For over 25 years, a fight has been raging in the heart of British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains. The proposed construction of Jumbo Glacier Resort in the high-mountain wilderness west of Invermere, British Columbia, has galvanized preachers against naysayers. Though some think the developers were recently dealt a death blow by the provincial government, the proponents aren’t giving up. After all this time, why does this battle still rage on?
–Story by Evan Mitsui, Photographs by Garrett Grove
It’s mid-April and heli-skiing operations in the East Kootenay region of British Columbia are shut down for the season, leaving Nick Waggoner on the hook to charter his own ride. The 29-year-old skier and filmmaker, originally from New York City, hopes to deliver Italian architect Oberto Oberti to the 3,000-metre summit of Glacier Dome, in the heart of the Jumbo Valley, to film him skiing the terrain he’s spent 25 years trying to turn into a Kitzbühelesque resort.
Skiing and creative vision are common ground for Oberti and Waggoner. The driving force behind Sweetgrass Productions, Waggoner’s award-winning ski films, including Valhalla and Afterglow, have set new benchmarks for narrative in action films, and he’s now moving into the feature documentary field. To gain access to the media-shy developers of the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort, the charismatic kid put in a long courtship and forged actual friendships with them.
In order to hit a narrow weather window promising blue skies in the alpine, Oberti is en route from Vancouver for tomorrow’s crucial segment. Waggoner, photographer Garrett Grove, Glacier Resorts Vice President Grant Costello, a local ski guide (who prefers not to be named) and I are huddled around a table at an otherwise empty bar in the nearby 2,955-person town of Invermere, working out the strict conditions under which the helicopter will fly.
Waggoner has spent a significant part of the past four years filming in the Kootenays. At the time of film production in winter 2015, the British Columbia government was trying to decide whether to allow the continuation of the Jumbo development’s Environmental Assessment Certificate (EAC), which the entire project hinged on: a potential make-or-break moment in the arc of its story. “People have very different philosophies about land use,” explains Waggoner. “In the case of Jumbo, there are no bad guys, just people like me who love the mountains.” It’s the expression of that love at the centre of his latest project that casts into high definition the ongoing saga.
The proposed development has loomed for a quarter century in the Kootenays, a palpable wedge separating two ideologically opposed camps: one in favour of an expansive four-season resort in the wild heart of the Purcell Mountains, the other completely opposed to it. Between the two is little common ground, except the land. For Oberti and the proponents, Jumbo Peak, almost the highest in the Purcell range with a rocky promontory 3,419 metres tall, is an attraction that, if developed, would dramatically increase the value of a relatively small slice of wild heartland. For the Ktunaxa Nation, whose territory the valley sits in, Jumbo’s often cloud-shrouded summit and the valley below are a sacred refuge they call Qat’muk — a namesake referencing the grizzly bear: the valley’s main resident. Many argue the development is a potentially disastrous invasion into the heart of the grizzly bear’s territory. For residents of the Kootenays, it’s a question of what economic activities they’ll favour going forward, at what expense.
SIMPLY PUT, BRITISH COLUMBIA IS THE ONLY PLACE IN NORTH AMERICA WITH VIABLE GLACIERS WHERE WILDLIFE REGULATIONS WOULD PERMIT A RESORT ON THE SCALE OF JUMBO.
On June 18, 2015, British Columbia’s environment minister, Mary Polak, dropped a bombshell when she announced the project had “not been substantially started” because, among other reasons, the foundations for a day lodge and service building were laid in an avalanche zone. This resulted in the loss of the development’s all-important EAC — effectively sending it back to square one. Though many considered this to be the end, the proponents announced shortly after that it wasn’t. Jumbo Glacier Resort’s website states, “The resort will proceed with an amended Master Plan that will fall under the thresholds of the Environmental Assessment Act. Construction of the resort will continue as soon as the amendment process is completed.” At the time of publication the developer had reduced the proposed number of beds in the village from 6,250 to 1,997. It was unclear whether the planned number of lifts would also shrink.
The Jumbo issue is now more apt than ever as the main question remains: why is this particular resort still worth fighting for?
Riding on Waggoner’s coattails, I’m able to meet the elusive developers firsthand. But our guide and Glacier Resorts’ Grant Costello don’t see eye to eye on who has the rights to fly and ski in territory squarely in the middle of a recreational tenure held for decades by RK Heliski. Local politics are at play. The guide has been told this group doesn’t have RK’s blessing. But Waggoner, who has a knack for diplomacy, brokers a deal for a single drop, and the clutch segment of his film is set. Crew call is 6 a.m. and we disband for now, but I follow the filmmaker home.
Waggoner’s Invermere base camp is a hive of activity. The garage is overflowing with dozens of skis, packs and Pelican cases filled with camera equipment. Organized chaos is an essential part of Sweetgrass Productions’ self-propelled style. The producer on this project, Laura Yale, has just returned from a two-week backcountry mission in the Jumbo Valley with a cadre of Patagonia-sponsored skiers. The California-based clothing brand has been a sponsor of Waggoner’s film work since his beginnings at Colorado College. Part of their mantra, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm…inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis,” speaks to their conviction to be a powerful voice in the politics of global conservationism.
Guided by this philosophical compass, Patagonia is also backing Waggoner’s Jumbo Wild film. It’s to be their flagship media project and follows closely on the heels of The Fisherman’s Son and Dam Nation — both films they backed with a conservation message.
It’s 4:45 a.m. As forecast, the day breaks clear. I pull on my ski gear, down a mug of crummy coffee and drive the short distance to a collection of hangars just outside of town. The guide is already there, talking with the pilot. Waggoner and Grove pull up in the photographer’s battered Tacoma, followed by Costello and Oberti. I can barely make him out in the pre-dawn gloom. I’ll get face time with him later so I save introductions and keep to the back.
Oberti gets the first flight and then the chopper doubles back to pick me up. From the front seat, the round, snow-covered summit of Glacier Dome races into view. It’s fitting that here I meet Oberti for the first time. Seated in the snow, looking out over the serrated edges of peaks known as the Lieutenants and down to the fissured toe of a glacier poised to calve into a lake, he lays out his vision for a world-class resort. Its lift network would open up the most skiable terrain on the continent, and by phase two of the development, the Dome’s rounded pate would serve as a tram base, connecting it to a mid-station high atop Jumbo Mountain. From there is a 1,715- metre vertical drop to valley bottom — the potential for the longest lift-accessed ski run in North America.
“PEOPLE HAVE VERY DIFFERENT PHILOSOPHIES ABOUT LAND USE. IN THE CASE OF JUMBO, THERE ARE NO BAD GUYS, JUST PEOPLE LIKE ME WHO LOVE THE MOUNTAINS.”
—NICK WAGGONER, FILMMAKER
According to Oberti, Jumbo’s proximity to the Columbia Icefield, as well as to Jasper, Banff and Kootenay National Parks — all established travel destinations — promises a steady flow of tourists. Its 1,700-metre-high village would be above even the mid-stations of every other Canadian resort, a fact he says would all but guarantee holiday skiers a white Christmas. Calgary’s International Airport, a three-hour drive away on the Trans-Canada Highway, would serve as the resort’s lifeline and the main port of entry for its target clientele.
Simply put, “Jumbo is the best,” Oberti tells me. In his search for the ideal location for a ski resort, he studied topographic maps of British Columbia and its Alberta borderlands and filtered locations based on climate data, elevation, glaciers, slope angle, accessibility and hours of sunlight. The Jumbo Valley was the first choice of only two to make the final cut. The other was the Twilight Glacier near Valemount, British Columbia, next to Jasper National Park — a six-and-a-half hour drive north from Invermere. In contrast to Jumbo, the Valemount proposal is riding a wave of public support.
But the Jumbo Valley is a rare gem for another reason: much of the area around it falls under the BC Parks and Protected Areas System, the product of an ambitious program started in 1992 called the Commission On Resources and the Environment (CORE). This is the same group that in 1994 authorized Glacier Resorts’ land-use proposal for a 60-square-kilometre (5,925-hectare) swath of Crown land stretching between the Jumbo and Horsethief drainages, provided there was an environmental assessment and public input process. It is the area now enclosed within the Controlled Recreation Area on the Jumbo Master Plan map. The wind is picking up, but before Oberti wraps our conversation he explains that, because of the shifting political landscape, climate change and the fact that the CORE process — which Glacier Resorts’ website refers to as the “most comprehensive land-use review ever undertaken in the Kootenays”—is likely never to be repeated again, now, more than ever, is the time to strike before the iron cools permanently.
Oberto Oberti immigrated to Canada from Turin, Italy, in 1965. He learned to ski on holidays to Andermatt, Switzerland, and speaks of a childhood affinity for trains, like the Gornergrat railway running through Zermatt, Switzerland. Like many lifelong skiers, Oberti refers to a solace he found in the mountains as a youth.
At 71, he is the patriarch of Pheidias Project Management Corporation and the namesake of Oberto Oberti Architecture and Urban Design Inc. In his career of more than 40 years as an architect, Oberti has made a name for himself as an innovator. The Pheidias website counts West Vancouver’s first luxury high-rise, built in 1976, as one of the company’s early projects, as well as Vancouver’s first all-residential tower, finished in 1989. Oberti’s companies are also responsible for the concept and design of Golden, British Columbia’s Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, opened in 2000.
ITS LIFT NETWORK WOULD OPEN UP THE MOST SKIABLE TERRAIN ON THE CONTINENT.
Seated at the boardroom table of his downtown Vancouver office, four days after our meeting on Glacier Dome, Oberti explains the downward spiral of Canada’s ski industry. Declining skier visits, he tells me, are due to a lack of “product differentiation.” In other words, we have failed to provide access to the best, highest mountains. “Skiing is supply driven,” he continues. It’s the “If you build it, they will come” adage, and he’s convinced the market is wide open for a new attraction.
The solution, he says, requires a paradigm shift from “weekend ski hills” to purpose-built destinations like Jumbo and Valemount. The model behind most of Canada’s existing resort developments, where lifts went up near a once-thriving resource town, is played out. For Oberti, Jumbo is not simply a gold mine waiting to be tapped; it’s the logical next step in British Columbia’s growth as a travel destination. Tourism is, as Oberti puts it, “our best renewable resource.”
Under current plans, Jumbo Glacier Resort would be poised to amplify that tourism sector thanks to British Columbia’s 2005 All Seasons Resort Policy (ASRP), or CASP as it was known in its early days. The ASRP is the province’s policy governing the management and development of Crown land specifically for resorts like Jumbo. Over 40 pages, the policy lays out the conditions under which Crown lands can be purchased at “fee simple dispositions” amounting to significant discounts that, when it comes time to resell plots in a newly built village, all but ensure a worthwhile return on the developer’s investment. By then, people would be living there and running businesses.
Oberti explains skiing is only part of the Jumbo equation. New ski developments must include lift infrastructure built with year-round sightseeing in mind. “Ski hills in dubious climates cannot sustain growth,” he says. In this fashion, Oberti spells out a recipe for resort success based on playing a long game. The key to turning a profit on-hill these days is to stay and run the resort after it’s built, recouping the cost of development through lift tickets and a piece of every restaurant and bar tab, parking meter and spa visit. Unlike the Alps, where lifts take skiers from village to village, spreading money between locally owned businesses, Glacier Resorts Ltd. would pool revenue generated from every beer and burger back into their own common kitty.
But the key to the resort’s viability remains rooted in the prime attraction of its high-alpine location. This is an industry reliant on snow in an era of climate change. This reality is not lost on Oberti. During our meeting, he provides me with a list of the applications for resort expansions and new projects in Western Canada filed in the last 20 years. In its opening paragraph the document makes note of the increasing importance of climatic zone and elevation. Of the 11 projects on the list, Jumbo has the highest base elevation, making it the most likely to retain skiable terrain in an uncertain future.
In 2013, The Tourism Industry Association of BC reported revenues in the area of $13.9 billion. In comparison, that same year, forestry in British Columbia was worth $15.7 billion in revenue, and mining $1.39 billion. Jumbo Glacier Resort’s current plan promises a $4 million annual flow of cash into the region once the resort has ramped up to full operations, three years in. Another $300 to $400 million would be injected into the economy through a 20-year construction period that, when completed, would create 740 to 800 full-time jobs. The provincial cut would amount to an estimated $12 million in taxes annually.
At the foundation of most arguments against a Jumbo resort is a study by North America’s pre-eminent bear researcher, Dr. Michael Proctor. Commissioned in 2012 as a site-specific spinoff on a much larger study, Consequences to the Purcell Mt Grizzly Bear from the Proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort, makes it clear that a resort in this remote mountainous location would have a negative impact on the bears. Their range stretches in a lava-lamp shaped corridor from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho and the Cabinet Mountains of Montana, up through the Jumbo Valley, connecting the vital Purcell and Selkirk Mountain areas with the Yukon. Proctor says without Jumbo the grizzlies stand little chance of long-term survival.
Putting the science into practice are the folks at Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y), recognized internationally as heavy hitters in mountain conservancy. The Canmore, Alberta-based group has focused efforts on the same mountain corridor identified in Proctor’s research. Y2Y’s Wendy Francis lays it out for me like this: on the American side, public lands are under federal control, meaning the United States’ Endangered Species Act protects all habitat in the current range of grizzly bears. In her words, “Developments like Jumbo would not be permitted in the US unless they were approved before the mid-1980s.”
Not so in British Columbia. The BC Conservation Data Centre, under the Ministry of Environment, ranks grizzlies “vulnerable” province-wide, but of the 56 population groups identified, only nine are classified as “threatened.” As of 2012, the population living in Jumbo is classed “viable.”
Federally, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species in Canada looks into which plants and animals are in danger of disappearing. It lists the western population of Ursus arctos — the grizzly — as a species of “special concern,” triggering a review under the Species at Risk Act — a necessarily lengthy process that culminates in either granting protection, or not granting it, on federal lands only. British Columbia and Alberta, however, rely on their provincially regulated wildlife acts, which afford the bears less comprehensive protections.
Simply put, British Columbia is the only place in North America with viable glaciers where wildlife regulations would permit a resort on the scale of Jumbo.
Alongside the fight to protect grizzlies is that of the Ktunaxa First Nation. Kathryn Teneese, Chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council — chief negotiator and elected spokesperson — explains that, because of Qat’muk’s spiritual significance, “We don’t feel that permanent habitation would afford us the sort of access we need to the place.”
The Ktunaxa’s position is spelled out like a line drawn in sand in the Qat’muk Declaration, a two-page document presented to the British Columbia legislature in November 2010 and since expanded into a website and online campaign. It concludes by stating the Ktunaxa will accept “no construction of buildings or structures with permanent foundations; no permanent occupation of residences” in Jumbo. But the proponents say the fact that the declaration came 20 years after negotiations aimed at making the development compatible with First Nations’ beliefs and values makes their claim questionable.
The Crown agrees with the proponent. A decision resulting from a judicial review filed by the Ktunaxa, alleging that the resource minister of the day, Steven Thompson, did not fulfill his duty to adequately accommodate their beliefs during the initial phases of the resort’s Master Development Agreement (MDA), and that the MDA itself violates their right to freedom of religion under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, didn’t go in their favour. Teneese and the Ktunaxa are unwavering. An appeal, filed on May 29, 2015, aims to prove it.
THE SHARPEST SWORD
Over the phone, Alex Lowther, who heads Patagonia’s New Localism initiative, through which Waggoner’s film is being produced, explains the drive behind what he calls “activism born from the love of a sport.” At Patagonia, he says, “A love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them.” Through films like Jumbo Wild, the clothing company is leveraging its considerable clout in the outdoor-sports world to spread an environmentally sensitive, yet branded message: backcountry users need to stand up for their territory.
Patagonia brings its weight to bear behind its environmental commitment in another big way, too. In addition to backing conservation films, the company earmarks at least one per cent of its net sales to grassroots environmental groups. Last year, that amounted to USD$6.7 million spread over 770 grantees worldwide. A 63-page book titled Environmental & Social Initiatives 2014 lists all 40 Canadian grantees, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Sierra Club BC and the Kimberley, British Columbia-based Wildsight — one of Jumbo Glacier Resort’s most organized and vocal opponents. Wildsight, it turns out, has been a grantee since 2007.
In another phone call, Patagonia’s campaigns and advocacy manager, Hans Cole, confirms the company’s commitment and explains the thinking behind it. “The people who use our products need wild places, and so do we as a company. It all ties together.” The other piece of the puzzle, Cole explains, is the company’s willingness to wade into controversy. The Jumbo film, he says, is intended to challenge its customer base to consider “what you can do to protect your local spot.”
For Wildsight Executive Director Robyn Duncan, the answer is clear. “There is intrinsic value in wilderness,” she explains. The development represents a “pioneer mentality” that takes the province’s natural resources for granted. It’s an attitude, she says, we can no longer afford.
Duncan’s voice is in the chorus speaking out in opposition to a resort in Jumbo. Lifelong Kootenay resident Meredith Hamstead is another. A mother of one who spends winters skiing with her family at Panorama Mountain Resort, near Invermere, she appears as an unlikely protagonist in Waggoner’s film. Her involvement in the Jumbo story goes back to almost the winter of 1996, when, while she was working at RK Heliski, she got the chance to fill an empty seat that just happened to be on Oberto Oberti’s flight. “I was having this real moment until this man comes to the front and casts his arms out and exclaims, ‘This is where I’ll build my ski resort.’” It was in that moment, she tells me, “I understood that the way people value land can be very, irreconcilably different.”
Along with the land-use question is another potential poleaxe to the project: climate change. Measurements on glacial melt in the Jumbo alpine hadn’t been done at the time the resort’s master plan was written, but a study published in Nature in April 2015 raises the very real spectre of an end to skiing as we know it. The next 50 years will tell, says Professor Emeritus Garry Clarke from the University of British Columbia. “Up until that time, there will be glaciers, whatever carbon path we are on.” But after this time, it’s unlikely much ice will remain. Where Jumbo Glacier Resort is concerned, continues Clarke, “It depends on their business plan. If they can recover their costs within 30 years, then it doesn’t matter.”
Clarke, like Oberti, looks to the Alps for a glimpse of what’s coming. “They are looking at what their heuristic future will be like without a ski season,” he says. There might even be a period where the Canadian ski industry benefits as the last place where anyone can ski. “We have the luxury of being able to go farther north to find snow,” Clarke says. “The Swiss can’t do that.”
As I think of the keen and graceful turns both Waggoner and Oberti made down Glacier Dome, I can’t help but be compelled by the clear science indicating this chunk of ice will be irrevocably diminished in 50 years, unless some dramatic changes are made to the way we humans spend our resources. I wonder about what building Jumbo Glacier Resort in this climate says about our priority as a species and the viability and ethics of a mega resort with a built-in lifespan, but consider the idea that the next two or three generations of British Columbians could be the benefactors of lifts to one of the last places on Earth with legitimately good skiing.
But, the real question surrounding Jumbo remains: What does the public want its land used for? If you’re a skier looking to pass that opportunity on to the next generation, then you, like Oberti and Waggoner, need to choose how best to pay that alpine legacy forward.
The film Jumbo Wild is on tour through October and November 2015, and will be available on iTunes and Vimeo On Demand December 11.