B.C. Parks endorses Spearhead huts proposal for Garibaldi Provincial Park

Mountain biking in sensitive alpine area near Whistler opposed by parks branch

B.C. Parks has signalled its support for a proposal to build a series of huts and an alpine trail in Garibaldi Provincial Park linking the Whistler and Blackcomb ski areas.

At the same time, the branch of the B.C. Ministry of Environment is proposing that heli-skiing be allowed to continue in the the park’s Spearhead and Fitzsimmons ranges, while recommending that mountain biking remain prohibited in the area, which lies east of Whistler.

After holding an initial round of consultations earlier this year, B.C. Parks put out this month a draft amendment to Garibaldi Park’s 1990 master plan for public review. Open houses are scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. on November 26 at UBC Robson Square in Vancouver and on December 6 at the Whistler Conference Centre.

“Given widespread indications of support for the hut concept, it is recommended that the management plan be amended to provide clear direction to allow huts, with provisions including a safety plan, careful siting and phasing, and a model which ensures the huts are affordable and accessible for all park visitors,” the B.C. Parks report states.

According to B.C. Parks, the move to update the park’s master plan is driven by “emerging issues” in the Spearhead area, which is popular with backcountry skiers in the winter, and with hikers and mountaineers in the summer. These issues include growing use, mountain biking, and First Nations interests in the area. The park lies in the unceded territories of the Squamish Nation and the Lil’wat Nation.

A group called the Spearhead Hut Committee—whose members represent the Alpine Club of Canada, B.C. Mountaineering Club, Brett Carlson Memorial Foundation, and Kees and Claire Memorial Hut Society—has proposed the construction of three huts along the Spearhead Traverse, a 40-kilometre horseshoe route behind Whistler Blackcomb. The huts would be operated by the Whistler section of the Alpine Club. A May report by the committee pegs the cost of building the huts at $1.64 million.

In its report, B.C. Parks notes 93 percent of 945 respondents using its online comment form expressed support for the huts proposal. Respondents favoured “modest huts” rather than lodges.

B.C. Parks wants to revise the master plan so it stipulates that backcountry huts are “acceptable” in the area under certain conditions. The parks branch says the number of huts should be minimized, staying in the huts must be affordable to the public, the facilities should be aimed at self-sufficient winter and summer users, and the sites can’t intrude upon key mountain-goat habitat.

As for mountain biking in Garibaldi’s Spearhead area, B.C. Parks received online comments that were 50 percent in favour of permitting this activity. Another 35 percent of respondents backed mountain biking under certain conditions, and 15 percent were opposed outright.

B.C. Parks notes that some mountain bikers are already using this area of the park, though such access is prohibited. Parks staff are concerned that opening up the “fragile alpine ecosystems” to mountain bikers would “detract” from the hiking experience. As well, building and maintaining dedicated bike trails would be costly and have effects on wildlife and the environment, according to B.C. Parks.

“There are other areas in the region where mountain biking trails would be more appropriate,” the report says. “The growing demand for alpine mountain biking experiences can be addressed by exploring the development of new alpine bike trails outside of Garibaldi Park.”

Although 68 percent of online respondents opposed permitting heli-skiing to continue in the park—compared to 32 percent in favour of this—B.C. Parks is proposing keeping this activity in the Spearhead area. The parks branch argues that the presence of a privately operated heli-skiing outfit supports Whistler’s economy as well as public safety in the mountains.

For hikers, B.C. Parks would like to build a new vehicle-accessible trailhead for the Singing Pass Trail and establish trails connecting Flute Summit and the Singing Pass Trail, Cheakamus Lake and Singing Pass, and Russet Lake and Adit Lake. The ridge trail from Flute Summit would be developed by Whistler Blackcomb. While it would mostly fall within the resort’s controlled recreation area, the trail would enter the park at some locations.

In addition to holding open houses, B.C. Parks is accepting public feedback via an online comment form, email, snail mail, and fax until January 10, 2013. The management plan amendment is expected to be finalized by April 2013.

Garibaldi Park Draft Management Plan Amendment

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