Fire hazard, frogs slow Olympic downhill construction 

Piccolo ahead of schedule as last concrete poured

The construction of the Olympic downhill runs on Whistler Mountain could have been delayed by the discovery of a blue-listed species of frog – if work wasn’t already delayed by the extreme fire hazard rating.

With crews prevented from working in the interface forest, Whistler-Blackcomb has time to figure out a solution that complies with federal environmental laws.

The species in question is the coastal tailed frog, which has been identified as a "vulnerable" species and requires special consideration. Options available to Whistler-Blackcomb and the Vancouver Organizing Committee include rerouting a creek and relocating the frogs, rerouting the ski run to give the area a buffer zone, or using log bridges or other means to protect the habitat.

"They’ve been located in the Boyd Creek area, on the mid and lower portions of the Olympic downhill construction project," explained Arthur DeJong, manager of mountain planning and environmental resources.

"Obviously the first step is to try and avoid the creeks they’re in altogether, and if we can’t, to try and build a new habitat for them that mimics what they like most, whether it’s shade or cobblestones in the creek bed itself. Whatever they need we will try to recreate it. It’s a balancing act for us – we don’t want to blue-list the downhill skiers as well, and maybe do something to put them at risk."

According to DeJong the tiny frogs – just 2.5 cm to 3 cm in length, though they live up 20 years – are a new discovery for the mountains. Now that they are aware of the frogs, he says Whistler-Blackcomb will take steps in future projects to ensure that the frogs are not affected.

"I saw one today, and it’s easy to see how we might have missed them in the past," he said. "They really are quite tiny, and well-adapted to their environment because they blend right in."

Although the species is a new discovery, part of the environmental assessment required a search of waterways and ponds to see if there were frogs present before construction crews could move into the new area. The assessment also required Whistler-Blackcomb to have a plan to deal with listed species when and if they are discovered.

DeJong says it will be several weeks before a course of action is decided and Whistler-Blackcomb has an approved management plan to address the issue. Two sections of the ski run with frog habitat have already been diverted, leaving a 60-metre section at mid-mountain and a 40-metre section near the finish line at the Timing Flats.

The 60-metre section is the first priority, as crews are working from the top down, and will have to be addressed this summer. The lower creek section near the finish can be addressed next spring and summer.

The downhill courses – the men will ski the existing Dave Murray Downhill run with some modifications on the bottom while the women will race on a modified Franz’s Run – are being re-shaped this year, but won’t be completed with full snowmaking until the 2007-08 season.

As for Whistler-Blackcomb’s other big summer project, the installation of the Piccolo Express lift is ahead of schedule.

According to DeJong, the last concrete tower pad will be poured this week, "which is the earliest we’ve ever done that. The towers themselves can be assembled quickly and flown into place, and because the foundations are pre-bolted that can happen fast. The hard part is getting the foundations in place."

The towers should arrive in late August or early September. The base and unload areas of the lift are also nearly complete. The drive station will be at the top, which is more challenging to install but will result in overall power savings of approximately 15 per cent because it’s more efficient to pull cable up a hill than to push it.

A logging crew in the area has also been held up by fire hazard restrictions, but in the last few weeks before fire restrictions were introduced the crews were thinning the forests near the base of the lift. There will be two collector runs through the area, which extends below Burnt Stew Basin, but 70 per cent of the area will be gladed. There will also be a new road into the base area.

Most of the early work on the concrete tower pads was completed while there was still snow on the ground, to minimize the environmental impact. Helicopters are also being used extensively in the project by tower crews and logging crews to significantly reduce the need for roads or machinery, and will eventually be used to install the towers.

"It’s definitely been a pinnacle summer for on-mountain work, mostly with Olympic requirements," said DeJong. "Now we’re only hoping for some rain or some cooler weather so we can get back to work."

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