects Act, as well as the

provincial government's stated strategic plan to "maximize the benefits from our natural resources," and its commitment to "streamlining processes and regulations" means the fate of the Chief is very much up for grabs.

For now, Barisoff has lobbed this one back into the community's end of the court.  "From my perspective as a Minister, amending the management plan has to have the public support."

Barisoff said that would mean the endorsement of the local council. The Minister said he will also seek input from public meetings taking place in the area. Provincial staff will sit in on meetings to weigh the pluses and minuses of the proposal.

Weighing 'recreational values'

If satisfied the plan finds favour with the community of Squamish, Barisoff told The Tyee, he will then ascertain

whether the gondolas contribute to the recreational values of the park. "It certainly falls back into the hands of the people in the area," said the Minister, "to see whether it's something they support." Acting Mayor of Squamish, Sonja Lebans concurs. "When you are looking for community support, the proponent would have to host several public meetings to present the plan to the community and to hear what the community has to say. At that point, I expect the Council would hear from lots of people too, who haven't been aware of the project up until that point." Which means the fate of the Chief, despite its fame across Canada and the world, might be decided largely by interested citizens among Squamish's 15,000 residents. 

Lisa Richardson is a journalist based in Squamish.  [Tyee]

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