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A Jumbo Showdown

Key decision looms on fate of proposed ski resort.

By Bill Metcalfe 15 Feb 2008 |

Bill Metcalfe is a radio and print journalist based in Nelson, B.C.

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In the Purcells, proposed site of Jumbo Glacier Resort.

A survey of residents living near the proposed $450 million Jumbo Glacier Resort has added more fuel to the fiery debate in the East Kootenays about that project.

And there will soon be an answer to the big question about Jumbo: Will the provincial government push the project into existence despite significant local opposition, or will it keep its commitment to have the final decision made locally by the board of the East Kootenay Regional District (RDEK)?

The online survey was started by Lillian Rose, the elected representative for Area F of the RDEK where Jumbo Resort would be situated. The survey asked local residents: Do you support the Jumbo Glacier Resort? The results: 689 against the project, 180 in favour.

"I'm confident that the people who elected me have sent a strong message," Rose said. "I'm taking my direction from them."

Jumbo Glacier is at the head of Jumbo Creek in the Purcell Mountains north of Nelson and west of Invermere. The completed real estate development and all-season ski resort, proposed by Glacier Resorts Ltd. of Vancouver, would consist of a village of condos, chalets, shops and hotels with thousands of guests and residents. It would provide 20 lifts for expensive year-round skiing on several nearby glaciers.

Grant Costello, vice-president of Glacier Resorts Ltd., commenting on Rose's survey, told the Fernie Free Press on Jan. 9 that "It's not an opinion poll at all . . . it proves nothing. It proves they got 600 people to respond to a self-selecting survey." Costello said the number of responses represents "less than 10 per cent of eligible survey participants."

Long, winding process

Since 1991 the Jumbo proposal has undergone a labyrinth of government processes, lobbying, debate, and significant public opposition. NDP MLA Norm McDonald, in whose Columbia-Revelstoke riding the project would sit, says reaction received by his office over the years has been about six to one against the project. In the 60-day period in the spring of 2004 in which the public (both in and outside of the East Kootenays) was asked to comment on Glacier Resorts' project proposal, the B.C. Environment Assessment Office reported that 91 per cent of the 5,839 comments received were against the project.

Last year, following the provincial Environmental Review Process, the government signed a Master Plan Agreement with Glacier Resorts Ltd. The next step would be the signing of a Master Development Agreement, after discussions with First Nations.

For a project like Jumbo to proceed, the province is obliged to meaningfully consult with local First Nations. The Ktunaxa Nation Council is still discussing mitigation and compensation with the province, the developer, and its own people.

"People always talk about this as environmentalists vs. developers," says Lillian Rose," but I always tell them it's more complex than that because it is about the treaty."

Local decision was promised

Whether or not an agreement is reached with the Ktunaxa, the next step may be for the company to ask the RDEK to approve of the project by rezoning the land in the Jumbo Valley, following an October 2005 statement by then-minister of Sustainable Resource Development George Abbott:

"The final decision will be in the hands of those closest to the project . . . . The project would not be able to proceed without the approval of the East Kootenay Regional District."

The RDEK is governed by a 15-member board of representatives from the communities of Radium Hot Springs, Invermere, Elkford, Sparwood, Fernie, Kimberley, Cranbrook, Windermere, Canal Flats and six rural areas in the vicinity.

Government has other options

Many East Kootenay residents think the provincial government will decide to override Abbott's commitment, and allow the project to proceed without any more input from local residents. It could do that in one of two ways:

It could invoke the Significant Projects Streamlining Act, which allows the provincial government to undertake any project it wishes.

Or the government could rely on section 16 of Bill 11, passed in 2007 as the Community Service Statutes Amendment Act, to declare the Jumbo Valley a resort municipality, regardless of local public opinion. Such a municipality could stand on its own or be annexed by another municipality not necessarily in the near vicinity.

Would the government intervene in this way? Opponents of the project fear it will. So does Corky Evans, whose Nelson-Creston riding is west of the Jumbo Valley. He says the bill should have been named the Jumbo Resort Amendment Act, and in a speech in the legislature during the debate on Bill 11 he engaged in a bit of political theatre:

"There are people over there who don't believe me. I'm going to stand here silently. I don't have a watch. I'll stand here silently, if I can, for 30 seconds. Let one member of the provincial council or the premier shout out that they do not intend and promise not to use this legislation to make Jumbo Resort a done deal.

"Hon. Speaker, did you notice the silence? Folks at home, did you notice the silence? You can't see it, but nobody in this room spoke up. Thirty seconds went by, and nobody spoke because they're honest people, and they don't want to lie. Because they're honourable members, and they don't want to lie . . . they didn't speak up. Why is that? Because that's exactly what they intend to do . . . . On a day when nobody's watching, some fall when they don't even have a session, they intend to simply slip it through."

Revving up the ski biz

The Ministry of Tourism, Sports, and the Arts has vowed to double tourism in B.C. from its 2005 levels by 2015. For crown-land tenured ski resorts such as the one proposed for Jumbo, the province gets two per cent of the gross revenue from the operation. That amounted to $3 million last year from all resorts in the province. The developer also pays the province $5000 per acre for the land, which the developer can then sell for a higher real estate market value.

Greg Deck, the chair of the RDEK and the mayor of Radium Hot Springs, says he hopes the province will step in and declare the Jumbo Valley a resort municipality, and he expects that will happen soon. He says the RDEK is not equipped to make a decision of this scale and scope. "We have never done anything on the scope of an environmental review. Our land use planning is about human settlements, and this is a long way from that -- it's more on the scale of a mine or a timber operation."

Deck says the province should decide on the project because "local residents are not the only ones who will depend on the benefits that will come from it."

Mark Schmigelsky is one RDEK board member who disagrees with Deck. He's the mayor of Invermere, the town closest to the proposed resort. The Invermere Village Council is officially against the project. "Having the RDEK make this decision would be no different from what it normally does," he says. "If we are not capable of that, we are not capable of anything."

Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Norm McDonald says the government should honour its 2005 commitment to let the RDEK decide.

"Local people will get disillusioned about the political system," McDonald told The Tyee. "If the government walks away from the promise to let it be decided locally, that's not a good message to people, especially young people, about the political system; it would just make them even more cynical."

Yet another option for Jumbo would be for an existing municipality to annex the Jumbo area -- to expand its municipal boundaries to include it. Schmigelsky says several communities in the area, including Invermere, Windermere, Canal Flats, Fairmont, and Radium are looking at the idea of amalgamating to become a regional municipality which could also include Jumbo. He says this idea is not specifically a response to Jumbo-- it would solve a number of other governance issues in the area.

Deck's and Schmigelsy's differing opinions mirror the views of the RDEK board as a whole, which Deck says is sharply divided on the issue. He says a vote would probably result in an 8-7 decision in either direction.

Jumbo-sized questions remain

No matter how the decision is made, or what the governance model, the issues that have been debated for 20 years are all alive and well, including:

How would the Jumbo project affect the environment? As a result of the province's environmental review process, the company has had to make some changes to its original proposal. But there are still concerns that the resort will fracture the uninterrupted wilderness nature of the Purcells, and in particular affect grizzly bear populations. A new scientific study completed since the signing of the Master Plan Agreement says the bear numbers on which that agreement was based are wrong, and environmental groups say the grizzly discussion needs to be re-opened by the province. The province says that new grizzly information will be incorporated into the current discussions with the Ktunaxa Nation Council.

Will there be enough skiers? Some ski industry experts contend that skier numbers are dropping and will continue to do so because of global warming and the aging of the baby boomers who form the bulk of the skier population. Others, including Vancouver architect Oberto Oberti, the president of Jumbo Glacier Resorts Ltd, claim to have crunched the numbers sufficiently to know that skiers will flock there: "B.C. could have five more Whistlers."

What about global warming? The ski resort industry is expected to be hit hard by rising temperatures, despite advances in snow-making technology. That's one reason why the provincial government's strategy, at Jumbo and elsewhere, is to push all-season development of resorts that offer complete holiday packages, not just skiing. The promoters and supporters of the Jumbo development use climate change to their advantage: they say that because Jumbo and surrounding glaciers are at higher altitude (3400 metres) than any other ski resorts in B.C., they will presumably be the last to melt.

Will the project create jobs, or will it be unable to find workers? MLA McDonald argues that there is a serious labour shortage in the East Kootenays, particularly in the service and construction industries. But Allen Miller, president of the Columbia Valley Chamber of Commerce says, "If you have a good project, and you get creative about attracting people from outside and care for them well by giving them staff housing and other benefits, they will come."

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