The tourism generator we actually need 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - STAR ATTRACTION The basalt features at Cal-Cheak north are one of six sites that will form the nucleus of a proposed geopark.
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • STAR ATTRACTION The basalt features at Cal-Cheak north are one of six sites that will form the nucleus of a proposed geopark.

The image, by now, is familiar to most: A tourist, up for the day, piles out of their vehicle and walks to the second lake in Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, where they promptly wait in a long line to get their photo taken on the notorious "selfie log."

After uploading it to social media, they head back down the trail, returning home having "experienced" the Coast Mountains.

Whether we like it or not, interest in mountain landscapes is exploding. Our parks are buckling under increased traffic from tourists and Lower Mainland residents with little in the way of backcountry ethics.

But what if there was a way to deepen the experience for visitors to the Sea to Sky? For them to gain a deeper appreciation for the millions of years of geological activity that went into carving out this extraordinary landscape or the interplay between volcanoes and glaciers or the rich cultures and social structures of Indigenous groups who have inhabited this region for thousands of years.

That, in a nutshell, is what a new initiative brewing at municipal hall aims to do.

Last week, Whistler council approved a grant application for $962,336 to help pay for a $1.3-million project that would see the Sea to Sky region receive a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Global Geopark designation.

For those unfamiliar (as I was, until reading about the request in last week's paper. (Go to Jan. 24, "Whistler eyes geopark designation.") Geopark designation, as defined by UNESCO, it is a "single, unified geographical area where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development."

There are currently 140 such parks in 38 countries around the world, including over 30 in China alone. The proposed Sea to Sky geopark would cover 2,500 square kilometres.

Of the over 50 potential sites that have been identified, the project leads—John Rae, manager of cultural planning and development for the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), and Pique columnist and scientist Leslie Anthony—have identified five sites that would form the "nucleus" of the park: the Cheakamus lava escarpment; Loggers Lake; the basalt features at Cal-Cheak north and south; glacier views from Green Lake; and the Mystery Creek rockslide.

The various areas would be tied together via the Sea to Sky Trail and would see significant investments in infrastructure and educational programming designed to give visitors a sense of why they are special.

A project like this is sure to have its detractors and handwringing on social media: Do you really want to expose these places for the world to see, aren't we already buckling under the weight of tourism, posters might posit?

But while these concerns should be taken seriously—and it would be great to see community engagement regarding which sites are included—this initiative strikes me as both important and in line with the wider goals of the region.

Alpine environments engender awe in a way that few places can, and the right programming could leave visitors with a far deeper understanding of the very tangible impact of climate change on them.

The project could also spread out visitors, taking pressure off of marquee attractions like Joffre Lakes or Whistler Village, and create significant opportunities for small businesses looking to cater to outdoorsy travellers.

In his presentation to council, Rae said that a geopark would attract a "more purposeful traveller, someone who wants to experience a destination in its entirety ... not just checking a box." Maybe so. But in my view, the park should also appeal directly to the selfie-loving masses.

In many ways, tourism has gone sideways in the corridor, as visitors that simply don't know how to behave in the backcountry are overrunning once-tranquil areas.

A geopark should aim to appeal directly to them, offering lessons on backcountry ethics and the alarming effects of climate change.

And, who knows? Maybe some of the RMOW's new fans in Calgary will come and leave with better understanding of the thinking that guided the whole climate-change letter-writing debacle.

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