If BC Parks set out to upset a large number of people with its plans to update the management plan for Garibaldi Provincial Park, then mission accomplished.
Over 100 people crammed into a small meeting room at the Whistler Conference Centre at the public open house on Dec. 6 to provide their sometimes-passionate feedback on the draft plan, which was released a few weeks ago. Among other things, the draft plan was supportive of a proposal to build huts along the Spearhead Traverse, supportive of heliskiing in the park and opposed to opening the park up to mountain bikers.
The most common question asked was why park planners rejected the wishes of the mountain bike community when it comes to opening a section of Garibaldi Park — the Singing Pass Trail and the Musical Bumps — to mountain bikes.
The second most common question was why they even bothered asking for public opinions on mountain biking and heliski operations in that area if they weren't going to consider the survey responses when making their decision.
In response, BC Park planner Jennie Aikman said the survey was never intended as a popularity contest, but when updating the plan they felt it was important to consult all the stakeholders. In the end, however, they had to consider issues like user conflicts and trail erosion, and the impact on hiking — something they said will increase if the Spearhead Hut Project goes ahead.
"We did consider all of (the surveys) when drafting the report and made the determination that there were other places where mountain biking was more appropriate," said Aikman. "(The decision) was over the effect on the visitor experience and the quality of the trails."
Aikman said the high alpine area around Singing Pass is more ecologically sensitive than at Cheakamus Lake and Diamond Head, where mountain bike access is permitted.
Aikman also offered an apology of sorts for the perception that BC Parks would make decisions based on public support, which may have given the mountain bike community false hope.
"There was an expectation at the outset that this (mountain biking) was something we were considering, when that was not the case," she said. "We wanted to hear from all the stakeholders. We listened and heard comments... and did not dismiss them out of hand. We gave every comment careful consideration, I can tell you that."
Aikman was asked whether they would consider an experimental opening or even a late season opening where mountain bikers could prove they would respect the trails and other users, but Aikman said they didn't want to create a situation where they would be perceived as taking something away from the mountain bike community if the experiment didn't work in favour of bikes.
While acknowledging that some mountain bikers are discouraged, Aikman also allowed that the door hadn't closed on the process yet, encouraging participants to make comments on the draft before the public input period closes for good on Jan. 10. "We're still interested in hearing from you," she told the attendees, "and we're giving you the opportunity."
The Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association has been lobbying for mountain bike access to Singing Pass since its inception in 1989, and in fact the Garibaldi Park Management Plan update from 1990 that removed mountain bike access was one of the reasons WORCA was founded in the first place. The group has put together a proposal for BC Parks on how the park could be shared between hikers and mountain bikers, while pledging support to build and maintain trails that can handle the traffic.
Former WORCA president and event director, Tony Horn, pointed out that BC Parks met other stakeholder groups like heliskiing and took advantage of BC Parks' statement that the door was still open to press for a meeting between WORCA and BC Parks before Jan. 10 — a request that BC Parks agreed to.
Jerome David, who stepped down as WORCA's director of trails last year after several years with the board, had a hand in coming up with the idea for WORCA's proposal and hopes that BC Parks will at least give it a chance.
The WORCA proposal would allow bikes on one section of the Singing Pass trail going uphill only. When the trail reaches the alpine, WORCA would build a separate alpine trail to reduce conflicts with hikers and then another descent down the Singing Creek drainage to connect with existing trails at Cheakamus Lake.
He said he has biked across Europe, including a lot of high alpine riding, and believes that BC Parks is overstating both the conflict and erosion issues.
"By opening up to mountain bikes and getting WORCA involved it's win-win — we can help manage any conflict, we get our alpine riding, and BC Parks gets added value, more money for trails and hands-on trail building and maintenance," he said.
"I don't think (BC Parks) recognizes the difference between cross-country and downhill. In my experience, a well-built trail will keep riders on the trail."
David said bikes climbing Singing Pass will be moving slowly, and by separating hikers and bikers in the alpine there won't be any impact when speeds start to pick up. As well, he suggested that mountain bikers are there to enjoy the scenery as much as the hikers, and the trail would be a different experience than other freeride trails.
"I'm glad they said that they'll leave the door open for discussion," said David. "We only want a small piece of the Spearhead Study Area. We're not interested in the Spearhead Traverse trails, just in sharing the Singing Pass climb."
The survey indicated strong support for the Spearhead Hut project, which would see three new huts and a trail constructed around the traverse, starting on Whistler and finishing on Blackcomb — over 93 per cent of respondents supported the idea. As for mountain biking, the level of support was 85 per cent in favour of full or limited access to riders.
The heliskiing issue also came up at the open house. BC Parks has upheld that use of the park, which falls within Whistler Heli-Skiing's tenure, despite the fact that only 32 per cent of respondents were in favour of continuing that tenure past 2016.
Aikman pointed out that heli-skiing is a traditional park use at this point, and has both economic and safety benefits for the resort.
Stuart Rempel, the vice president of sales and marketing for Whistler Blackcomb, which operates the heli-ski company, said there was a lot of misinformation about how the company uses the park. For example, while the area represents a small part of Whistler Heli-Skiing's tenure, they mainly use the area on days with poor weather — both for the safety of their staff and clients, and because they're less likely to come across backcountry skiers on those days.
When choosing runs, he says their guides also try to choose slopes that are away from people out ski touring. "Less than two per cent of Garibaldi Provincial Park is in our tenure," added Rempel.
As for safety, Rempel says their helicopters and guides do respond to emergencies in the backcountry, and are there if needed.
"I can tell you that it does provide a measure of safety (for people ski touring), and that there have been occasions in the past when we've flown back with more people than we came out with," he said.
He also encouraged backcountry skiers to use their website to register any complaints, as well as to let guides know where they were planning on skiing on any given day.
In a backgrounder put out by Whistler Blackcomb on behalf of Whistler Heli-Skiing, the company said it used the Spearhead on just 26 days in the 2011-2012 season, representing 850 skiers and snowboarders. The company has held a tenure in the park for 32 years, while heli-ski operations go back over 45 years to 1966.
To read the draft Garibaldi Park management plan and make comments before deadline, visit http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/planning/mgmtplns/garibaldi/garibaldi_mp.html.
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