A letter of appeal, submitted to Mainstreet
Hanging over the Kootenays.
By Local Author and Historian, Luanne Armstrong
Unlike many people, I have always lived in the same place, a farm on the east shore of Kootenay Lake in south eastern BC. I have travelled and worked and studied in many other places, but I have always come home to the farm, to the piece of land my grandfather bought in 1938, when times were very different than they are now.
The farm fed my parents and their children, as well as my own children as they grew. But farmland here is no longer valued for growing food. Instead, I now live in a recreational area, where the roads are long and empty in winter, but in summer, the road buzzes with motocyles, and trucks pulling boats or RV’s.
For many years, it has been a quietly idyllic place to live and, yes, the lake is tracked with boats all summer but winters are peaceful and most of my summer neighbours are gone.
Now the idyllic quiet is threatened; Retallack, a heli-ski operation based in Nelson and New Denver, has proposed an enormous heli-skiing, heli-biking operation for this east shore of Kootenay Lake, in the southern Purcell Mountain range. It’s hard to fathom the scope of what these developers are asking from provincial government and impossible to truly guess the impact it will have on our community, which is small, scattered and aging.
Many small rural communities in BC are in a similar state. Once the east shore was a vibrant place, full of young families, people homesteading, or people employed as miners, loggers, backhoe operators, carpenters. But people grew older, their children grew up, and one by one, some businesses failed; pubs, restaurants and grocery stores struggle to survive on tourism for a couple of months a year. Most new people moving to the community were retiring out of Calgary or other places, and looking for place to spend their senior years in peace. More and more summer homes were built along the shoreline. But summer people rarely come for more than a few weeks. In the winter, most driveways along the east shore are empty. The year-round people gather for potlucks, Scrabble games, afternoon tea, or acitvites like carpet bowling, wine making and yoga at the local community halls.
Now a huge threat looms over this somewhat idyllic place. Retallack is asking for tenure over a large portion of the south Purcell range, approximately 70,000 hectares. They say they are planning on building mutltiple heli-pads in several small communities, mulitple ski chalets in alpine areas, plus a ski lodge and spa on Ktunaxa land on Kootenay Lake.
Here it gets complicated. Supposedly, this is a fifty percent split with the Yaqan Nukiy band, part of the Ktunaxa Nation, in Creston BC, but the word from some members of the Yaqan Nukiy is that many people on the reserve are opposed to this development and the band council has yet to vote on it. It is unknown how much legal weight an agreement with the band chief might have if the band itself is opposed to this development.
The Ktunaxa completely opposed development of the Jumbo Pass ski resort because of its possible impact on grizzly bears, one of their sacred animals. Members of the Ktunaxa have said it is their job to protect the land. Most of the people in the Kootenays agreed with stopping Jumbo and wrote letters and demonstrated side by side with the Ktunaxa. So it is extremely unclear why the Lower Kootenay Band would want to partner with Retallack in a venture that will clearly have a huge impact on wildlife.
According to Wildsight and other biologists, Retallack’s year round proposal will have a profoundly negative impact on the ecology of the South Purcells. Animals such as mountain goat, grizzly, wolverines and cougars, have found somewhat of a refuge in this area which has one road, the Gray Creek Pass, running all the way through it. Logging roads have crept up all the valleys but the high alpine is somewhat intact. Retallack wants to build 161 kilometres of mountain bike trails through the alpine tundra and mountain valleys. It is fairly obvious that wildlife will be impacted, both from the noise and intrusion of trail building and then from mountain bikers speeding down the mountains.
Helicopters also have huge impact, both on animals and on humans. The noise echoes through the mountains. All of us on the east shore have lived through times when helicopters were necessary to fight fires and all of us know that there is no way to mitigate this noise. A constant day in and day out assault of noise from helicopters will affect nesting birds, almost all wildlife, and certainly, it will also affect senior humans trying to carry on their lives under a barrage of noise that will make them feel more as if they were suddenly living in a war zone, rather than the quiet peaceful community they once had. Helicopters also burn massive amount of fuel at a time when scientists are issuing increasingly desperate warnings about the effects of climate change.
This fuel will be cached at the various proposed heli-pads on both the east shore as well as on the west side of Kootenay Lake. One spill of fuel into Lemon Creek in the Slocan Valley was devastating to that community and is still being fought out in court.
There might be something in it for the community. There might a few jobs, some service worker jobs. Some ski guides. Where they would live, I have no idea. There is next to no rental housing on the east shore and land and house prices are extremely high.
Retallack tends to sell “in house” packages, according to its own website, so there is little spillover effect on the local community. Many skiers, bikers and other people seeking some kind of thrill will come in by shuttle bus, so they might not even have transportation when they are here. The east shore has one long thin road, prone to slides and washouts, that is choked with traffic in the summer and often badly serviced in the winter. So more traffic is not good news.
So why is this happening? It is the continuization of what writer, George Monbiot calls, “the capitalization of nature.” In effect, the east shore is going to be a sort of sacrifice zone; we who live here and cherish our homes and lifetyles are being asked to forsake that peace and endure an onslaught of noise and intrusion so a few very wealthy people can recreate in the back country of our home. We are being asked to give up the ecology of this place, which we all cherish, so a few people can have “fun.” And so one company and its owners can make a lot of money.
As Monbiot has written in the Guardian newspaper: “The notion that nature exists to serve us; that its value consists of the instrumental benefits we can extract; that this value can be measured in cash terms; and that what can’t be measured does not matter, has proved lethal to the rest of life on Earth.”
Everywhere on the planet, animal and fish populations are declining. We live in an age where scientists are becoming increasingly pessimistic in their announcements about “climate change” and its impact. Here are just a few statistics: land-dwelling wildlife species have declined by 40% since 1970. Marine animal populations have fallen by 40% overall. Bird populations have been reduced by about 20-25%.Freshwater animal populations have plummeted by 75% since 1970. Insect populations have also declined dramatically.
According the environmental group, Wildsight, government does not take the impact on animals and ecology into its decisions about such proposals as the one Retallack has made. This lack of care has led to the slow extincition of the caribou in both the Purcells and the Selkirk mountain ranges. Shooting wolves from helicopters has obviously done nothing to slow this decline.
The only answer is for people to come back to the government and defend the values of where they live, defend wildlife, defend their lifestyle, defend their peace and quiet, defend all the inhabitants of their communities.
The community of the east shore has until June 13th to answer back to the government. Many people I have talked to remain confused and unsure of what this proposal entails and what the impact might actually be. Giving them time to understand would be a good idea. Putting a moritorium on such development until proper studies can be done on the impact of these and the many other heli-skiing proposals in the whole Kootenays, would be useful to both the communities and the people whose job it is to actually assess the risks to wildlife and communities of such projects.
No one on the east shore is against good tourism development and we are always happy to welcome new friends and neighbours. There is a strong sense of community in this place; people are very connected to each other and to the place where they lived.
To be forced to give all this up for the sake of a few rich back country skiiers and bikers is a travesty of the worst kind. It’s even more ironic that both skiing and biking were originally invented as transportation methods for pioneers and working people. Now they are just play.
Nobody has anything against play either but when play and money become more important than community and ecology, we are all in deep trouble.