Skaha Bluffs access secured 

Partnership creates parking lot, preserves access to Okanagan climbing area.

click to enlarge To Have and Toe Hold Unusual partnership, between province, conservancy groups and private sector protects popular Okanagan climbing routes at Skaha Bluffs.
  • To Have and Toe Hold Unusual partnership, between province, conservancy groups and private sector protects popular Okanagan climbing routes at Skaha Bluffs.

Rock climbers throughout western Canada – and beyond – heaved a collective sigh of relief at the recent news that a 304-hectare parcel of land had been secured to provide both parking and access to the popular Skaha Bluffs rock climbing area in Penticton, B.C.

After months of negotiations, an announcement was made on Jan. 19 that the Land Conservancy of BC (TLC) and the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), through the NCC-Government of Canada Natural Areas Conservation Program, had partnered with Mountain Equipment Co-op and other supporters to acquire the property immediately south of the popular bluffs.

The parcel of land will not only provide permanent access and parking for climbers heading to the dozens of cliffs which comprise Skaha Bluffs, but will also help protect the area’s high recreation and conservation values, as it is slated to be managed as a Class A B.C. Provincial Park.

A 14-year agreement between Braesyde Farm landowner Hugh Dunlop and the local climbing community, which provided parking on his property for a fee, expired in November 2006 at the end of the climbing season, even as Dunlop accepted an offer to sell his property to be developed into a vineyard.

Faced without an alternate access and parking solution in the spring of 2007, the climbing community was able to work out another deal with Dunlop for the 2007 season after his property sale fell through, and while negotiations and fundraising efforts to purchase the parcel of land to the south were worked out.

Since going public with the campaign to purchase the private land in March 2007, donations poured in from across Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and England, with contributions from climbers, outdoor enthusiasts and naturalists, as well as several organizations like the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund, the B.C. Trust for Public Lands and the Nature Trust of B.C. Significant corporate contributions added to the pot, including $10,000 from The Access Society and a $250,000 land acquisition grant from retailer Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC). In addition to the grant, MEC offered to match donations made by its members up to $100,000.

To meet the $5.25 million sale price, B.C.'s Ministry of Environment stepped in to provide $1.25 million, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, with support from the Government of Canada, provided $2.3 million and The Land Conservancy raised $1.7 million.

"The purchase of this property recognizes the importance of providing recreational access and, at the same time, protecting a vital area for the conservation of wildlife," said TLC executive director Bill Turner. "The successful completion of the campaign could not have happened without support from the climbing community, and the many wildlife and conservation groups and individuals who are dedicated to B.C.'s wildlife."

The newly acquired land falls within the proposed Skaha Bluffs Provincial Park, as recommended in the Okanagan Shuswap Land and Resource Management Plan. The property is comprised of coniferous forest, riparian areas, rugged terrain and some shrub-steppe grasslands — habitat that helps support up to 15 species-at-risk, including California bighorn sheep.

The Skaha Bluffs climbing area is a collection of over 50 gneiss cliffs with over 800 climbs ranging from 10 to 55 metres in length. The region’s long season draws about 18,000 climbers annually from around the world – and in particular from southern B.C. and Alberta. While roughly 75 per cent of the Bluffs used by climbers are located on Crown (public) land, the Bluffs are isolated by a continuous strip of private, residential developments and agricultural land.

“Everybody’s thrilled there’s a piece of property that’s been bought,” said Sean Dougherty, Penticton area climber, guidebook author and owner/operator of the website. “It’s big, and only a small piece needs to be used as a parking lot. The land will provide access for a wide variety of users, including mountain bikers and the sheep, and conservationists. A lot of uses will have to be accommodated in some way, shape or form.”

But while the land purchase does provide a long-term solution, Dougherty said, arrangements for the 2008 spring climbing season have yet to be sorted out.

“It’s not clear what’s going to happen this year at all,” Dougherty said. “There remains a lot to be done. The road is not sufficiently good to allow passage of 100 cars on Easter weekend. And we do have to drive across someone else’s property to get to it. It’s not a simple slam dunk. The solution is still a work in progress.”

For those familiar with the Skaha climbing area, the new parking will be situated directly to the south of the bluffs – an immediate right turn from the top of the long, steep staircase sport climbers have been grumbling their way up for years.

“It will make the walk shorter, there won’t be any stairs, it will be the same level as the stairs,” Dougherty said.

Stairs or not, all parties agree the news is good news.

"The purchase of this property is great news for our region," said Bill Barisoff, MLA for Penticton-Okanagan Valley. "With the certainty surrounding public access now secured by this new property, the Skaha Bluffs can continue to be a world-class climbing destination.”

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