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A gondola for The Chief

The Chief in Squamish in a photo from Wikipedia

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.

Who knew?

The Ministry failed to consult and inform the public, according to FOSC organizer Anders Ourum.

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