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Small victories but hardest work still ahead

No shortage of candidates for AWARE board at annual general meeting

By Andrew Mitchell

Although change can be difficult to provoke at times, the Association of Whistler Area Residents (AWARE) has learned patience over the years as well as the value of persistence. If they can’t get things resolved overnight, they have committed to at least keep things moving forward.

At the association’s annual general meeting last week, outgoing AWARE president Brad Kasselman listed the various projects and campaigns the organization has been involved with in the past year, as well as the group’s various successes. Separately they might seem like small victories, but together they add up to significant changes.

“A lot of the campaigns we’re involved in are long and drawn out, sometimes over years, but we are making progress in a lot of ways just by making sure we have a voice in the process,” said Kasselman. “Sometimes it comes down to volunteers, and other times it comes down to us raising money or finding a grant so we can pay somebody to be there.”

Kasselman has been the AWARE president the past two years, and will remain active on the board through 2007-08. Although a new board was elected after the meeting, the executive of the board will not be decided until directors vote at AWARE’s next board meeting in May.

Last year was busy for AWARE:

AWARE continued to be the sole environmental voice at the Sea to Sky Land and Resource Management Plan table, hiring Johnny Mikes to carry on discussions with other stakeholders. The province is currently reviewing the draft plan, while consulting with First Nations on their own land use plans, but Kasselman believes that AWARE’s long participation in the process — started in 2004 and originally expected to finish in 2005 — has yielded some results.

“We were able to work with the stakeholders and come up with a whole new zoning for Crown land called a Wildland Zone, which allows for recreation and activities like mining but restricts logging and timber harvesting activities,” said Kasselman. “These zones will cover about 20 per cent of the total area, which is significant. Everyone at the table recognized the need to set aside non-timber zones, and create a level of protection that wasn’t there before.”

Most of AWARE’s involvement in the past year has been monitoring activity in the designated Wildland Zones to ensure that partners are abiding by the agreement in principle while the province evaluates the plan.

AWARE is also continuing to advance its campaign to protect the Upper Soo Valley from industrial development, off-setting land in the Callaghan Valley that is being lost to Olympic development, proposed First Nations development and the installation of a waste transfer station for Whistler. The Whistler-Blackcomb Employee Fund has provided some funding to help with the project, which is also waiting to the see the results of First Nations land planning with the province.

The project does not have the support of the Vancouver Organizing Committee of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games (VANOC), but AWARE is continuing to engage VANOC on a number of fronts including the Upper Soo.

AWARE recently came out against the construction of up to 25 kilometres in ‘legacy trails’ at the Whistler Nordic Centre in the Callaghan Valley, believing the environmental assessment was flawed and that the trails come too close to an area identified as a grizzly bear corridor. The existence of grizzlies in the Callaghan was only confirmed last fall.

AWARE has written a letter to the B.C. Environment Office voicing its concerns and opposition, but have yet to hear back. Construction on the trails is slated to start this summer.

While the issue has been divisive, even within AWARE’s board of directors, Kasselman said it was important to respond to the issue and be a voice for the bears. If nothing else, he says AWARE’s feedback might result in the relocation of trails or additional mitigation.

“It’s hard sometimes, especially when we already have a full plate of things going on and we’re forced to respond, but that’s what we’re here for,” he said.

Another project that AWARE launched this year is a snowmobile monitoring project. With a grant from Shell Oil, AWARE hired someone to count the number of snowmobiles using the more popular trailheads in the corridor, as well as the types of vehicles that were being used to transport the sleds.

“Everywhere else in the Pacifc Northwest, snowmobiles are really restricted where they are able to go for various reasons, but around here things are relatively unrestricted and it’s bringing people from all over,” he said. “The goal is to establish baseline data on the volume of snowmobiles using the backcountry.”

AWARE is concerned about the potential impacts to wildlife, air quality, water quality and the backcountry experience — after finding snowmobile garbage in areas not accessible by trails or through others means.

On the educational front, AWARE has started a Western Toad Project with signage through Lost Lake Park advising people to be aware of the blue-listed toads as they migrate through the park. AWARE has also started an environmental club at Whistler Secondary School, bringing in an international program called the Hopeful High School Hooligans. The club does different projects and field trips each week, while producing a comedy on environmental issues.

At their monthly meetings, AWARE has also hosted eight speakers, including representatives from VANOC, former Green party leader Adriane Carr, Western Canada Wilderness Committee founder Paul George, Ione Smith from Smart Growth B.C., and various others.

Next year should be even busier for AWARE. As well as continued involvement in the Sea to Sky Land and Resource Management Plan process, the Olympic planning process, and the campaign to protect the Upper Soo Valley, AWARE will revitalize its campaign to allow residents to bring compost to a waste transfer station, start a campaign to eliminate plastic bags in the municipality, look for funding to increase study of grizzly bears, and participate in the third round of a sustainability speaker series. The series will kick off in June with former Premier Mike Harcourt.

Financially, AWARE is on strong footing. Although the organization spent close to $2,600 more than it brought in last year, it still has equity of $57,609 — much of which is pledged to ongoing projects and campaigns in the valley.

More than 60 people came to the AGM on April 25, missing a Vancouver Canucks playoff game to get an update on the organization and hear the speakers for the evening, sustainability consultants Brian and Mary Nattrass. Following the presentation, AWARE members voted for the 2007-08 board of directors.

Returning members are Brad Kasselman, Carson, Bryce Leigh, Keenan Moses, Kiran Pal-Pross, Sara Jennings, Marie Fortin, and Sholto Shaw. New to the board are Joel Allen, Pina Belperio, Marc Zurbuchen and Kathleen Van Der Ree.