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New report probes value, risks of Whistler’s natural assets

Council hears update on Municipal Natural Assets Initiative
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View of Alta Lake in early morning summer

A project at Whistler’s municipal hall to assign value to natural assets in the resort is moving forward after council gave its assent on July 19.

The Municipal Natural Assets Initiative (MNAI), as it is known, is an organization that works with municipalities to develop what is a relatively new approach to quantifying the value of ecosystems and natural resources that provide services to local governments—things like forests, wetlands, drinking water, ski terrain and trail systems.

Through its MNAI work, which began last year, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has identified Whistler’s natural resources and the risks that threaten them.

“To be clear, we’re not talking about putting a price tag on natural areas or trees. This is simply looking at the services that they provide and considering how we could manage those, measure them in a way that allows them to continue operating, and upgrading those services that provide them to our community,” said environmental stewardship manager Heather Beresford, in a presentation at the July 19 council meeting. “Taking care of our natural assets will allow us to be more resilient to climate change and potentially reduce costs and risk in the future.”

In total, the report lists 4,664 individual assets within RMOW boundaries, covering 23,247 hectares—or 82 per cent of the municipality’s entire land area.

The vast majority of the assets consist of forests (3,101 inidividual assets covering 17,830 ha), followed by rock and talus (446 assets and 1,767 ha) and shrubland (330 assets and 1,702 ha).

According to the report, 2,622 assets are in “good” condition, 1,708 are listed as “fair,” 296 are “poor” and four assets are in “very poor” condition.

Lakes and rivers were in the best shape, with 87 per cent in good condition, followed by 79 per cent of forests in good condition.

The report also highlights the key risks facing Whistler’s natural areas, which include wildfires sweeping through the municipality, over-use of the trail network (particularly around the 21 Mile Creek watershed, Whistler’s largest water source), drought, invasive species and development pressures as the need for housing grows.

“These risks can negatively impact our natural areas and engineered assets like BC Hydro lines, for example,” Beresford said.

“Letting these natural assets deteriorate will affect our municipal budgets in the future, [as well as] health and safety in our community and the local economy.”

The RMOW is already taking steps to protect many of its natural assets.

To deal with droughts, the municipality has implemented various plans and projects to manage water supply, including a source water assessment and the South Whistler Water Supply Project, which is currently underway.

Water conservation initiatives include the cross-connection control program, the once-through cooling bylaw, water metering, emergency backup power supplies, and a water conservation bylaw to address outdoor potable water usage.

Fire risk is being addressed through the recent creation of a wildfire resiliency plan, while development pressure has long been constrained in the municipality by Whistler’s bed unit cap.

“Local governments across Canada are facing significant asset management challenges. Costs of maintenance replacement are going up,” said Beresford.

“Climate change is accelerating and placing more strain on asset management rollout by governments to make informed decisions about assets and finances.”

Councillor Arthur De Jong welcomed the report.

“Our natural assets are fundamental to our existence, our community, our tourism business model,” he said.

“Imagine if a third of our forests became diseased here, and what the value of the $33-billion asset called Whistler would be if we didn’t get snow six months of the year when we needed that newer business model. So we need to be very centrally focused on this.”

RMOW staff continues to work with the MNAI to fully understand the implications of the project, and how it may affect work plans and budgets.

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