BC Parks' plan for Spearhead sounds the right notes 

click to enlarge JOHN BALDWIN
  • John Baldwin

It's been suggested, by more than a few, that the folks at BC Parks are trampling democracy with their recommendations to: a) continue the ban on mountain biking in most of Garibaldi Provincial Park and b) continue to allow heli-skiing in part of the park.

The evidence is found in the responses of 945 people to an online questionnaire about the Spearhead area of the park. Stakeholders and First Nations were also invited to provide their input. Those responses have been incorporated — or ignored — in the draft plan for the Spearhead, a horseshoe-shaped series of peaks made up of the Spearhead and Fitzsimmons ranges extending from Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb and including their lower slopes from Wedge Creek to Cheakamus Lake.

Responses to the questionnaire, which was online for 45 days in February and March, show that 68 per cent of respondents were not in favour of heli-skiing continuing in Garibaldi Park. As well, 85 per cent of respondents were supportive of full or limited mountain biking in the Spearhead area of the park. Only 15 per cent of respondents were opposed to any form of mountain biking in the park.

Despite these responses the draft plan recommends heli-skiing continue to be allowed in the Spearhead range. The draft plan also recommends mountain biking continue to be prohibited in the Spearhead area.

How can this apparent throttling of democracy take place, some wonder.

Firstly, it should be stressed again that the document currently available is a draft plan. Public input on the draft plan is now being sought and will be accepted up to Jan. 10. A public open house was held earlier this week in Vancouver and another one will be held Dec. 6 at the Whistler Conference Centre.

But importantly, BC Parks has sought to hear from members of the public. That doesn't mean they were soliciting votes to determine what activities are most — or least — popular.

Democracy includes the right to say what you want and to vote for government representatives in free elections. That's not the same thing as participating in a survey or poll and expecting the "results" of that survey will determine direction.

The recommendations in the draft plan are based not just on feedback from the 945 people who took the time to make their voices heard, but also on historical demands, practicalities, environmental and economic considerations. And then the needs of the various users of the park must be weighed against one another.

For instance, the draft plan recognizes the importance of hiking — the most important summer activity for guests visiting Whistler, according to a Tourism Whistler survey. More than 30 per cent of visitors engage in hiking during their stay.

The draft plan states: "There is strong support for improved hiking trails and supporting facilities within the study area to control and focus visitor impacts and enhance the recreational opportunities available in the park."

The demand for alpine mountain biking is also recognized but the draft plan suggests that in this area of the park it may be in conflict with hikers and detract from the hiking experience. It also notes "there are significant challenges associated with managing mountain biking in the alpine areas where there is potential for off-trail use, which may result in unacceptable environmental impacts to fragile alpine and sub-alpine ecosystems."

The Whistler Off Road Cycling Association believes that with proper design and implementation mountain biking can be incorporated into the Spearhead area. WORCA will have an opportunity to make its case to BC Parks.

Heli-skiing, which has taken place in the Spearhead range for decades, is opposed by a majority of respondents but it's likely to continue. And it should.

The Spearhead range isn't the only area for heli-skiing in Whistler but its relatively easy access and close proximity mean there can be heli-skiing there when other areas are "weathered out." This extends the number of heli-ski days in a season and adds to the Whistler experience.

Few other ski resorts can offer heli-skiing as an alternative or in addition to lift-serviced skiing. It's one of the activities that helps distinguish Whistler from other ski resorts.

The percentage of Whistler visitors who actually go heli-skiing is not huge but the option to go heli-skiing during a vacation may help persuade some people to choose to visit Whistler.

Finally, 93 per cent of respondents were in favour of a system of huts being built in the Spearhead area. BC Parks is recommending the management plan for the area "...be amended to provide clear direction to allow huts, with provisions including a safety plan, careful citing and phasing, and a model which ensures the huts are affordable and accessible for all park visitors."

Whistler Search and Rescue, in its submission to BC Parks, emphasized the importance of the heli-ski operator's presence in providing a measure of public safety and assistance with emergency response, particularly if a hut system is built.

BC Parks may not be winning the popular vote but its draft plan for the Spearhead area is heading in the right direction.

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