Recreation trails sparks legacy discussion 

Cross-country skiers support trail network, environmentalists worry

By Alison Taylor

Cross-country skiers and environmentalists appear to be at odds over the proposed Olympic recreation legacy trails in the Callaghan Valley.

Tension mounted at a recent open house as skiers voiced their support for 20 to 25 kilometres of recreation trails — which would be in addition to the 15 kilometres of trails already built for Olympic Nordic competitions — and environmentalists expressed concerns about the impacts of the trails, particularly on the Callaghan’s small grizzly bear population.

Johnny Mikes tried to diffuse the tension at the March 28 open house, commenting that people aren’t trying to torpedo the project; rather, they are trying to ensure the trails are built in the best possible way, with the fewest negative impacts.

“Let’s see what makes the most sense to try to meet both needs,” he explained after the meeting, which drew roughly 50 members of the community both from Whistler and Squamish.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games says the trail network can be built in the Madeley drainage without major impacts to the grizzlies.

“The conclusion in the report is that we can develop it without significant impacts if we follow through with the management plans and the mitigation strategies that are recommended in the report,” said George McKay, VANOC’s director of environmental approvals.

Among the draft commitments in the report, VANOC has said it will restrict the use of specific trails if sensitive species, such as grizzlies, are present, and develop and implement a garbage management plan to prevent wildlife from foraging on garbage.

Councillor Eckhard Zeidler, a board member of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment, questioned the conclusion in the report, suggesting at the meeting that more work needs to be done to fully understand the impacts the trails will have on the grizzlies.

He called for Terrestrial Ecosystem Mapping (TEM), which requires direct air photo interpretation of the ecosystem.

“We don’t have that level of research in the Callaghan,” said Zeidler.

“We haven’t got that basic level of science.”

He questioned why the trails are scheduled for construction this summer, without all the research complete, when they’re not needed until after the Games.

McKay explained the trails would be more costly to build later because the crews and machines are already at work in the Callaghan.

“Budget is a very serious issue here,” said McKay.

VANOC has also learned, from past Games experience, that getting legacy work accomplished after the Games is much harder.

“The advice that we were getting is ‘plan for it before the Games are over, capitalize on that point in time and that opportunity,’” said McKay.

The recreation trails will cost about $2 million. They will abut the $119 million Whistler Nordic Centre and help make the centre a legacy after the Games — a destination cross-country ski resort unlike any other in the world, with summer amenities for mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding.

Cross-country skier Vesa Suomalainen, who is a seasonal resident in Whistler, praised the plan as it stands.

“It’s going to be a great attraction for Whistler,” said the competitive skier.

“The environmental people are vocal… I think we need to be vocal for the venue as well.”

Several others also spoke out in favour of the trails.

The long-range plan for the facility is still up in the air.

A business case, presented at the meeting, points to just over 100,000 people using the facility in 2011. Four years later that number jumps to almost 160,000 users.

Other future uses could include a tubing park and a luge trail for kids. The plans show a tent camping area and an RV camping area.

VANOC has no plans to build accommodation at the site.

The provincial Environmental Assessment Office is open for comments on the recreational trails. The public comment period runs until April 29.

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