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Local Economy

Tumbler Ridge: A Coal Mining Town’s Fight for Survival

From dinosaur discoveries to mountain biking to clean energy, this northeast BC community is looking to build a new future.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 3 Nov

Amanda Follett Hosgood lives and writes amidst the stunning mountains and rivers of Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

Curtis Miedzinski uses his palm to press the map flat against the picnic table, fighting against a stiff breeze that persistently flaps the page.

While the rest of northern B.C. endures a steady downpour, Tumbler Ridge, located on the lee slopes of the northern Rockies, is cool and sunny. A constant wind blows through the playground at this elementary-school-turned-dinosaur-museum, where visitors pull in and out, often with kids in tow. They’re here to check out the region’s prehistoric creatures and let their offspring run wild on the jungle gym.

Tumbler Ridge is a community that feels perpetually on the brink of discovery. It offers world-class outdoor adventure, is home to the province’s most significant dinosaur finds and boasts unique geology that laid the groundwork for its mining roots and earned it UNESCO Global Geopark status.

Yet its location at the end of a four-hour drive north from Prince George has kept the community relatively quiet. The most commonly used airport is in Fort St. John, a two-hour drive away.

Today the former coal mining town is capitalizing on its natural resources, everything from dinosaurs to wind, to diversify an economy that has traditionally ridden the waves of fluctuating coal prices.

Tumbler Ridge was incorporated in 1981 as the last of B.C.’s “instant towns” that were purpose-built to house industry workers in remote areas. Quintette and Bullmoose coal mines were preparing to begin operations, and the goal was to create a planned community with the parks, paths and facilities to encourage families to make their homes here.

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Kinuseo Falls, located in Monkman Provincial Park an hour’s drive south of Tumbler Ridge, is one of dozens of waterfalls in the region. At 60 metres, the falls, which are on the Murray River, are 10 metres higher than Niagara Falls. Photo by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

Miedzinski is a local business owner and district councillor who grew up an hour north in Dawson Creek. He has lived in world-renowned tourist destinations but chose to settle in Tumbler Ridge not for a job, but for the lifestyle.

“I saw the potential,” he says. “I could’ve moved anywhere, but I figured here was a good base. A good starting point.”

What Miedzinski is laying before me are plans — not unlike those that mapped out the town 40 years ago — for nearly 50 kilometres of mountain biking trails on the ridge that rises above us.

“To bring in the tourism, we have to have tourism products,” he says. He points to other mountain towns, like Valemount, where bike trails laid the groundwork for micro-breweries and wood-fired pizza joints — amenities that make the community more desirable not just to tourists, but to prospective residents.

In a move Miedzinski describes as “a little bit backwards,” the Tumbler Ridge Mountain Bike Association spent $50,000 on this mountain biking master plan. Unlike other communities that allow their trails to evolve organically, Tumbler Ridge is taking the unusual step of asking permission rather than forgiveness.

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District councillors Joanne Kirby (left) and Curtis Miedzinski look at a mountain biking master plan commissioned for the community by the Tumbler Ridge Mountain Bike Association. The plan includes almost 50 kilometres of bike trails on the ridge above town. Photo by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

Recreation Sites and Trails BC hasn’t yet granted that permission, but tenure approval for the association appears a formality — in June, as part of a grant program to support rural economies, the province awarded the district $500,000 for trail development. (The Ministry of Forests says tenure discussions with stakeholders are ongoing.) In total, Miedzinski says they have raised $860,000 for the trails. The total cost is estimated at more than $3 million.

Fundraising is on hold as they await tenure, but it’s hoped that next spring construction will begin downtown on a pump track — a paved biking circuit, built to Red Bull competition specs — designed to engage the wider community.

Downtown Tumbler Ridge has a sleepy, Pleasantville feel: Wide, curved streets meander past a salmon-pink town hall, the grocery store and the tourist info centre. The spacious layout was designed 40 years ago with visibility and safety in mind, Mayor Keith Bertrand says.

For many visitors, it’s a place to stock up, make a plan and head for the surrounding hills.

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Tumbler Ridge’s downtown has an intentional feel and was designed for safety, says its mayor. Photo by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

“Since 2000, the district has definitely been committed to diversifying, and tourism was a big push,” Bertrand says. “This year, our tourism exploded, partly due to COVID, I think. With everyone being quarantined, there’s been a lot more people wanting to camp.”

In 2014, Tumbler Ridge became the second site in North America designated as a UNESCO Geopark, recognizing the international significance of its geological features. This opened it up to an entirely new — and very niche — crowd of tourists interested in geology. Tumbler Ridge Geopark Society is now working to get an International Dark Sky Reserve designation that would promote the region’s stargazing potential.

The immediate area also boasts alpine hiking and skiing trails, provincial parks like Gwillim Lake and Monkman, world-class paddling routes and dozens of waterfalls, earning it the title “Waterfall Capital of the North.” Even the waterfalls are a product of the region’s unique and relatively young geology, says geologist Kevin Sharman.

Sharman moved here to work at Quintette in the early 1980s. After 20 years in mining, he retired and chose to stay. “We love it here and there’s lots to do,” he says. “It just has so much to offer as far as outdoor activities.”

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Quality Falls, just a few minutes’ drive from Tumbler Ridge, is one of dozens of waterfalls easily accessible from the community. Photo by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

Not everyone stayed. The town’s population peaked in the 1990s at about 5,000 people. Then Quintette coal mine was shuttered in 2000. Bullmoose reached the end of its lifespan a few years later. Tumbler Ridge’s population plummeted to about 1,500.

At the time, you could buy a house in Tumbler Ridge for about $25,000. By the time Bertrand moved to the community in 2003, they had risen to about $50,000. Today, an average house here costs about $135,000 and the population hovers just under 2,000.

The year Quintette closed, the same geology that facilitated coal mining brought the town its next big discovery.

Two teenage boys were tubing nearby Flatbed Creek and stumbled upon what appeared to be dinosaur tracks. At their insistence, a parent called Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum, which confirmed the footprints — known as trackways — belonged to an ankylosaur.

The happenstance discovery led to the realization that Tumbler Ridge holds the richest dinosaur deposits anywhere in B.C.

Shortly after, two paleontologists moved to the community and, in 2003, started the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre. Three years later, the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery opened to the public.

The District of Tumbler Ridge has been responsible for funding much of the gallery and research. But in 2018, council voted against renewing the museum’s $200,000 annual funding and began to re-evaluate its commitment to local paleontological assets.

In a referendum held that fall, 88 per cent of residents voted to continue funding, but with a shift: Make the research more accessible to children, families and tourists, they said.

When the gallery reopened later that year, it was with a renewed focus on outreach and a four-year funding commitment from the district, which increased its annual contribution by $20,000. A general manager, Zena Conlin, was hired and tasked with refreshing the gallery, housed in a repurposed gymnasium.

“I probably have 10 years of ideas to put in that gallery,” Conlin says. She sits in a classroom surrounded by papier mâché palm trees and molded dinosaur tracks. A stuffed dinosaur head rests on the floor. “We have a lot of projects we want to do. It’s just finding the funding and the capacity.”

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Zena Conlin took the job of general manager at Tumbler Ridge’s Dinosaur Discovery Gallery last year. ‘I probably have 10 years of ideas to put in that gallery,’ she says. Photo by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

Normally, staff would be preparing to host students here. This year, they’re figuring out how to retool the curriculum for outreach programming. The pandemic, however, has provided downtime to rid backrooms of stacks of reference books and old equipment, and Conlin is beginning to plan the gallery’s expansion into another wing of the building, something that will take years to implement.

“We can tell 500 million years’ worth of history in northern B.C.,” she says. Yet missing from the displays is more than 10,000 years of Indigenous and settler history, something she hopes to rectify.

But while Conlin struggles to refresh the ageing school — she frequently needs to shuffle lightbulbs from one room to another, as the fixtures are so old, she can’t buy replacements — she also dreams of a new, purpose-built facility.

Also collecting dust in a backroom is one of B.C.’s most significant dinosaur finds: an almost fully complete hadrosaur skeleton uncovered in the area a decade ago. The gallery has neither the space nor the resources to turn the fossils into a display. The Royal BC Museum in Victoria has said that if the gallery were to close for good, there would be no place for the fossils.

Last year, the district applied to the province for an $18-million grant to build a geo-museum in the heart of town. It would house both the dinosaur gallery and Tumbler Ridge Global Geopark exhibits. The application was turned down.

“Basically, we’ve been housing this collection free of charge to the province for the last 15 years, and we’re looking for the province’s involvement,” Bertrand says. “They’re operating the best they can on the budgets that they’re getting, but unfortunately, those funding sources are not as stable as, say, a provincial funding source. We’re definitely looking for other options.”

Out of three mines in the area, only one, Wolverine, continues to operate, employing about 350 people and contributing about 10 per cent of the district’s revenue, Bertrand says. Two others are closed and employ about a half dozen people each in care and maintenance. Natural gas, whose discovery here pre-dates the town, also contributes to the tax base.

But while local tourism was up this summer and mining’s status as an essential service meant residents kept their jobs, the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the mining industry in general.

“We’re seeing already that the coal price has taken a dive during COVID. It’s starting to come up now, but it was definitely worrisome,” Bertrand says. “The coal market is up and down all the time.”

While coal prices may be fickle, Tumbler Ridge’s wind is not.

Its position in the foothills means that weather from the coast lifts over the Rockies, dropping its moisture before accelerating down the leeward slopes. The result is frequent sunshine and consistent wind.

Over the past decade, three wind power operations have set up shop near Tumbler Ridge, employing 145 locals and contributing to the municipal tax base. Photo by Amanda Follett Hosgood.

By sheer coincidence, the surrounding ridges, which run northwest to southeast, sit perpendicular to those prevailing winds, creating convenient perches for wind turbines, Sharman explains. The combination has made the region popular with power producers and three companies have set up shop in the region, employing about 145 residents. One, Quality Wind, sits partially within Tumbler Ridge and pays taxes that contribute directly to town coffers.

A fourth project, Thunder Mountain, would add nine additional towers in the area, but is on hold until BC Hydro’s next Clean Power Call — which is unlikely as long as construction continues on Site C, Bertrand says.

The region’s immense landscapes bely the wind turbines’ size. From a distance, they appear whimsical, even elegant, their arms turning lazily against the sky. But if you want to feel small, stand beneath one and look up. Watch the blades dip and soar, your body swaying with vertigo. Feel their eerie hum.

The hulking behemoths stand nearly 100 metres tall and weigh over 200 tonnes. A single blade on the Quality Wind turbines is equal to the length of four school buses.

According to the Mining Association of BC manufacturing each turbine takes nearly 200 tonnes of metallurgical coal — special steelmaking coal mined here in Tumbler Ridge. In a sense, the town’s mining industry is supporting its own transition to clean energy.

“We have metallurgical coal mines operating right beside wind turbines within a global geopark,” Bertrand says.

While no amount of planning could prevent the ups and downs experienced by this intentional community, the social fabric appears to have held together. Many people have left. But those who remain have shown that hard work can bring viability and vibrancy to a hidden gem in the northern Rockies.

All you need is a plan.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Local Economy

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