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Green Lake is a hub of biodiversity so why aren't we doing more to protect it?

Of the five major lakes dotting the Whistler Valley, it can be tough to pick a favourite.

Bracketed by dramatic views and a trio of grassy parks, Alta Lake is the quintessential summer idyll, and arguably the resort's most historic waterway, even serving as the community's namesake for more than half a century until it was renamed to Whistler in the 1960s.

Or maybe you’re looking for a more local feel at Alpha Lake, its irregular, rocky shoreline belying its small size. Relatively free from the weekend crowds found at, say, Rainbow Park, it’s still chock-full of recreational opportunities for those in the know.

Then there’s the relative quietude of Alpha’s Creekside cousin, Nita Lake, which eschews the hustle and bustle of Whistler’s busier lakes for a glassy tranquility that is catnip to scores of Instagram photographers.

Or perhaps the enigmatic Lost Lake is more your style. Swaddled in forest, it certainly lives up to its name, presenting the viewer with an unlikely oasis just minutes from the shops and lifts of the village. (Bonus points for the nudie dock.)

Finally, we arrive at Green Lake, which you could make a solid argument for being Whistler’s most unique lake. Fed by the cool glacial waters of Fitzsimmons Creek, the first thing you notice is its colour, an impossibly brilliant shade of turquoise. With a surface area of more than 200 hectares, and its perimeter stretching 11 kilometres around the shoreline, it’s large enough to have its own current and offers a seemingly endless array of picturesque views, depending on your vantage point.

But beyond it’s obvious aesthetic and recreational values, Green Lake serves another, higher purpose as host to the lion’s share of birds found here.

“Of the bird species in Whistler, which is around 269, I’d say well over 200 of them are at Green Lake at various times of year,” says Karl Ricker, a noted marine biologist, dedicated birder, cartographer and glaciologist whose contributions to the local scientific record loom large.

Home to beavers, otters and fish such as kokanee, the prickly sculpin, and several subspecies of trout, the lake also provides vital wetland habitat for dozens of birds. Migratory birds use the small delta on the southeast end of the lake—known colloquially as the “Fitz fan” and one of only two sandy deltas remaining in Whistler—as a crucial stopover point on their long, continent-spanning trek. A variety of ducks, sparrows, warblers, thrushes and vireos use the delta for breeding, while shorebirds such as the killdeer, the spotted sandpiper and the America pipit often build their nests right in the sand, making them tricky to spot and easy to trample. “It’s the one area that attracts these shorebirds, which are in declining numbers worldwide, by and large, and the more wetland or delta area that gets taken by mankind is harder on what’s left,” Ricker notes.

And yet, for all its ecological importance, Green Lake still suffers the effects of Whistler’s boom times. Lined by a highway on one side and a railway and golf course on the other, the lake sees a flurry of activity in the summer months, whether it’s off-leash dogs running roughshod over bird nests, the risks posed by unchecked campfires, boat wakes eroding the shoreline or floatplane traffic disturbing wildlife.

In some ways, Green Lake is a microcosm of the delicate balance Whistler has tried to strike between economics and environment, the churning tourism machine and the breathtaking natural setting that makes it all run. It goes without saying Whistler is in the resort business, and it’s a business we excel at thanks to putting human-centric, recreational values firmly at the forefront. But how much are we willing to sacrifice in the name of the Almighty Dollar? It’s by no means a simple question to answer, but at least one thing is clear: if we want to preserve the environmental gems that remain, it’s going to require a community-wide cultural shift at both the personal and collective level.

“I think this is one of those situations where we have to say: can we think beyond ourselves and actually protect these other values and species for whom these areas are critical?” says Claire Ruddy, executive director of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE).

Stress factors

It’s a late April day, yellow sunlight shimmering off the still waters of Green Lake. A few small groups have set up along the Fitzsimmons fan, taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather. As paddleboarders glide effortlessly along the lake’s smooth surface, I notice the singed remains of at least half a dozen campfires dotting the delta. A playful golden retriever fetches a stick hucked into shallow waters, before eagerly racing back to its awaiting owner.

To the untrained eye, it looks like a typical lakeside scene you’d find on any sunny day around town, but for those familiar with the local fauna of the area, it presents several concerns.

“All of these things are stress factors for wildlife,” says Ruddy. “When you think of the campfire issue, the Fitz fan is technically closed at dusk, and if people have fires on it, birds trying to nest and raise families in that area are then on alert, trying to figure out what’s going on, and they’ve been on alert all day with people and dogs and people with kids and noise and planes. It’s a cumulative-effect discussion.”

And it doesn’t mater how placid a dog may be; their presence alone is enough to scare off shorebirds and wastes valuable energy they would otherwise need to nest and protect their eggs.

“When a bird sees a dog, regardless of how innocent and timid it is, or how ferocious it looks, they take off,” Ricker says. “A dog, as far as birds are concerned, is another coyote or wolf.”

Contrary to the common perception of bird nests perched high on tree branches, NIck shorebirds will lay eggs tucked into brush, under logs or boulders, and even out in the open, and because of their often small size and camouflaged colour, they can be incredibly difficult to spot.

It’s a message the Whistler Naturalists have been trying to get out more widely during the pandemic, as scores of people have sought out the area to escape COVID lockdown. The environmental group was hopeful more signs would be installed in the area after the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) fixed several last year that had been damaged. Right now there are 10 signs along the cedar rail fence abutting the delta, two on the shore of the protected area and two along the access trail from the Nicklaus North Golf Course highlighting the critical shorebird habitat and telling owners to keep their dogs on leash. Another larger interpretive sign with information on the native shorebirds sits at the entrance to the delta—but whether the public will actually read and heed the message is anyone’s guess.

“The RMOW is not considering putting up more signs as the people who are engaging in the activities appear not to be following the numerous signs in place already,” wrote a municipal spokesperson in an email.

The Naturalists have also pushed for an extension of a section of fence delineating the protected delta area all the way to the nearby floatplane dock, which the muni says it has no immediate plans to do.

For his part, Ricker thinks the fence is in the wrong spot. “They made sure they got as much sand for the people as possible and as little sand for the birds, so it should be moved further north,” he says. “There’s a little bushy island in the middle of that sand; the fence should be over to that bushy island, at a minimum.”

Whatever deterrents are in place, it’s clear that most lake-goers are largely unaware of the sensitive bird habitat lying right beneath their feet. Both the Naturalists and other Green Samaritans have tried to take an educational approach to highlight the rich biodiversity in the area.

“I think positive reinforcement goes a lot further,” says Kristina Swerhun, nature interpreter and biologist with the Whistler Naturalists. “That’s what bylaw does anyway. Part of their enforcement [strategy] is the first thing is education or maybe a warning. If they’re armed with all the information, then the dog owners can [comply] not because they’re told to do it, but because they want to and they didn’t realize the area was so precious.”

Due to last month’s cyber-attack shutting down most of the municipality’s digital capabilities, the RMOW could not provide statistics on off-leash dog fines. But if last year is any indication, the likelihood of a ticket being issued is quite low. As reported by Pique last summer (“Whistler’s off-leash dog complaints more than double in 2020,” June 21), the RMOW received a dozen complaints of off-leash dogs in the first half of 2020, up from five in the same period the year prior. In spite of that, and a new Animal Responsibility Bylaw adopted in 2019, bylaw handed out exactly zero fines in that time.

Bylaw officers have a, ahem, long leash when it comes to enforcing the issue, typically resorting to a warning over a ticket, and even providing free leashes to dog owners without one.

The prevailing thought seems to be that the carrot is more effective than the stick, but when it comes to off-leash dogs, a persistent, prickly issue in a community awash with dogs and ample green space for them to roam, it might be time to consider a shift in tactics, Swerhun argues.

“Both [the carrot and the stick] need to happen. At some point, when positive reinforcement doesn’t work, we have to fall back on something else—and I’m sure positive reinforcement has been tried for the last 30 years,” she says. “I think there are people who just don’t know better and then that’ll be it, but for those that, for whatever reason, don’t have that response to positive reinforcement, then at least try it! Start issuing fines and see if that helps at all; at least give it a shot. I don’t think they ever tried that.”

Both AWARE and the Naturalists have also raised concerns with the clear-cutting of brush in designated riparian areas leading from lakeside properties to the shoreline, presumably to gain a better view. Along with providing birds with protection from predators, the bushes act as nesting areas for more than 30 different songbirds, mainly sparrows and warblers, Ricker says. “They shouldn’t be trimming those bushes, period,” he adds.

In the context of Green Lake, which, prior to Nick North being built was home to the largest intact wetland in Whistler, it’s this point especially that Ruddy would like to see a crackdown on. “The biggest enforcement piece I think we need to be moving on is actually enforcing when the vegetation is removed,” she says. “Those homes and those businesses on the lake should not be cutting shorefront vegetation to maintain their views. Those slivers of wetland that were retained were intended as habitat. I think that enforcement there would have multiple benefits.”

In an email, the RMOW said it is “aware that people cut down the vegetation in the riparian area,” but because of how Whistler’s environmental protection and park-use bylaws are set up, the guilty party has to be caught in the act. “We have communicated with the Nick North Clubhouse a number of times, which has led to improvements on the waterfront in front of the Table 19 patio, as well as provided education to people on the spit,” the spokesperson added.

Enforcing illegal campfires can be tricky as well, akin to a game of whack-a-mole: call in an active fire and, of course, there’s no guarantee the responsible party will still be there by the time the fire department arrives. Throughout the spring, a Whistler Naturalists member had been emailing bylaw officers, who typically only work during the day, every time they discovered signs of a campfire on the delta, until they were told to stop.   

“In terms of reporting to Bylaw, once a file is in process, complainants do not need to continually call in for the same issue (other than active fires) as Bylaw is already attending to the issue on proactive patrols,” the RMOW spokesperson said, noting that the public is encouraged to continue reporting active fires to the fire department.

Ruddy, however, believes consistently reporting these issues is one way to see enforcement pick up. “Every time you call the [Conservation Officer Service’s] RAPP line or you call the bylaw line and ask for an enforcement action, that gets logged,” she says. “Eventually that might lead to [the realization] that we have way more calls and we need to recruit some more enforcement personnel.”

Of course, like for any local government, deciding how to make use of the  available resources is no simple task.  “We need to improve our stewardship and our regulation within our park system, without question. But there’s an economic reality to that, too: we don’t have the public money to have a bylaw officer at every park, so we have to be good and as efficient as possible in being at the right critical places at the right time,” says Councillor Arthur De Jong, who noted the RMOW’s park ambassador program, which saw volunteers stationed in parks on busy days last summer educating the public on a number of issues, would continue this year.

Troubled waters

Fred Shandro bought his lakeside Whistler property in 1975, eventually building a cabin on it that he spent practically every weekend and holiday in for more than two decades. In the early 2000s, he converted it into his retirement home, and has lived in Whistler full-time ever since.

“I worked all my life and knew I was gonna live here,” he says on a recent morning, just steps away from the boat ramp at the north end of Green Lake. “And since then, the window of the natural environment and the enjoyment has been closing because of the intrusion of boats that don’t follow the regulations on the lake, the numbers of tourists, the difficulty in dealing with bureaucracy and government to try to correct those problems, and it is exceedingly frustrating to watch the window close when it’s something you’ve worked your whole life for.”

For decades, if there was a boat to be found on Green Lake, it was usually a small aluminum tinny like Shandro has. But over the years, as Whistler grew into its own as a tourism hotspot and summer destination, he started to notice a proliferation of bigger, noisier watercraft, like the commercial wake boats. “I mean, big suckers, and quite a few of them right out in front of my house,” he says.  “And as I was watching the surf roll in, I was watching my shoreline disappear right before my eyes.”

That led to Shandro and his neighbour kicking up a stink at municipal hall, with the former lawyer initially pushing for a complete boat ban on the lake. Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well with local officials or boaters of the day.

“So I go to this meeting with [my neighbour], and [former municipal CAO] Bill Barratt was there and the bylaw people were there and it was a big to-do. The boaters were really concerned because, unfortunately, I was a little blunt,” he says. “I can tell you, I was not well received.”

Eventually, a compromise was reached: in 2004, regulartions were passed designating two no-wake, no-tow zones at either end of the lake, where speeds were restricted to a max of 10 km/hr, in theory to minimize disturbances for nearby residents and bird nesting sites. At that time, the council of the day also banned jet skis and personal watercraft (PWC)—think seadoos—from the lake.

“What they were trying to do was stop PWCs from going on the lake because they were going up the River of Golden Dreams,” says Shandro. “So they were using it as a mechanism. That was their first mistake.”

Because it was in effect a noise bylaw, Shandro says “the personal watercraft people [believe] it’s not enforceable, because now they make these things and they’re so quiet,” and in the last few years, he’s noted a major increase in PWCs on the water and little to no enforcement in response.

“As a principle of law, don’t make a law you can’t enforce,” he adds.

Four white buoys mark the no-wake zone on the north end of the lake, where Shandro lives, and he believes there is too much distance between the fourth, located at the start of the unrestricted zone, and third buoy. “So these boats come along and they either think they’re past the last one, or for some reason, think it’s the last one—and then they gun it,” he says.

Independent studies by both Laval University and Larratt Consulting have shown that a wake boat’s waves don’t dissipate for 300 metres, compared to approximately 30 m for traditional recreational watercraft, and create a disturbance to a depth of six to eight m, which would explain the near-total erosion of Shandro’s shoreline.

Beyond the impact to his property, however, is what Shandro sees as a growing safety issue on a lake that has just municipally owned boat launch, and one wake zone funnelling trailered boats and floatplane landings to a single section of water—not to mention the steady rise of paddlecraft in recent years. “That is the key, that boat ramp. That is the only way on the lake for trailered boats,” he says, adding that, in his experience, motorboating locals have generally been compliant; it’s the streams of visitors who are less likely to follow, or even be aware, of the regulations.

“These boats are attractive; people see them as the traffic goes by on the highway, and before you know it, they come in from Squamish, Washington state [and the Lower Mainland], and some of them read [the sign outlining the regulations] and can understand it, but a lot of them either didn’t or don’t, so, to me, the enforcement issue has been No. 1.”

Shandro wants to be clear: he isn’t anti-boats (at least anymore). “It’s the opposite. I would like to see them there,” he says. “Our issue, and your issue as a boat owner, is to figure out how to enforce these regulations. Because if we can’t enforce these regulations, then where are we?”

Shandro insists he keeps speaking up because of the continued lack of complaince and because he sees a better way forward, one that he has proposed to senior parks staff: a kiosk or tollbooth, much like the one managing access to the cross-country ski trails by the Riverside campground, that would be located at the Green Lake boat launch.

“With a tollbooth or kiosk, there could be registration. The boat would have to be registered and pay a fee, which would support the cost of administration, and you’d be able to control the number of boats on the lake,” he explains. “There are so many people in these boats using them respectfully, but with the weekends and the rubber-tire traffic going over this ramp, there’s no set controls, and that’s why this booth is important.”

Although he concedes his frustrations initially were more to do  with his property than the impacts on the environment, Shandro spoke to a criticism of the RMOW that other local environmental advocates have echoed: a reactive approach that too often misses the bigger picture.

“These issues … are really beyond the scope of how they think,” he says. “They’re designed to make everybody happy. They get as many people up here as they can handle, which is really not the right approach. They have to sustain the quality, but if the quality disappears, then what’s the point?”

Culture shift

In the mid-‘90s, a group of community members led by AWARE fought against the construction of Nick North in sensitive wetland habitat. The effort was to no avail, and over the years, Whistler has lost the bulk of its wetlands.

“The Green Lake we see today is totally different to what was historically there,” says Ruddy. “When we look at the entire Whistler Valley, we’ve lost over three-quarters of our wetlands, and this area following the River of Golden Dreams, up to Green Lake, was a hugely important wetland area.”

To help protect the vital ecological areas that remain, Ruddy has called for a more fulsome understanding of Whistler’s rich ecosystems to better inform land-use and planning decisions at municipal hall, a drum she has been beating for years now.

“When it comes to human-centric elements of our community, we have a lot of really good data and we use that to make informed decisions,” she says, pointing to the trove of data compiled by the RMOW’s Economic Partnership Initiative, formed in 2012 to look at ways to diversify the resort’s economy. “But when it comes to the natural areas, the ecosystems and the species of the valley, there hasn’t been an investment in mapping out those values and understanding them in a really deep way.”

Ideally, Ruddy would like to see a thorough accounting of the different ecosystems found in the valley that would indicate how much of each remains. “You could then really quickly see that, ‘Oh wow, we only have X percentage of this ecosystem left, we have to protect what’s still here. It would be valuable for sandy deltas, old forest, for deciding where we do and don’t put trails,” she says. “When you have a good dataset and you can build a strategy around it, people can mobilize around that. But we need to make sure we’re not leaving out certain values.”

Of course local government is but one crucial lever in the fight to preserve our most precious natural assets. Broad change requires both an individual and a collective effort, and, when considering how best to protect the community’s declining bird numbers, there is arguably no better example than Bear Smart.

“I think what we’ve learned from programs like Bear Smart is that education is vitally important, it needs to be ongoing and it needs continuous investment,” says Ruddy. “

Through years of concerted effort and information campaigns, the wildlife advocacy group didn’t just educate, it told the stories of Whistler’s bears and you can make a solid argument that locals, by and large, have gotten the message. Can a similar story be told about Whistler’s birds? Ricker scoffs at the suggestion.

“How many people do you think will listen to the birds’ story?” he asks. “I don’t think people would pay attention, to be honest with you.”

Sounds like a challenge if I ever heard one.