By Andrew Mitchell
On an exploratory hike into Whistler’s backcountry several summers ago, directors and members of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) were stunned to come across garbage in an area that was not easily accessible. Among other things, they picked up empty beer cans, a gas can and a broken windshield, all presumably left in the area by snowmobilers. Subsequent trips into other remote alpine areas have turned up more waste.
The discovery of garbage, combined with the recent confirmation of grizzly bears in the Callaghan, has prompted AWARE to initiate a study on snowmobile use in the backcountry surrounding Whistler. With a $5,000 grant from the Shell Environmental Fund, AWARE hopes to monitor two or three access areas for recreational snowmobilers — the Callaghan Valley and either the Brandywine or Soo Valley. The exact scope was decided at last night’s AWARE meeting.
According to Carson (full name), the vice president of AWARE and director of the study, the goal is to get a general idea how many snowmobilers are using the backcountry, and whether any mitigation is needed to protect those areas.
“We want to find out how many people are going into the backcountry, what kinds of vehicles they’re bringing,” explained Carson. “Is it a car towing a trailer with two snowmobiles, or are most of the snowmobilers getting to the trails with their own trucks? We’ll have a look at the demographics as well, get an idea of the age range. We also want to know if they’re heading out there with skis and snowboards, using snowmobiles to get up to where they can shred the alpine.”
AWARE is also interested to know where snowmobilers are coming from, and will record licence plates from out of province and out of country.
In the next few weeks AWARE will be hiring an employee to sit at entrance points on the weekends and one day a week to record snowmobile traffic. The person who is hired will have no connection to an environmental group or snowmobiling to ensure the reports are as objective as possible.
Carson estimates it will take two or three years to get a baseline of data.
“Once we know the status quo and have a general idea of the number of people going back there, we will be able to look at the areas we need to protect and what we can do to protect those areas,” said Carson.
For example, the discovery of grizzly bears may require some areas to be off-limits, just as certain watersheds and parks are off-limits. As well, signs and education might be needed to discourage people from leaving garbage in the backcountry.
There is also the potential that the results of the study will be shared with the Sea to Sky Air Quality Coordinating Committee, which is in the process of putting together a Sea to Sky Air Quality Management Plan for the region to address growing air pollution concerns. One gap in the study is recreational vehicle usage, with no data available for dirt bikes, snowmobiles, ATVs, personal watercraft, or other recreational vehicles.
Because many recreational vehicles still use two-stroke engines, it is believed they contribute to air pollution issues in the Sea to Sky corridor.
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