Opinion
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Environment

A Threat to the Peace and Ecology of the Kootenays

Sacrificing a lifestyle and environment for the sake of rich skiers and mountain bikers is a travesty of the worst kind.

By Luanne Armstrong 7 Jun 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Luanne Armstrong writes children’s books, novels and non-fiction. She lives in the Kootenays. Her new book, A Bright and Steady Flame, will be out from Caitlin in September.

I live on the east shore of Kootenay Lake, on a farm my grandfather bought in 1938. I have taught and studied in many other places but always come home to the farm.

The farm fed my parents and their children, as well as my own children as they grew. But farmland here is no long valued for growing food; instead, I now live in a place where the roads are long and empty in winter, but in summer the highway buzzes with motorcycles and trucks pulling boats or RVs, and yards are loud with lawnmowers and weedwhackers.

Now the idyllic quiet is threatened; Retallack, a heli-ski operation based in Nelson and New Denver, has proposed an enormous heli-skiing, heli-biking operation for this east shore of Kootenay Lake in the southern Purcell Mountain range. It's impossible to truly guess the impact it will have on our community, which is small, scattered and aging, but it is known from other places that both wildlife and people are driven away by the intensive noise and intrusion of such a project.

Many small rural communities in B.C. in the ‘70s and ‘80s were vibrant places, full of young homesteaders as well as people employed as miners, loggers, backhoe operators, carpenters. But people grew older, their children grew up, tourists were fewer, and one by one, the businesses failed; pubs, restaurants and grocery stores cannot survive on a bit of tourism for a couple months a year.

Most new people moving to this community are retiring out of Calgary or other places, attracted here by the beauty, the wildlife, and the peace and quiet. More and more summer homes are being built along the shoreline. But summer people rarely come for more than a few weeks. In the winter, most driveways along the east shore are empty. The few year-round people, like me, gather for potlucks, Scrabble games, afternoon tea, or activities like carpet bowling, wine making and yoga at the local community halls.

Now a huge threat looms over this place. Retallack is asking for tenure over a large portion of the South Purcell range, just above the east shore of the lake, of approximately 70,000 hectares. It is planning on building multiple helipads in several small communities, multiple ski chalets in alpine areas, plus a ski lodge and spa on Ktunaxa land on Kootenay Lake. Its plans include year-round heli-biking, dog sledding, horseback riding and hiking.

Retallack has supposedly signed a 50-50 agreement with the Yaqan Nukiy band, part of the Ktunaxa Nation in Creston, but now a member of the band has taken this agreement to court. Some members of the Yaqan Nukiy are opposed to this development, and the band itself has yet to vote on it. In addition, there is a petition going around the Yaqan Nukiy reserve against this agreement.

The Ktunaxa Nation completely opposed development of the Jumbo Pass ski resort in the Purcells because of its possible impact on grizzly bears. Members of the Ktunaxa have said it is their job to protect the land. Most of the people in the Kootenays agreed with stopping Jumbo and wrote letters and demonstrated side by side with the Ktunaxa.

But the Retallack venture will clearly have a huge impact on wildlife. According to the Kootenay environmental group Wildsight, as well as other biologists, Retallack's year-round proposal will have a profoundly negative impact on the ecology of the South Purcells. Animals such as mountain goat, grizzly, wolverines and cougars have found somewhat of a refuge in this area which has one road, the Grey Creek Pass road, running all the way through it. Logging roads have crept up all the valleys, but the high alpine is somewhat intact. Retallack wants to build 161 kilometres of mountain bike trails through the alpine tundra and mountain valleys. The noise and intrusion of trail building and the subsequent helicopter noise, mountain bikers speeding down the mountains, and the ongoing intrusion of hikers, skiers and others will negatively impact almost all the wildlife, birds and mammals in the South Purcells.

Helicopters have huge impact, both on animals and on humans. The noise echoes through the mountains. All of us on the east shore have lived through times when helicopters were necessary to fight fires and all of us know that there is no way to mitigate this noise. A constant day-in and day-out assault of noise from helicopters will affect nesting birds, almost all wildlife, and certainly it will also affect older humans trying to carry on their lives under a barrage of noise that will make them feel more as if they were suddenly living in a war zone, rather than the quiet peaceful community they once had. Helicopters also burn massive amounts of fuel at a time when scientists are issuing increasingly desperate warnings about the effects of climate change.

This fuel will be cached at each of the many proposed helipads on both the east shore as well as on the west side of Kootenay Lake. One spill of helicopter fuel into Lemon Creek in the Slocan Valley was devastating to that community and is still being fought out in court.

And yes, there might be something in it for the community. There might be a few jobs, some service worker jobs. Some ski guides. Where they would live, I have no idea. There is no rental housing on the east shore, and land and house prices are extremely high.

According to its website, Retallack tends to sell “in house” packages, so there is little spillover effect on the local community. Many skiers, bikers and other people seeking some kind of thrill will come in by shuttle bus, so they might not even have transportation when they are here. The east shore has one long, thin road that is prone to slides and washouts, choked with traffic in the summer, and often badly serviced in the winter. So more traffic is not good news.

So why is this happening? It is the continuation of what writer George Monbiot calls “the capitalization of nature.” In effect, the east shore is going to be a sort of sacrifice zone; we who live here and cherish our homes and lifestyles are being asked to forsake that peace and instead endure an onslaught of noise and intrusion so a few very wealthy people can recreate in the backcountry of our home. We are being asked to give up the ecology of this place, which we all cherish, so a few can have “fun.” And so one company and its owners can make a lot of money.

As Monbiot has written in the Guardian: “The notion that nature exists to serve us; that its value consists of the instrumental benefits we can extract; that this value can be measured in cash terms; and that what can’t be measured does not matter, has proved lethal to the rest of life on Earth.”

Everywhere on the planet, animal and fish populations are declining. We live in an age where scientists are becoming increasingly pessimistic in their announcements about “climate change” and its impact. Here are just a few statistics: land-dwelling wildlife has declined by 40 per cent since 1970. Marine animal populations have fallen by 40 per cent overall. Bird populations have been reduced by about 20 to 25 per cent. Freshwater animal populations have plummeted 75 per cent since 1970. Insect populations have also declined dramatically.

According to Wildsight, the B.C. government does not take the impact on animals and ecology into its decisions about such proposals like the one Retallack has made. This lack of care has led to the slow extinction of the caribou in both the Purcells and the Selkirk mountain ranges. Shooting wolves from helicopters has obviously done nothing to slow this decline.

The only answer is for people to come back to the government and defend the values of where they live, defend wildlife, defend their lifestyle, defend their peace and quiet, defend all the inhabitants of their communities.

The community of the east shore has until June 13 to answer back to government. Many people I have talked to remain confused and unsure of what this proposal entails and what the impact might actually be. Giving them time to understand would be a good idea. Putting a moratorium on such development until proper studies can be done on the impact of these and the many other heli-skiing proposals in the whole Kootenays would be useful to both the communities and the people whose job it is to actually assess the risks to wildlife and communities.

No one on the east shore is against good tourism development, and we are always happy to welcome new friends and neighbours. There is a strong sense of community in this place; people are very connected to each other and the place they live.

To be forced to give all this up for the sake of a few rich backcountry skiers and mountain bikers is a travesty of the worst kind. It's even more ironic that both skiing and biking were originally invented as transportation methods for pioneers and working people. Now they are just play.

Nobody has anything against play either, but when play and money become more important than community and ecology, we are all in deep trouble.  [Tyee]

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