De Jong tackles environment portfolio 

Feature excerpt: The RMOW Files

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  • FILE PHOTO

It was as if everyone in the room knew what the mayor was about to say before he said it.

When Crompton announced in his inaugural address that Arthur De Jong would be assigned the Environment portfolio, a low chuckle rose up through the crowd—not one of derision, but agreement.

With his decades of experience spearheading environmental initiatives for Whistler Blackcomb, De Jong was the obvious choice to head the file.

Throughout the campaign, De Jong spoke of the "five Ws"—a catch-all phrase for Whistler's environmental reality: water, weather, wildfire, wilderness and waste.

He'll need to keep a wary eye on all five if he wants to make progress on what he fondly refers to as "the red file."

"When we were at our (council) retreat (in November), staff presented a number of key indicators, and most reds showed up in my file, which was concerning," De Jong says with a laugh, referring to the colour-coded circles the RMOW uses to track its progress on key initiatives.

"But it certainly spoke to what we need to put more focus on."

Red indicators be damned, De Jong will not be deterred.

"We've got to get action on the ground, and that's the lesson to me, in that we want to get moving on a number of agenda items, and immediately," De Jong says.

"Being new, I get the reality check on the budgets ... (but) let's hope in a year's time we can talk about a number of things that we've gotten done."

Whistler's Community Energy and Climate Action Plan is solid, but it needs a champion—a designated climate-action coordinator position to really push the action items, De Jong says. (Editor's Note: That was something former Coun. Sue Maxwell had pushed for during the previous term, critical of the RMOW for dragging its feet on certain environmental initiatives.)

While money for the position will likely be included in the 2019 municipal budget, it will be challenging to make progress in the meantime, he adds.

"That being said, I'd like to see a climate-action committee formed very quickly here, which would be community-inclusive," De Jong says.

"There is money in the municipal budget for a waste-reduction committee, and so my question to community environmental leaders like Claire (Ruddy, of AWARE) is can we integrate the two?

"But nonetheless, we need to get wheels on both."

Looking at Whistler's $1.4-million wildfire budget, De Jong sees it a respectable number in comparison to other communities—but weighted against the overall value of Whistler, the budget looks small.

"From an economic perspective, we're trying to protect over $16 billion worth of assets, so I really do feel that, in the future, we need to get more into that budget," he says.

"So again, at this point it's more questions of how do we get more funding, how are we more efficient with the money that we do have, and how do we optimize the momentum that we have on the community side with respect to volunteering, and the work that Heather (Beresford, RMOW environmental stewardship manager) and Scott (Rogers, FireSmart coordinator) have done?"

Once the waste-reduction committee is in place, De Jong says he'd like to get traction on reducing and banning specific plastics, as well as look at the composting habits of local businesses.

"I hear there's a lot of inefficiency with a number of businesses with composting, so that's a large input into the landfill ... so how do we optimize the programs that are already in place, like composting?" he says.

While there is a bevy of environmental groups working in Whistler (Get Bear Smart, AWARE, the Whistler Naturalists, the Coast to Cascades Grizzly Bear Initiative, to name a few), the groups are mostly weighted towards natural ecosystems, De Jong says.

"That's great, and let's keep that going, and build on it, but when I look at that and when I look at energy conservation and waste, other than AWARE, we just don't have the collective focus that we have on natural ecosystems," he says.

"Clearly waste and energy conservation, greenhouse gases (GHG), need a much stronger and immediate focus here."

Looking at Whistler's GHG emission levels, the proverbial elephant in the room is transportation—the resort relies on millions of people travelling here by airplane, who then drive or bus up the Sea to Sky Highway.

While there's not much to be done about that in the short term, there is room to challenge people to change their own behaviours locally in the meantime.

"The lever that I'm trying to push is behavioural change in the community with the single-occupant driving, and I don't have the answer to that," De Jong says, adding that his own personal challenge for 2019 is to reduce his driving by 30 per cent.

"It will be the question that I pose to these incoming committees: how do we drive deeper with our community on making a collective commitment to driving less, particularly as a single-occupant vehicle?"

De Jong can be reached at 604-935-8225 or adejong@whistler.ca.

Read the full-length feature 'The RMOW Files' here.

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