Interior town embarks on the transition from trees to tourism
LILLOOET ? On a ponderosa pine- and sagebrush-covered terrace above this small B.C. Interior town stands a gnarled pine known as Hangman?s Tree. The tree was used as a gallows when this place was a fledgling colonial outpost.
In the 1860s, Lillooet was the first stop for prospectors on their way to the Cariboo Gold Rush. The town boasted more than a dozen saloons and a population of 16,000.
Hangman?s Tree has been here on this terrace for more than 100 years. The view is probably much the same now as it was in the past. The mighty, muddy Fraser River meanders through a semi-arid valley. Rock-walled mountains rise up into the blue, cloudless sky.
Only two hangings were officially recorded here, although legend has it that eight lawbreakers swung in the breeze that lifts up off the Fraser.
Lillooet?s economic mainstay has always been forestry but even that industry is on the downside of the boom-and-bust cycle. One of the local lumber mills ? the town?s second largest employer ? recently laid off the majority of 80 workers because of the 19.3 per cent U.S. tariff on softwood lumber.
A couple of the town?s attempts at economic diversification ? the ginseng industry and a proposed $500-million ski resort in the nearby Cayoosh Range ? have not provided Lillooet with any stability. The price of ginseng took a dip on the stock market and the resort development has been stalled by local First Nations? land claims.
Lillooet?s economic development office also shut down this summer and the area?s unemployment rate currently hovers around 30 per cent.
But on the benchlands below Hangman?s Tree, local residents go about their daily routines with an upbeat attitude.
Lillooet receives more than 300 hours of sunshine each month and 70 per cent of its 3,000 residents have lived here for more than five years.
And just like Gold Rush legends that may or may not be true, recent reports of Lillooet?s demise have been greatly exaggerated, says the president of the local chamber of commerce.
According to Lula Olexson, tourism is the major component of the town?s road to economic recovery.
"We?re resource dependent," she says. "But we?re also resource rich."
The chamber of commerce and a group of local tourism operators have formed Team Lillooet, which will market the area?s potential.
"Tourists from all over the world come here and say we have the best of both worlds," she says, referring to the dry climate, tall mountains and extensive backcountry.
But Olexson, owner of the local Esso gas station, also understands that resource industries will always play a significant role in the local economy.
That?s why local residents support the Liberal government?s review of the Lillooet Land and Resources Management Plan, which created a 71,000-hectare provincial park in the Southern Chilcotin Mountains.
"The government needs to listen to community concerns," says Olexson. "There needs to be a fair and just decision."
The NDP government approved the LRMP and creation of the provincial park in April ? one day before a provincial election was called. A conservation plan was chosen over a resource plan.
"The plan should be a combination of the two," she says.
According to Olexson, the NDP was just trying to placate urban voters.
"It?s fine to have a park up there but people and families need jobs too," she says. "Community members worked hard for five years and then it was rushed."
As for the recent layoffs due to the softwood lumber tariff, Olexson says there?s not much that Lillooet can do about it.
"We?re handcuffed," she says. "It?s up to the politicians to fix the problem."
Olexson?s answer to the issue of solving native land claims and developing the Cayoosh ski resort is much the same.
"We have this ski hill sitting on our doorstep and it would be a huge, huge economic benefit to our community," she says. "But we?re not politicians. It?s beyond our reach."
Discussing the ski resort leads Olexson back to the Lillooet area?s tourism potential.
"We?re not just a summer destination," she says. "What we?re trying to say is ?Lillooet is open for business? year-round."
And while Olexson might represent Lillooet?s traditional interests, Paul Malkinson represents Lillooet?s new breed.
Malkinson arrived in Lillooet in 1976 to fight forest fires. He met his wife here during his stay. After eight years in Vancouver, Malkinson returned to Lillooet to raise his family.
"The day I came here," he says. "I knew I wanted to live here."
Malkinson is now vice-president of Team Lillooet and owns an impressive guest house business on Lillooet?s main street.
His journey from trees to tourism is significant ? it?s probably the same path Lillooet will take to emerge from the legends of its past and the boom-and-bust problems of its present into a more prosperous future.
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