Finding their way in the backcountry
Frustrations mount while province studies commercial backcountry operations again — but they may get it right this time
By Loreth Beswetherick
Thar’s gold in them thar hills — tourism gold.
But staking a claim to the natural treasures of the Sea to Sky backcountry is nothing like the wild west frontiers of old. This ’90s rush on land has been mired in a suffocating tangle of bureaucratic red tape.
The province has been trying to find a way to regulate B.C.’s booming commercial backcountry recreation industry and at the same time generate some revenue for itself. It’s been trying to do this for more than 10 years. But in this summer of 1999, on the cusp of a new millennium, they still haven’t found the answer and they won’t have a system in place until at least the dawn of the year 2000.
Until that time, once again, all applications for tenure — the right to operate a backcountry business on Crown land — in the Sea to Sky area are on hold.
Since the Ministry of Environment commissioned a study to identify areas with a potential for backcountry operations in 1998, only five tenures have been granted in an area arcing out from Garibaldi Provincial park toward Britannia in the south, taking in the upper Elaho Valley, the Pemberton ice cap, part of Downton Lake in the north almost to Gold Bridge and radiating back down to where the Lillooet Lake area again meets the provincial park.
The sanctioned tenures include 5,200 hectares of land in the Cougar Mountain area; the Mad River Nordic Centre in the Callaghan Valley; a heli-ski operation with several sites in the Rutherford, Ryan and Birkenhead areas; plus two short-term tenures in the Brandywine Valley — one for Whistler ATV and one for Blackcomb Snowmobiles.
There are another 30 official tenure applications in the pipeline for this area, most of them from Whistler-based business. All are on hold.
Commercial recreation co-ordinator for the B.C. Assets and Lands Corporation, Elisabeth Eldridge said no new tenures will be announced until a new study is completed. This study — the Commercial Recreation Strategy for the Sea to Sky Corridor — is due to wrap up by December of this year. The intent is to use the strategy as a backdrop against which to assess tenure applications in the area.
"We are hoping to issue some tenures in the winter time," said Eldridge.
The strategy will help BCAL implement the new Commercial Recreation Policy, announced in May 1998.
"There are a lot off interests in the corridor, especially in the Squamish to Pemberton area," said Eldridge. "Its a complex situation and before we went ahead and issued tenures here there and everywhere, we wanted a good idea of what type of activity would be suitable for specific areas and deal with the existing interests at the same time. I think it’s a better way of handling the situation."
This new commercial recreation strategy is comprised of two phases and is being stick-handled by consultant Doug Leavers. The first phase was started last fall and wrapped up this spring. The intent was to compile existing data from the previous studies done in the Sea to Sky area, identify areas of public recreation and wildlife use, identify levels of use and define the next steps, including identification of commercial recreation priorities. The study area was broken down into eight "landscape units": the Mamquam, Lower Squamish, Upper Squamish, Lower Elaho, Whistler, Callaghan, Soo and Ryan.
Phase one results include the suggestion that commercial operations in the Whistler unit should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, recognizing the commercial value of campgrounds, mountain biking, rafting and resource appreciation. It suggests, however, that although many opportunities exist in the Callaghan unit, no further tenures should be issued there "until some strategic sub-unit direction — including activity zoning — is provided."
In the Soo unit, phase one takes heed of the Whistler Land Resource Use Plan, which recommends application be considered on merit. But because use is on the increase, no long-term tenures should be issued prior to sub-unit and carrying capacity analysis.
Phase one also suggests tenure for commercial recreation operations is possible for the Lower Elaho unit.
The second phase of the strategy kicked off this summer. It will identify Crown land for which tenure applications may be processed or where further analysis is required. This phase will also extend well beyond the Corridor to include the entire Squamish forest district. The goal is to use the finalized strategy as the recreation component for an overall Squamish Land Use Plan currently being initiated by the provincial Land Use Co-ordination Office.
Backcountry operators were mailed strategy information packages, including questionnaires, last month and an action committee has been appointed. Whistler Parks planner Jan Jansen and municipal forestry consultant Don MacLaurin will represent Whistler’s interests on the action team, which includes representatives from other municipalities, regional government, First Nations, BCAL, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Forests and forestry companies. The strategy encourages active First Nations participation and acknowledges that the results will be without prejudice to the outcome of Aboriginal Rights and Treaty Negotiations.
A key focus of the strategy will be determining carrying capacity of sub units. Eldridge said public workshops are slated for October in Whistler, Squamish and perhaps Pemberton.
While it seems everyone with a stake in the area is at the table this time around, it has taken more than 10 years to get to this point. While some, like Whistler’s Director of Parks and Recreation, Bill Barratt, are pleased with the latest approach, the delay has left a bad taste in the mouths of some operators who have jumped through hoops and spent tens of thousands of dollars getting their applications in by various deadlines and have nothing to show for it.
In the last decade, while the province has wrestled with its regulatory policy, backcountry tourism has boomed around the international tourist honey pot of Whistler. As Leavers puts it, by mere association with the resort, the outdoor recreation attributes of the Squamish, Cheakamus and Lillooet river watersheds have attracted adventure tourism unlike any other setting in the province — or all of Canada for that matter.
The result is, simply put, a mess.
There are now more than 100 unauthorized commercial operators in Sea to Sky country. "All you’ve got to do is open the yellow pages to see," said Barratt.
Many who have been running businesses for years still have no means to a tenure. In the meantime, they are technically deemed to be in trespass on Crown land.
At the same time, those who have been granted tenures feel their hard-won rights and good stewardship are being violated by up-start operators in for a quick, careless buck. And, there are operators who have invested in business plans who are still waiting for decisions.
It has created bitter feuds between local businesses, which are now starting to spill over into the court rooms. One example is an application by Cougar Mountain for an injunction against Outdoor Adventures @ Whistler which was before the B.C. Supreme court earlier this month.
"My feeling is the process is extremely mismanaged," said Steve Flynn, owner of Blackcomb Helicopters. Flynn has invested $15,000 in a tenure application that has been in the works for the last six years. He was hoping, this year, to hire a staff of eight — three full-time and five part-time — to fly tourists into remote areas for a recreational experience. He is still waiting.
"When I look at what the government is doing with its tenure program, I try and draw a parallel to running a real business — and, if you ran a business like they run their operation the world would pass you by in a month and you would be run over and trampled by your competitors and you would be left lying in the dust," said Flynn.
"They have a serious problem with people making decisions. The province is not only losing an opportunity for creating employment, it’s a lost opportunity for Lands and Parks to collect revenue. Either way, everybody loses while they sit back doing their studies."
Flynn said temporary permits could have been issued in the interim. "At least when people went into the backcountry they would be doing it legally." He is one of several operators who have no faith in the latest strategy. "I have zero confidence, none whatsoever. I thought they would get it right last time. They have been through all this already. What was wrong with the last study?"
West Vancouver-Garibaldi Liberal MLA, Ted Nebbeling, said the delay in processing tenures has cost the province an estimated 20,000 lost jobs, representing well over $1 billion.
"For the last few years the government has been experimenting," said Nebbeling "Every time you think they are ready to say they have done their homework, they come up with another study... now this one. I stood up in the House and questioned the minister on this. The government at the one end says they are committed totally to tourism and see it as a way of creating jobs, but when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is and issuing permits, they are not there — the door is closed."
Nebbeling said operators without tenure can’t be expected to suddenly stop after operating for years. "If you have the debt service of a helicopter or a snowmobile or whatever other investment you have made in your backcountry business, you are in big trouble if you have to cease and desist — you go bankrupt. This is why the program has failed so miserably. Adding another study... its just unacceptable."
It was in 1990 that the Whistler-Pemberton Commercial Backcountry Recreation Study was completed and efforts really got underway to develop a provincial land use policy. But in December 1991 a five-year moratorium was placed on issuing licenses for commercial recreation on Crown land until a new policy was finalized. Then, at a press conference in Nelson in 1994, environment minister of the day, Moe Sihota "ended four years of anxiety" and lifted the freeze. He also announced an interim Commercial Backcountry Recreation (CBR) policy to regulate backcountry operators in B.C. Until then, only heli-ski operations, sport hunting and fishing camps had been clearly regulated by the province through licence agreements or tenures. Adventure tourism was then estimated to be a $450 million a year industry in B.C.
The CBR policy was approved by cabinet in February 1995. At the same time a commitment was made to review the policy after one year.
But the next year another freeze was placed on tenure applications for the Sea to Sky Corridor, until a study of the area could be undertaken. In 1996 the Ministry of Environment commissioned the Sea to Sky Commercial Backcountry Recreation Opportunities Study. It was estimated the study would take six months. It was nearly two years before the results were made public. An "inter-agency" group was formed, including representatives from the tourism industry, outdoor recreation groups and several government agencies. Significant changes were made to the CBR policy and in 1998 the CBR policy was replaced with the newer CR policy (Commercial Recreation). It also replaced the Commercial Mechanized Ski Guiding policy, the Commercial Hunting and Fishing policy as well as the General Commercial policy where those guidelines had been used for commercial activities that were recreational in nature.
It was also in 1998 that then environment minister Cathy McGregor announced her ministry was delegating the management of Crown land tenures to the newly revamped and renamed B.C. Assets and Lands Corporation. The government-owned corporation was originally established in 1982 to market Crown land in Whistler as WLC Developments Ltd. The name was changed to reflect an expanded role — in addition to administering tenure portfolios, BCAL was charged with the management of the sale of Crown land throughout the province.
The next step was to announce tenures for two businesses that had been operating prior to the 1991 moratorium — one for Mad River and one for Cougar Mountain. It was also in 1998 that the job of policing the vast backcountry area fell on the shoulders of the corridor’s two conservation officers, who were already struggling to manage their workload in the face of budget and staff cuts.
Then, in the fall of 1998, the goal posts moved again and work was started on the new strategy and... tenure applications are now, once again, frozen.
Eldridge said some of the applications will be looked at as part of the study but that nothing will be awarded until its completion.
"We will be able to review them at the inter-agency group table but then once the strategy is complete we will still have to deal with advertising and making sure other interests are dealt with." Eldridge said if more than one person is interested in providing a similar activity in an area, all have to be provided with an opportunity to apply through the advertising process. "That is part of the regular process because we are dealing with Crown lands... so it could be quite a ways down the road before they get their tenures."
What does that mean for this winter’s operations?
"Well, everybody operating on Crown land without authorization is considered trespassing," said Eldridge. She did, however, concede this is a grey area and that BCAL, with its limited resources, is focusing not on policing but on the planning process. She said conflicts will be dealt with on a case by case basis. "Obviously if a certain operator is causing problems with the degradation of sites, then of course we have to deal with that operation right away."
BCAL itself has been plagued by budget cuts, personnel cuts and high staff turnover, which has resulted in a loss of continuity, direction and documents, say operators. "I would attribute the problems to turnover of staff and very, very poor and incompetent leadership," said Flynn. "The staff down there are inexperienced. We are absolutely nowhere in this process."
Eric Wight of Whistler Backroads said the lack of continuity has resulted in the process being steamrollered for some and not for others.
"It’s a mess. I think the tenures given out were done hastily. I think the wording was incorrect and some people are suffering. There are a lot of misconceptions out there."
Wight has also applied for tenure. "I have been discussing it with them for five years. I have been operating for 15," he said. "I just hope that after 15 years I can continue to run my business."
He said his concern is that the pie be shared equitably. "I would like to have tenure for the whole valley, but let’s be realistic... the way it’s going now we will have a few big players in town that are going to run this place and it’s just another example of the little guys getting shut out. I am not feeling good about this situation at all," said Wight.
"There have been so many personnel changes at BCAL, Elisabeth must just be shaking her head... paperwork has been lost, people don’t know where things are and the originals I sent them seem to have disappeared. It’s crazy and I am beginning to think this is a big scam."
Doug Washer of Canadian Snowmobile has submitted an extensive application for the Callaghan Valley. He said he also needs a decision. "I have to answer to people as well. I have staff relying on me. They are looking to pursue their careers in the outdoor tourism industry — that’s one of my biggest frustrations. And, I have a lot of money tied up and invested in our operation out there and there’s no security."
Washer said he is confident his tenure will be authorized. In the meantime he will continue operating. "The key term here is ‘without authorization’ but that is not to say we are not permitted or recognized. There should be no reason to change what has historically been going on." He said he has followed due process with his application, "spent an awful lot of money" and BCAL has indicated it will claim backpayment from him from 1997.
Washer’s snowmobiles in the Callaghan, however, are seen by Mad River’s Brad Sills as a conflict and trespass on his tenure, which restricts motorized access.
Both tenure-holders Sills and Cougar Mountain’s Eric Sinclair find this grey area of lax enforcement troubling. "It has a lot to do with money and ability," said Sinclair. "If (BCAL) has decided this is the direction they are going with these licenses and, if they are going to give the licences any value, I would prefer them to focus on enforcement first. Clear the playing field then do your study and then issue new licenses."
Sills said BCAL has asked if he too will be initiating a civil suit. "I said we don’t have the money to be doing what you guys should be doing. I think they were kind of hoping I was. You can see what the Crown is trying to do — they are trying to shift enforcement over to the private sector and let us duke it out. I am not having any part of that," said Sills.
Sinclair said some operators are daring the Crown to shut them down. "I just want to run my business. We have jumped through all these hoops... I had no idea we may have to get involved with any enforcement issues."
Those who have been granted tenure are, not surprisingly, a little more positive about BCAL’s new strategy. "I think they found themselves in a position where they now have to scrutinize each and every one of these applications in terms of how they affect each other, the environment and other stakeholders," said Sills. "The process has obviously got a little more complicated that originally thought. I think the other ministries have voiced their concern about the land use capacity and made BCAL very much aware they will not approve these applications until all concerns are satisfied."
Sills said this message has tempered BCAL’s money-making mandate. "It’s quite clear the other ministries are pissed off with BCAL."
Sills said the proof of the pudding, once the new strategy is wrapped up, will be to see if the political will is there to carry out the recommendations.
Sinclair said the strategy shows BCAL is now trying to put the horse before the cart. "They are saying it is not prudent for them to issue licenses before they know what areas are suitable," said Sinclair. "But who knows what will happen when the study actually gets finished. There might be a change of government. Hopefully a new government will come in and give BCAL staff a little more support. I do commend the people down at the Lands office. I have to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are good people and they are trying their best with what they have to work with," he said.
"It would have been nice if it had happened sooner though. When all the dust settles hopefully we will have a good, well thought-out process supported by the stakeholders and the public."
MacLaurin and Barratt are also optimistic. MacLaurin said the goal is to have all local tenure applications referred to the municipality before approval. To date, although it is a recommendation of the CR policy, none have been seen by the municipality.
Barratt said identifying carrying capacity is key and it’s something that hasn’t been done before. "How can you award tenures when you haven’t worked out where it is appropriate for these things to take place and what the capacity is. Doug Leavers has expertise in that area," said Barratt.
"I was pleased they put a moratorium on it and are taking this approach. It should delineate the areas and deal with this whole issue of whether they should be shared or overlapping tenures."
Barratt said Whistler is a key focus in this strategy because it is the nucleus of adventure tourism in the area. "They recognize Whistler as a number one priority. We bring the people here and our interest is to ensure that whatever takes place has controls, insurance and is a good quality. This is the way to go. The unfortunate part is that it should have been done a long time ago."
To date the action team has had two meetings in Surrey, neither of which the two Whistler representatives were able to attend due to scheduling and work commitments. BCAL has set an aggressive schedule of deadlines for phase two of the strategy and Eldridge said they are managing to stick to it. Community links were set up in June and sub-units in the eight zones were identified. July saw data gaps addressed. August will see recreation objectives established and, through September and October, carrying capacities and zones for commercial recreation activity will be identified.
The study will also be expanded to other landscape units within the Squamish Forest District this fall. A draft report is due for completion by October and public workshops will also be held that month.
Deadline for the final report is December 31, 1999.