By Loreth Beswetherick
The B.C. Assets and Lands Corporation will be in a position to start issuing tenures for commercial backcountry use in the new year but there is still a concern the "carrying capacity" of land has not been adequately addressed.
Applications for tenure in the Sea to Sky area have been on hold while consultants for B.C. Assets and Lands have been working on a comprehensive strategy for commercial recreation in the area. That strategy is due to be wrapped up by Dec. 31. It will serve as a backdrop against which BCAL can assess tenure applications for Sea to Sky country.
Commercial Recreation co-ordinator for B.C. Assets and Lands, Elisabeth Eldridge, said she hopes to hold a public review of the plan some time in January. "I would like to be able to show the public what we have done and explain who was involved and what the purpose of the strategy was and what we are hoping to use it for."
Eldridge could not say how soon any new tenures may be announced. "We are reviewing applications right now although it is a slow process since the plan is not completed," she said. "It will depend on how quickly the process gets started in the new year and it depends on the type of application and the complexity. Some of them I suspect will move along quite quickly and others might require further review and others may not even fit within the (guidelines) and will need to be revisited."
To date only five tenures have been granted in an area that stretches from Garibaldi Provincial Park toward Britannia in the south and radiates out taking in the Upper Elaho Valley, the Pemberton Ice Cap, part of Downton Lake in the north almost to Gold Bridge and down to where the Lillooet Lake area against 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. All other operators running businesses on Crown land are currently deemed by BCAL to be in trespass.
There are at least another 30 official tenure applications awaiting approval, most of them from Whistler-based businesses. Estimates have pegged the number of unauthorized operators in Sea to Sky country at more than 100.
"There are a lot of interests in the corridor, especially in the Squamish and Pemberton area," said Eldridge. "It’s 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."
The study, spearheaded by consultant Doug Leavers, was started last fall and has been tackled in two phases. The goal was to identify zones with potential for specific types of commercial recreation activity that are compatible with other resource interests and uses, including public recreation and wildlife habitat.
According to phase two draft material, although some zones, or sub-units, are identified as having high potential for commercial recreation, social and environmental factors may constrain full development. In some cases, tenure applicants will have to conduct their own carrying capacity studies. In others, BCAL will provide that service as part of commercial recreation management. A prototype model for completing a carrying capacity study in the corridor will be used to offer consistency to all parties.
Leavers, who is conducting a similar study in the East Kootenay region around Panorama, said he is currently compiling input from advisors who are reviewing the draft material. Those advisors include representatives from Sea to Sky municipalities, the provincial government, community tourism organizations, community business organizations plus the public recreation and conservation sectors.
"We had a planning forum in early November and that included special advisors from a broad stakeholder group," said Leavers. I am still waiting for some of the input then I will adjust accordingly and deliver to BCAL our interpretation of the best way to manage winter and summer commercial motorized and non-motorized uses in the valley."
Whistler’s director of parks and recreation, Bill Barratt, is one of those of advisors. Barratt said the study is a step in the right direction but he feels one issue that still needs to be adequately addressed is carrying capacity.
"That is probably the only major outstanding issue. The reason it is complicated is you can look at the carrying capacity of the commercial operators but you also have to factor in public access and public use," said Barratt.
"As we explained to them, we have seen an incredible growth in this area, not only in commercial backcountry use but also in the amount of public access. This is a concern that should be addressed and BCAL has indicated it is certainly something they will continue to monitor." Carrying capacity would set limits, for example, on the amount of motorized use in a particular zone.
Barratt said B.C. Assets and Lands will use the 16 Mile area — where Cougar Mountain has tenure — as a pilot project to assess carrying capacity. "It’s an area fairly well utilized by the public so I think it is a good place to start," said Barratt. It’s also an area that has seen the tenured operator run into conflict with non-tenured businesses, something that spilled over into the courtroom earlier this year.
Barratt said carrying capacity was one of the criteria identified when the planning process was initiated. "There are certainly a lot of models out there to look at carrying capacity," said Barratt. "It’s been done in the States and in other jurisdictions in the province."
He said the province has taken so long to come to grips with its backcountry commercial recreation policy that "illegal" operations have been springing up everywhere. The problem is compounded in Whistler by the resort’s tourism success plus its population growth. It has put added pressure on the surrounding backcountry.
Barratt said Whistler advisors have also flagged the need for BCAL to take the potential of Olympic events in the Callaghan into consideration. "If they enter into a commercial backcountry agreement with somebody there they need to recognize the possibility of the Olympics in that agreement," said Barratt. "You don’t want to get into an agreement then, down the road, you have somebody with a tenure that is overlapping during that period. You want to be able to build in the flexibility to deal with that."
Leavers said he purposefully avoided looking at any of the individual tenure applications throughout the process. Rather, he said he wanted to focus on the resources in the area and their compatibility with commercial use. He said although this particular strategy doesn’t set specific limits on things like motorized use in specific zones, it offers economical ways of applying carrying capacity studies in the future.
"B.C Assets and Lands asked for a tool they could use for doing some critical decision making and that is what this whole process is about."