Jumbo Creek Valley
Credit: Dave Quinn

Just when everyone thought it was dead, B.C.'s proposed mega-ski resort is still alive and kicking. But its opponents can't figure out why

This article was featured in our Winter 2008 issue.

July 31, 2007 was a hot day in Invermere, B.C., and Gerry’s Gelati was full of locals trying to cool off. One customer was enjoying his ice cream when he overheard a bit of gossip that made him sit up straight: Glacier Resorts Ltd. had hired earthmoving machines to build a road and ski lift in the Jumbo Glacier area. For the ice-cream buyer, a long-time opponent of the proposal to build a ski resort in the nearby Purcell Mountains, the day suddenly got a lot hotter.

The local grapevine sprang into action, e-mails flew, and within hours, a small group of protestors from southeastern British Columbia had set up camp on a logging road that leads into the Jumbo region. They found that a rough existing road was being extended through the alpine toward the toe of the Farnham Glacier, one of several glaciers in the area.

For the next eight weeks, through August and September, nearly 200 people from across southern British Columbia worked in shifts to block the Farnham Creek road and prevent construction equipment from passing through. The blockade was one of the longest public protests over a land-use conflict in B.C. since Clayoquot Sound in the early 1990s. The protestors broke camp at the end of September, after Glacier Resorts and the B.C. government offered assurances that no further road building would occur in 2008. The earthmovers were gone, but the swath they cut across the alpine terrain remains—along with dozens of unanswered questions.

British Columbia has never seen anything like the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort. Billed as “the Zermatt of North America,” it would be the only resort on the continent to offer year-round glacier skiing and sightseeing, with a chaser of fine dining, Euro-style, in the town at the base of the mountain.

Located in a remote area of the Purcells in southeastern British Columbia—about 55 kilometres west of Invermere and 35 kilometres west of the Panorama Ski Resort—Jumbo would live up to its name, with a peak elevation of 11,000 feet, an all-natural-snow vertical drop of 5,500 feet—the longest in North America—and up to 23 lifts shuttling 2,700 skiers a day between four glaciers. In addition, the development would erect a mini-Whistler with a population of 6,250—including hotels, condominiums, chalets, staff housing, retail stores, restaurants, roads and parking lots. And the project carries a jumbo price tag—a billion dollars at last count, an estimate that has ballooned from around $70-million when it was first proposed.

Jumbo is the brainchild of Oberto Oberti, the Vancouver architect and real estate developer behind Glacier Resorts Ltd., who once said his dream is to make Canada’s mountains accessible to everyone, as in Europe. Over a 20-year construction period, the company says, the project will pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the regional economy, deliver $12-million annually in taxes, protect the environment, and create 800 permanent jobs.

And yet the proposed resort is facing stiff opposition. “We don’t want it, plain and simple,” says Nolan Rad, a 74-year-old trapper from Invermere, who helped man the blockade and says his views are shared by most people in the East Kootenays. The project’s critics point to a list of potential economic, environmental and social pitfalls that they say could turn any Jumbo resort into a giant white elephant. They include a slowing market for recreational real estate; a host of nearby ski resorts that aren’t busy; a chronic shortage of workers for low-paying service-industry jobs; climate change that is causing glaciers to shrink; and recently, new data revealing that the grizzly bears in the area are already struggling, without a resort in their midst.

Even if the project made sense at one time, Rad and other opponents say, it doesn’t make sense today. As far back as 2004, Canadian Business magazine opined that the development didn’t have legs: “The B.C. government has been struggling with an easy question: should it plant a potentially uneconomic project on a melting glacier in an area that doesn’t want it?”

For reasons that are entirely unclear, it seems the government’s answer may be yes.

The Jumbo Glacier Resort has drawn heat since it was first proposed in 1989. For nearly two decades, the proposal has inched, at what can only be called a glacial pace, through a complicated government approval process that has involved a broad range of interested parties, including Indian bands, scientists, rival ski tourism companies and local citizens.

In 1994, B.C.’s major provincial land-use planning exercise—the Commission on Resources and the Environment—was divided about how the Jumbo area should be zoned. But neither of its two choices allowed for any type of permanent settlement in the Jumbo Creek valley. Yet in 2004, after a long and contentious environmental-impact assessment, Glacier Resorts was granted a time-limited, conditional environmental assessment (CEA) certificate. This spelled out a list of conditions the company would have to fulfill, both before it could advance to the next stage in the process, and during construction.

However, on July 13, 2007, Glacier Resorts did advance to the next stage when the Ministry of Tourism quietly approved the company’s master plan—a blueprint for the final step in the approval process. And yet the company had not satisfied a key requirement of its CEA certificate: a negotiated agreement with the Ktunaxa Indians. The Ktunaxa Nation is in the middle of treaty negotiations with the federal and provincial governments that include the Jumbo area. Both the Ktunaxa and Sinixt Nation, which also claims title to the Jumbo land, oppose the resort. (One local native community has endorsed it; the Shuswap Indian Band, which has a small reserve near Invermere, struck an agreement with the company that gives the Indians scholarships, resort jobs and other business opportunities.) Kathryn Teneese, chief treaty negotiator for the Ktunaxa, however, says the Ktunaxa have received “no satisfactory answer from the province” about why it endorsed the company’s master plan in the absence of an agreement with the natives. “This is part of our ongoing difficulty in dealing with the provincial government,” she says. “The province has its rules—and isn’t abiding by its own rules.”

The province may also be changing some of the rules. Back in 2004, when the CEA certificate was granted, the provincial government said ultimate zoning approval for the Jumbo project would be up to the Regional District of  East Kootenay. Jumbo opponents were pleased, because they want the decision to remain in local hands. But according to a confidential tourism ministry document dated November 17, 2006, Glacier Resorts  “requested [that] the province consider looking at an alternative local governance model under the Mountain Resort Association Act.” A few months later, in the spring of 2007, the government passed Bill 11, a law that explicitly gives it the right to create a “mountain resort improvement district” on Crown land without interference from local governments. Glacier Resorts then formally asked the Ministry of Community Services to do just that for Jumbo, and—according to another ministry document dated November 5, 2007—the Ministry of Tourism will work to make it happen.

Meanwhile, Glacier Resorts recently gained significant control over some of the very Crown land it wants. In December 2007, the tourism ministry quietly granted the company a 10-year licence to use 14 square kilometres of land near the Farnham Glacier, one of the glaciers that would be part of the resort’s terrain area. The licence absorbs a previous, smaller licence on the land, and gives Glacier Resorts the right to ski, sightsee and build and maintain an access road. (The previous licence was held by the Calgary Olympic Development Association, which continues to run a summer ski camp on Farnham Glacier.)

Opponents of the resort plan knew nothing of this development. As far as the public was aware last spring, everything seemed quiet on the Jumbo front. Government MLAs hinted to Jumbo opponents that the ski resort was “off the radar” of Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government, which they said is preoccupied with looking “green” ahead of a provincial election this coming May and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Then in June, a cabinet shuffle made Bill Bennett—the MLA from Cranbrook who is one of the resort’s biggest boosters—minister of tourism. Barely a month later, the Jumbo battle exploded into public view when Glacier Resorts started to build its road.

Jumbo opponents say the government broke its own rules when it expanded the size and scope of the previous licence without public notice or without notifying some overlapping or nearby licence-holders (notably RK HeliSki, a helicopter skiing business that uses the Jumbo Valley and opposes the Jumbo project). They also insist that the company should not be permitted to build a road and ski lift on public land without applying to the proper authority for zoning changes and building permits.

The company reportedly said it was building the road to help amateur skiers gain access to Farnham Glacier in the summer. But Dave Quinn, the Purcell Mountains program manager for Wildsight, a conservation group based in Kimberley that is spearheading the anti-Jumbo forces, sees the road building as a desperate move by Glacier Resorts to keep the project alive before its CEA certificate expires in November 2009. The developer must demonstrate substantial progress on the Jumbo resort before that time or face another lengthy environmental assessment that would examine new scientific information—about grizzly bears, in particular—that could put the brakes on the project.

Questions from this magazine about the road and the resort’s current status were met with a deafening silence from both Glacier Resorts and the B.C. government. Grant Costello, an Invermere real estate agent and vice-president of Glacier Resorts, declined to answer an e-mailed list of questions. The Ministry of  Tourism delayed for days, then failed to provide anyone who could answer a single question about the Jumbo project. One bureaucrat who was ready to answer questions was suddenly stopped by the ministry’s public affairs staff. In an apparent departure from normal procedure, the ministry said all answers had to come directly from ministry headquarters in Victoria. David Greer, manager of communications for Tourism Minister Bill Bennett, said only the minister himself could talk about the Jumbo project. Unfortunately, he was busy. In the end, Bennett gave no interview and answered no questions.

The project’s opponents say the government’s actions are typical of a pattern of stonewalling and poor communication that has blighted the 20-year debate over the Jumbo proposal. “There have been so many examples of times we’ve tried to get information, and it just hasn’t come through,” says Dave Quinn. “We just have had no luck getting clear answers from the government.”

The Jumbo proposal clearly has friends in high places. Three unsigned briefing notes to the cabinet minister in charge of the project in 2006 and 2007—former Tourism Minister Stan Hagen—show that someone in his ministry was pushing for its advancement at every step. The confidential notes, which were obtained through Freedom of Information by Wildsight, not only trumpet the benefits of the project, but they grossly downplay the nature and extent of public opposition to the resort; they suggest that the impact on grizzly bears will be managed to everyone’s satisfaction; and they appear to misrepresent the views of the native Indians who are in the middle of treaty negotiations that include the territory. All three tell the minister that studies have shown the project “is economically viable and environmentally responsible.”

What’s most startling—at least from a political point of view—is that the briefing notes consistently minimize the public opposition to the Jumbo proposal. Two of the briefing notes offer a misleading statement about the strength of the opposition. They say the government’s Environmental Assessment Office concluded in 2004 that “opposition was in a minority [and was] even less than they typically receive on other projects.” In fact, the EA process registered 4,800 submissions and as one of the briefing notes says later, contradicting itself: “91 per cent of public comments in the…EA process were in opposition to the project.” In a November 2007 survey of more than 1,000 residents by the Regional District of East Kootenay, 79 per cent were opposed to the Jumbo project going ahead. Four other informal samplings of public opinion in the region over the years recorded opposition of above 90 per cent.

All three briefing notes imply that most of the opposition to the Jumbo project comes from “environmental groups.” In fact, local opposition to the resort appears to be widespread and extensive. “It comes from teachers, dentists, doctors, lawyers, trappers, outfitters,” and generally all walks of life, says Nolan Rad, who represents the East Kootenay Trappers. The Lake Windermere District Rod & Gun Club and RK HeliSki are among the organizations and businesses that have formally opposed the resort over the years, as has the Town of Invermere. “We see this as simply a real estate grab of Crown land, without anything of any value to the local community,” says Bob Campsall, an Invermere councillor and long-time resident of the valley.

The opponents also include a list of prominent Canadians, such as NHL defenceman Scott Niedermayer of the Anaheim Ducks, who grew up in Cranbrook, two-time Olympic gold-medal skier Beckie Scott, and Pat Morrow, the first person to climb the Seven Summits. “I marvel at how oblivious the developer and the provincial government are to the level of resentment and angst they have created in the valley,” says Morrow, who lives near Invermere. Morrow says the Jumbo resort would only add to the “collateral damage” already hitting the small communities of the Columbia Valley, whose roads and social and medical services have been overtaxed by a large influx of part-time owners of resort and recreational properties. “When is enough enough?”

The briefing notes also failed to tell the Minister about the unwavering opposition to the resort from the Ktunaxa Nation. The note from November 2006 says the province was “concluding consultations with First Nations.” All three notes say Glacier Resorts is “working with the Ktunaxa Nation” on an agreement about how to manage the ski town’s impacts and compensate the Indians. The minister could not be faulted for thinking that the Indians had been properly consulted, that they accepted the resort in principle, and that they were negotiating the details of compensation and environmental protection.

But it’s not true, says Kathryn Teneese, chief treaty negotiator for the Ktunaxa. “We’re very concerned.” The Indians have registered their opposition to the Jumbo proposal on socio-economic, ecological and legal grounds from day one, Teneese says, and in 20 years of debate, “nothing we have seen has changed our minds.” Not only were the Ktunaxa not consulted about the master plan, she adds, but they are not close to an agreement of any kind with Glacier Resorts or the government. Teneese adds that the Ktunaxa are especially worried about the impact on wildlife, and grizzly bears in particular. “We know through our oral histories that the area is a home to the grizzlies, and they need a place to be…Where else do they have to go?”

The fate of the Purcell Mountain grizzly bears has always been one of the biggest sore spots in the battle over Jumbo. Glacier Resorts—and the civil servants giving advice to the minister of tourism—say the Jumbo resort’s impact on the bears will be negligible, and any impact can be managed successfully through a variety of techniques including careful garbage management. Glacier Resorts says in its documents that environmental-assessment studies “have shown that the impact on grizzly bear habitat will be near zero.”
But at least four scientific reports in the past decade have sounded the alarm about the bears’ inability to cope with a town and ski resort dropped in their midst. And in 2007, a new study concluded that the central Purcell grizzlies are already in far more trouble than anyone guessed.

The four initial reports—written in 2000, 2003 and 2004, and containing the views of more than a dozen government and independent biologists in total—concluded that the Jumbo valley is outstanding grizzly bear habitat and that it forms part of a key north-south travel corridor, a kind of grizzly bear superhighway, through the Purcell Mountains. Putting a 247-acre town in the middle of the valley would be like putting downtown Banff on top of Ontario’s Highway 401. Scientists agree that the ski resort would block one of southern B.C.’s most important grizzly travel routes, lead to a significant increase in bear deaths, and eventually threaten the viability and imperil the future of the Jumbo-area bears. And they say that the resort could mean trouble for bears elsewhere. That’s because the central Purcell grizzlies are regionally significant—important to the long-term health of other bear populations within travelling distance. Therefore, they recommend that there should be “no net impact” on their population from human activity at all.

On top of this, a 2007 study discovered there are far fewer grizzly bears in the Purcell Mountains than previously estimated. In fact, the population has dipped so low that it almost qualifies for “threatened” status, says Dr. Michael Proctor, an independent bear research scientist from Kaslo, B.C. Through fieldwork (rather than a computer calculation), Proctor found that the Central Purcell Grizzly Population Unit is home to just 54 per cent of the bears that the land is capable of supporting. A bear population is considered threatened when it drops to 50 per cent.

After the B.C. Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection saw Proctor’s data, the hunting quota for the central Purcell grizzlies was lowered to help the population grow back. But the full scientific message doesn’t seem to be making an impact on the Ministry of  Tourism. The minister was assured by his staff in a 2007 note that Proctor’s study would be considered, and that the Jumbo project will include a plan “based on the best science available” to mitigate the resort’s impact on grizzlies, including “drastically reduced motorized activity in the areas the bears are known to frequent.”

But the bottom line, according to the host of bear scientists, is that no mitigation plan may be enough to erase the impact of a town of 6,200 in the midst of the Jumbo grizzlies’ territory.

In the climate of secrecy and confusion that continues to cloud the Jumbo issue, it’s almost impossible to predict what will happen next. Will Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government—which is seeking a third term in office—risk making a decision on the controversy before the election in May? Will it turn the Jumbo Valley into its own separate municipality, owned by a ski-and-real-estate company? Will Glacier Resorts resume its road building in summer 2008?

Those who are against the resort say a couple of things are certain. According to Wildsight’s Quinn, if the resort is built, future generations will lose. “You’re not going to see a grizzly bear, you’re not going to see mountain goats, and you’re not going to see a wolverine—and these are the last things that B.C. has that make us unique.”

Opponents also say that if the Jumbo project gets a green light, there will be an outbreak of civil disobedience. “If the government lets them go ahead,” says Nolan Rad, “it’ll be World War Three in there. I know people who will go in there and lay down on the road, and they won’t move. There will be a lot of problems—and the government doesn’t want that.”

Or does it?

Big mistake?

Opponents of Jumbo Glacier Resort wonder how the resort would survive in the winter, let alone year-round, given the twin spectres of global warming and an aging population that might mean a smaller market of skiers.

Already, glaciers in western North America are receding—one estimate from the Columbia Basin Trust found a 15-per-cent shrinkage between 1986 and 2001. A glance at most glaciers these days reveals a far more shallow summer snowpack than in previous decades.

At the same time, skier numbers appear to be dropping. The Canadian Ski Council has predicted a gradual decline in recreational downhill skiing between 2005 and 2020. Already, few of B.C.’s downhill resorts appear to be operating at anything close to maximum capacity. Within a relatively short drive of the Jumbo Valley are nearly a dozen major ski resorts that offer some of the best powder and biggest vertical drops in North America. They include Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, Fernie Alpine Resort, Kimberley Alpine Resort, Panorama Mountain Village, Revelstoke Mountain Resort, and just across the border in Alberta, Mount Norquay, Sunshine Ski Resort and Lake Louise. Together, they can process close to 100,000 skiers per hour. But most of the time, to the delight of local skiers and riders, these hills are far from full.