A gondola for The Chief
Most people who love hiking The Chief in Squamish, BC, probably don't know, but they'll find out when the chainsaws start up, critics of a gondola project say.
The Sea to Sky Gondola's critics maintain that the real public consultation will begin once construction begins in the fall.
"When the chainsaws fire up in the park this fall, we expect the real public information session to begin, and it won't be a happy affair," said Friends of the Squamish Chief (FOSC)'s Derek Christ. "There's going to be a lot of sad and confused faces out there, wondering how this provincial government not only allowed this to happen, but perhaps facilitated it."
A proposed gondola between the Stawamus Chief Provincial Park and Shannon Falls pending approval from the BC Ministry of Environment has set hikers and locals against the project, who say that the province is selling out a beloved park for cash.
"Let's face it, the Province is cash-strapped, and the Crown's assets are quietly up for sale, including park land." said Christ. FOSC "works for the continued protection and wise stewardship of Stawamus Chief Provincial Park and area for all the public," according to its website. The group has over a hundred members on its mailing list and over a thousand signatures on its online petition calling for a public hearing in May.
The BC Ministry of Environment announced last week that it would grant a park-use permit to the 820 metre-high Sea to Sky Gondola proposal allowing “commercial gondola” activity in the Stawamus Chief Protected Area.
The gondola would start at a vacant gravel pit along the Sea to Sky Highway and go up to a ridge northwest of Mount Habrich. The project from Sea to Sky Gondola Corp. is estimated to cost about $15 million to $20 million according to the company.
The vacant pit is part of a 2.36-hectare strip of land that the BC Liberals removed from its list of Class A park lands with a park-boundary amendment bill passed at the end of May 31.
Class A park land is Crown land designated under the Park Act or by the Protected Areas of British Columbia Act whose management and development is constrained by the Park Act. This type of park requires a park-use permit, which can't be issued for commercial purposes "unless, in the opinion of the minister, to do so is necessary to preserve or maintain the recreational values of the park involved."
The park-boundary amendment bill, also known as Bill 49, was good news for the Sea to Sky Gondola Corp., which applied to attain the 2.36-hectare strip in December 2011.
Meg Fellows, a former president of the Squamish Environment Society, told The Georgia Straight in May that she was “horrified at the lack of public process” when the bill was passed.
“I think all people who care about parks in BC have to be concerned about that,” Fellowes said.
FOSC is concerned about the fact that the government did not conduct its own public consultation process, entrusting it to a private company with commercial interests. It also warned about the damage to park land in the construction of the gondola base, at a gravel pit located between Stawamus Chief and Shannon falls.
The Squamish-based group has members from another group called the Friends of the Stawamus Chief, which arose in opposition to a 2004 proposed gondola project which proposed to put a gondola to the top of the Stawamus Chief.
However, the Sea to Sky Gondola Corp. expressly states that they are not replicating the 2004 gondola project.
"It is important to note that this proposed alignment will NOT be to the top of the Stawamus Chief as was previously attempted by a different group of proponents several years ago," the company states on its site.
Spokesperson Jayson Faulkner said that the company is not answering questions about the provincial review process, or the criticisms of it from the FOSC.
"While we would be happy to answer your questions we feel at this time it would be premature to presuppose an outcome without official notice from BC Parks. While we are obviously pleased that BC Parks has commented publicly on the issuance of Parks Use Permit to Sea to Sky Gondola, until such time as we officially receive said permit, we would be commenting on hearsay and it would be irresponsible of us to do so," Faulkner wrote.
The Ministry failed to consult and inform the public, according to FOSC organizer Anders Ourum.
Ourom wrote in an August 28 letter to the BC ombudsperson that the ministry failed to comply with the Provincial Protected Area Boundary Adjustment Policy process and guidelines, and to fully inform the public about Sea to Sky’s park-amendment proposal.
Ourom also said that the Sea to Sky Gondola Corp. drove the consultation process, and the ministry didn’t carry out an “independent, transparent public review” of the application.
FOSC demanded an "amended process" where BC Parks would post all project documentation on its website and publicly report the conclusions of its review. He also said the group wants BC Parks to do the park-adjustment process over for the Chief park and hold its own public meetings in Vancouver, North Vancouver, and Squamish.
“The Ministry ought to know what is required by its own policies, natural justice, and procedural fairness,” Ourom wrote in the letter.
FOSC member Theresa Negreiff said that the group is waiting to hear the report from the ombudsman.
A Ministry spokesperson told The Vancouver Observer that the government does not plan on changing its current course.
"The Ministry of Environment is satisfied that the requirements of the Provincial Protected Area Boundary Adjustment Policy, Process and Guidelines were adhered to in the review of the proposal to adjust the boundaries of Stawamus Chief Provincial Park. As such, the ministry intends to continue with its review of the park use permit application for the proposed gondola development," the spokesperson wrote in an email.
Squamish city councillors say public consultation adequate
Meanwhile, Squamish's mayor and city councillors said that the gondola has overwhelming support from the residents of Squamish after a rigorous public consultation process.
Mayor Rob Kirkham said that the city is in "full support" of the project, and that the economic and recreational benefits to the city are aligned with the city's goals for growing its tourism industry.
"We have been very satisfied with the widespread public consultation that the project proponents engaged in with the community, as well as the extensive process they have had to go through with the various governing bodies.As a result, the project has garnered strong support among Squamish residents. We look forward to when construction can begin," the Mayor told The Vancouver Observer.
Councillor Susan Chapelle agreed, and defended the owners of the Sea to Sky Gondala Corp.
"Both the proponents I dare say are environmentalists, with young families that live in our community. They want to see our constituents be able to earn a living and enjoy our wilds as much as anyone," she told The Vancouver Observer. "The proponents have engaged all of our groups, the BIA, Chamber, parks, recreation and all are unanimous in support. I get the odd email from people who still believe it goes up the Chief."
"The people I hear from in Vancouver would not like Squamish deciding on property use in Vancouver," she said.
But opinions on the project from Squamish residents are mixed.
"I like to get up there, and I think it's a great tourist idea," he said. "It's not just summertime, it's all year round," Froslev said.
Gondola scheduled to open in summer 2013
The gondola's base terminal will be located on the vacant gravel pit site along the Sea to Sky Highway. The top terminal will be located on the ridge leading to Mount Habrich, which is land currently owned by the province.
Base terminal plans include ticketing, parking and maintenance facilities, a small food and beverage outlet, retail space, outdoor equipment and guiding services such as hiking, mountain biking, and snowshoeing.
The proposed Sea to Sky Gondola will have eight-passenger enclosed cabins offering views of the 335 metre high Shannon Falls.
Sea to Sky also proposes an alpine trail, giving climbers and hikers easier access to nearby Mount Habrich, Sky Pilot Mountain, and Goat Ridge.
Finally, a Grouse Grind-like “high intensity” trail is also planned for hikers coming to hike up from the base and then ride the gondola back down.
David Greenfield of the Sea to Sky Gondola Corp. told Stephen Hui at The Georgia Straight that the gondola would "be barely visible from the Chief and downtown Squamish but would deliver spectacular views of Howe Sound, Mount Garibaldi, and Sky Pilot Mountain."
Construction is slated to begin in September, with the gondola scheduled to open for business in summer 2013.