A quarter of a century of AWAREness 

Caring for the resort's ecosystems remains as important today as it was when Whistler's environmental group was founded

click to flip through (10) BY VINCE SHULEY
  • By Vince Shuley
 
AWARE strives to improve the quality of life in Whistler and surrounding areas, protect and restore the natural heritage and maintain our resources and ecosystems, and achieve environmental sustainability through community education and advocacy.
- AWARE's mission statement

Visitors to Whistler will often comment on how environmentally responsible this community is.

Any development and land-use permit is scrutinized for its impact on flora and fauna, and recycling and compost stations are now available at both ends of town. The goal of "zero waste" for high-profile businesses like Whistler Blackcomb is slowly, but steadily, becoming a reality.

As you hoist your bags of plastic film into a dedicated recycling receptacle at one of the waste stations, or take your dog for a walk through the tranquil Emerald Forest, it's easy to take Whistler's environmental stance for granted. What residents and visitors may not know is that every bit of land advocacy and waste-management policy here in Whistler has been fought for tooth and nail. And for the last 25 years, the organization at the forefront of those issues has been the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE).

"We understand the value of a high quality, natural, outdoor environment that people can enjoy and learn from that's also maintained in its natural state," said Claire Ruddy, AWARE's Executive Director and a member of the organization for the last seven years.

"A huge role for the group was to speak up for the environment in the face of on-going resort expansion and development. Certain areas of land were really key... because (of) the values of those ecosystems to wildlife, and the areas around them were fast disappearing."

Over 25 years, the environmental issues of Whistler have spanned from addressing the need for a recycling program, to defending ecologically sensitive wetlands, to fighting for the elimination of single-use plastic bags.

"We're not rapidly expanding as a resort anymore, there (aren't) these development campaigns that we had in the past," said Ruddy.

"Our main type of campaign issues are now around the management of our local forests and protection of old growth."

When it comes to the environment, there is always something to fight for.

****

It was December 1988 when several local residents sat down on Citta's patio in the middle of a quiet Whistler Village. The last two decades had seen rapid change in Whistler, the town morphing from a sleepy, ski-hippy commune — without even a police station or bank — into a veritable destination resort with a full-time, year-round workforce. It was at that time that Whistler started to self-identify as a community and a few locals began to question where all their waste was going.

"It was about landfills filling up, and where were we going to put all this garbage?" says Ken Melamed, a founding member of AWARE and its president for several years.

"AWARE started to get recycling going, that was the topic of the day. We'd gather up big bags of recyclables and ship them off (to Vancouver) and finally (we) shamed the municipality into taking up a municipally run recycling program."

The implementation of recycling was a significant first victory for AWARE, but it was not long before it faced its biggest challenge yet. Further development was being eyed for the shores of Green Lake to help grow summer destination visits to Whistler.

"The community had decided it was going to morph from a winter resort into a four-season resort and it needed summer amenities," says Melamed, who was a three-term councillor and was twice elected mayor (2005-2011).

"Golf was all the rage back then, golf and tennis. We were told that we needed to have three golf courses to be a viable destination golf resort."

It was time for AWARE to turn its focus to land use in the Whistler valley. Two concerned locals, Scott Fennell and Bob Aitkens, approached the AWARE board about the proposed Green Lakes Golf Course (now Nicklaus North).

"These two guys came up and said, 'They're going to develop a golf course here, we need to have a wetlands campaign," explains Melamed. "I replied, 'Wetlands, what are wetlands? We're just recycling here, OK?' They told me wetlands are the lungs of the planet. I didn't know that, and neither did many other people in Whistler."

In the biggest land use battle in Whistler's history, AWARE took to the front lines to defend the riparian area where the Nicklaus North golf course and a housing estate now sits. The Whistler council at the time was adamant that this development needed to happen in order to build Whistler's four-season appeal, but the community was strongly opposed in an effort to preserve a significant portion of wetlands in the valley.

"It was the longest public hearing ever to be held in Whistler, around seven hours," recalls Melamed.

"Over 150 people spoke and council voted unanimously to approve this golf course. That was the loss."

One of the speakers at that public hearing was current president of AWARE, Sara Jennings, who was only 11 years old at the time.

"Even though my dad (Cliff) was on the board, I don't remember being aware of AWARE," says Jennings.

"But I knew I loved that wetland I grew up near it and it was a playground for me, it was important for me because of the wild creatures that lived in it."

During the hearing Jennings and her friend wrote down all the reasons why they wanted Whistler to keep the wetland in its natural state, which they then presented to a room filled with hundreds of people.

"It was a full-on, passionate 11-year-old's speech about how it was our playground and the personal loss we would experience if it was developed," says Jennings. "It was a huge blow after we lost that. If we had won that fight, I think I would have stayed engaged and gotten involved with more environmental stuff (in my youth). I was devastated."

But there were concessions. After the approval of the Green Lakes Golf Course, AWARE lobbied to keep a riparian corridor along the River of Golden Dreams, which it achieved. A casual float down Whistler's iconic river today would not be the same had the golf course developed all the way to the banks of the River of Golden Dreams, as was originally planned.

"The win was we put land use and wetlands on the radar," says Melamed.

"We finally got some commitment from the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) to map all the wetlands in the valley. It really started to ramp up the environmental consciousness and stated that this community cared."

For the first time in Whistler concerns about the environment were right up there with development.

"That hadn't really been done before (in Whistler) — there hadn't been a case where the environment had been put in front of the development," says Ruddy.

"Even though the development took place, it was changed. The people involved in the campaign viewed it as a success that they managed to protect that core corridor around the river."

To put that historic decision into present-day perspective, the preservation of the Zen wetlands, located across the highway from the entrance to Spring Creek, has so far been successful. Several large developments have been proposed over the years, but none have materialized into shovels in the dirt. More than 70 per cent of Whistler's wetlands have already been lost to development, prompting AWARE to keep a protective eye over the remaining riparian ecosystems. The most recent boost for AWARE was council voting against the proposed Whistler International Campus (WIC) on the Zen lands, and while council voted it down for a multitude of reasons, AWARE considers its campaign a success.

"We spoke to most of the councillors prior to the council meeting just to share our concerns and go though some of the details around the importance of that site, bearing in mind how much of the wetlands have been lost (in the past) and that this is the largest remaining upland wetlands system," says Ruddy.

"Even though the campus was slated for development solely on the uplands, you can't disconnect the two. The uplands are intrinsic to the wetlands and vice-versa, we really wanted to make sure that we got that message across."

Apart of AWARE's strategy it submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the RMOW on the development proposals. Members combed through all the past plans for the Zen site and then reiterated to councillors why they weren't approved. AWARE also lobbied for a valley-wide assessment to categorize the undeveloped areas that still exist, known as the Protected Areas Network (PAN). Two areas were designated as PAN 1 (which should allow no private or public developments on the land), the Zen Wetlands and the Emerald Forest. The Emerald Forest became officially protected after a purchase deal was brokered between the RMOW and the Decigon Group to the tune of $10 million. A similar deal with the Zen family has not materialized.

"It's always worth revisiting proposals from the past because from AWARE's side, we've had the same stance for 20 years, which is that that site shouldn't be developed," says Ruddy.

"(The Zen family) have owned that site for a very long time and they haven't followed on previous options for development. (They) definitely want to see that site developed and we definitely don't."

The defeat of the WIC proposals have protected the Zen wetlands for now — but around the corner there could be another development proposal in the works, and AWARE will be ready for it.

Though AWARE has continued its land-use and waste management programs over they years, its profile has never been as high as it was over a decade ago. In 2000, AWARE spent almost $6,000 on an Elaho educational report concerning the future of the Elaho Valley, and lent its support to protesters that were passionately waging a "war in the woods," which became infamous after a group of approximately 100 masked loggers entered and assaulted the protest camp in September 1999.

"We were sending full-colour brochures to 3,000 homes in the Sea to Sky," says Tina Symko, AWARE member since 1997, and one of the first paid staff members to work for the organization.

"The valley was being cut as we were printing (the brochures) out. We were sending food and camping supplies up to the 'war in the woods' that was happening. AWARE was super active, not in the (war) per se, but trying to get the talks happening about the Elaho. In the end, it was the First Nations that ended up being able to achieve the preservation of that valley."

During those years AWARE also increased its profile by bringing some of the most notable environmental speakers to Whistler. Dr Karl Henrik-Robert, a recipient of the Blue Planet Prize (known as the Nobel Prize for ecological sustainability), happened to have a snowboard vacation to Whistler booked with his sons in March 2002 and was asked if he would consider presenting about The Natural Step Framework for Strategic Sustainability. His presentation led to the formation of the Early Adopters of The Natural Step, a collaboration between Tourism Whistler, the RMOW, Whistler Blackcomb, AWARE, One-Hour Photo (now Foto Source) and the Fairmont Chateau Whistler to help steer Whistler towards sustainability. The collaboration eventually lead to the formation of Whistler 2020 and subsequently the Whistler Centre for Sustainability.

"What (the Natural Step) did was that it knitted the three spheres of economy, environment and social equity together in a way that made sense," said Melamed.

"We did a course correction, we set upon a process of enquiring with the community around where the resort is going and embarked on a long-range visioning process using the Natural Step framework and methodology. That culminated as Whistler 2020."

But the biggest speakers were yet to come. The following year Whistler it's our Nature, run by AWARE staff, confirmed ethnobotanist Wade Davis and author Guy Dauncey as the leading names on their speaker list, but they were still hoping to get the biggest name in Canadian environmentalism.

"For our final speaker we wanted David Suzuki," says Symko.

"We had some contacts, we had a letter from the mayor, and we had a real swanky invitation and we thought we had it all in place. But when we made the follow-up call we got a flat 'no.' It was about two weeks after when we were making posters for Wade Davis' talk, I went into the office and we were still all bummed about not getting David Suzuki to speak."

Knowing full well that Suzuki charged a lot more for public appearances than a local non-profit could afford, Symko and her team of organizers had resigned themselves to Davis being their heavy-hitting speaker of the year.

Then the phone rang. It was Suzuki's assistant and apparently Suzuki had just had lunch with someone who was connected to Whistler and had agreed to come and speak free of charge.

On the evening of April 26, 2004, with no entry fee except a donation to AWARE, Whistler locals and visitors flocked to the conference centre to see Suzuki's presentation.

"After we'd let a few hundred into the conference centre, a line curled around Citta's all the way to the Spaghetti Factory," said Symko.

"The manager of the conference center was saying it was a fire hazard to have that many people in there, but I was standing beside David who was saying, 'Come on, look at all these people, we can't shut the doors!' It was awesome, I think we raised about $4,000 at that one event. It was the coolest thing to have this town host something that random strangers were talking about for years."

Like any organization or movement, AWARE has seen its share of roller-coaster rides over 25 years. From it's nascent charge to bring recycling — and later composting — to Whistler, to battling for every square foot of wetland in the valley, AWARE has always campaigned for what is best for the environment. But throughout the broader community of Whistler in recent years, it hasn't had the presence that it did fighting for the Elaho forests or booking David Suzuki.

"With myself on council and the mayor being quite 'green,' AWARE actually had representation at the council table that was really doing a lot of the work," said Melamed.

"There were no major issues until the Olympics came up."

At that point Melamed was serving his second term as mayor and had to make the transition from activist to politician. The switch came with some compromises and some disagreements between himself and his former colleagues at AWARE, which was keeping a watchful eye on Olympic developments, such as the footprint of Whistler Olympic Park and the energy consumption of the Whistler Sliding Centre.

"AWARE kept talking about the environment and couldn't see how the Olympics was going to help achieve a lot of the things we wanted to do," said Melamed.

"The municipality, and myself as mayor, saw the Olympics as a catalyst for our sustainability journey. It enabled us to do a whole bunch of things we couldn't do in that time frame without massive amounts of money."

And having to push against the organization that he helped found in order to steer Whistler towards what he believed was the best for Whistler, was a concession Melamed felt he had to make.

"Honestly, it was very hard for me," he says.

"It created division, and as much as I understood where they were coming from, it still was difficult for me. This was my family, this was where I came from. It was one of the big lessons for me when I agreed to take the mayor's role. I don't think I knew going in how much compromise I was going to have to make."

One of the perks of hosting the Olympics was money towards upgrading transit. However, to replace the transit fleet with hydrogen buses required a new facility — and the land that was selected for the facility contained PAN 1 wetland areas (area to be preserved). Today, Melamed still stands by the decision to build the Nesters transit facility, but again, he realizes it was a decision not without compromise.

"We had to make decisions, February 12 was the Opening Ceremonies," he says.

"(It) had to be done, we had to do (everything) in a timely fashion, and we didn't always have the options that we wanted. When you're in a position of responsibility and decisions have to be made, you end up doing things that you wouldn't have seen yourself doing in your career as an activist."

The $89.5 million hydrogen bus experiment in Whistler is now officially over and diesel buses are coming back. The world's largest fleet of hydrogen buses have moved out of town and the large white hydrogen stack at the transit facility, the world's largest hydrogen fuelling station, is being dismantled. It's the end of a five-year hydrogen project designed to showcase fuel cell technology in the media spotlight of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

****

With a turnout of around 40 people at its 25th anniversary celebration — ironically held at the Nicklaus North golf course clubhouse — AWARE takes the opportunity to reflect on its history. Melamed makes an impassioned speech about the challenges the organization has faced, and Jennings reassures the members that as a collective, AWARE is again on the upswing.

"(We're) bringing the voice of the environment back to the forefront for this community, I think that's been lost in the last few years," says Jennings.

"Whistler is an environmental community, we came here for the mountains and the trees, we want to make sure they stay here. That needs to be at the forefront every time we make a decision as a community."

New members also dot the room, like AWARE's vice president Melanie Tardif. She's been involved since 2011, but after meeting some of the long-standing members realizes she is still in the "rookie" category by comparison.

But fresh perspectives are always welcome at AWARE, and the younger-generation members, like Tardif, that will be steering Whistler's environmental organization in the next five to 10 years. She's been helping Ruddy with the reusable, plastic-bag initiatives, regularly looking after the zero-waste station at the Farmers' Market and has taken part in projects like the boring of samples from old-growth trees to help map where the ancient trees of Whistler remain. Her next vision goes one step further on the issue of consumption in Whistler.

"If this plastic-bag campaign is successful, maybe we can move into banning plastic water bottles and paper coffee cups?" Tardif ponders.

"San Francisco has banned water bottles (on city owned property), as have a lot of other cities, so I think it's doable. Especially if Canada and other cities are looking to Whistler and its 2020 policy."

It's a dream that will be fraught with hurdles, but so it was for a group of Whistler citizens trying to kickstart recycling 25 years ago.

Says Jennings: "We're not just all about consuming and skiing, we're about the bigger picture."

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