Friends of the Squamish Chief fights Sea to Sky Gondola
Opponents of a private-sector proposal to build a sightseeing gondola through Stawamus Chief Provincial Park in Squamish have formed an ad hoc group to fight the project.
Friends of the Squamish Chief represents the revival of a similarly named group that came together to defeat a 2004 proposal to run a gondola to the top of the Stawamus Chief’s Second Peak.
Anders Ourom, a member of the FOSC organizing committee, told the Georgia Straight that public pressure is the key to stopping Sea to Sky Gondola Corporation’s proposal to remove land from the Chief park for the latest project.
“We’re simply getting out information and encouraging people to learn about it and say their bit to the politicians,” Ourom said by phone from his Vancouver home office. “Ultimately, there’s a significant political element to it, in terms of who makes the decisions. If they see that, yes, there’s quite a lot of people that actually are concerned about what’s happening and do want to say their bit, the politicians, I would hope, would take that into account.”
Ourom sat on both the study team that recommended the creation of the Chief park and the citizens’ advisory committee that helped draw up the park’s management plan in the 1990s. He’s also a former president of the Climbers’ Access Society of B.C.
According to Ourom, with the exception of himself, all of the FOSC organizing committee’s members are Squamish residents. He claimed a “fair number” of people are concerned about the proposal to change the boundaries of the Chief park and are wanting to know more.
“That suggests that, assuming the proposal should even be considered, the process isn’t quite what’s needed,” Ourom said.
Sea to Sky principal David Greenfield told the Straight that he was disappointed by the formation of FOSC.
“We worked very hard to work with the public,” Greenfield said by phone from Squamish. “For them to form this group at this late stage, it’s just disappointing, because there was ample opportunity through the many forums that we had for anybody to come and engage with us. It feels a little late to address if they have any substantive concerns.”
Greenfield confirmed that Michael Hutchison, chair of the Whistler Housing Authority, is a Sea to Sky director and financial partner. Hutchison is one of the biggest real-estate developers in the Sea to Sky region, he noted.
Greenfield said he and fellow Sea to Sky principal Trevor Dunn intend to remain owners of the gondola after it commences operations. The gondola proponents held early discussions with experienced resort operators Intrawest and Brewster Travel Canada about partnering on the project, but ultimately decided to build their own company. Greenfield and Dunn are both former Intrawest executives.
Sea to Sky applied in December to remove a 2.36-hectare strip of land from the southern reaches of the Chief park. The application is now in the second stage of the B.C. government’s two-stage park-boundary-adjustment process.
The company’s detailed park-adjustment proposal, dated February 15, notes the planned gondola corridor through the park measures 1.18 kilometres long and 20 metres wide. Seven of the 15 gondola towers would be built in the right of way, which would be redesignated from Class A provincial parkland to a protected area.
According to Greenfield, B.C. Parks staff have recommended approval of the park amendment.
“As we understand it, they’ve written their recommendation to their department and it’s in Victoria now, I guess, for a decision,” Greenfield said.
Riders of the Sea to Sky Gondola would pay up to $30 for the trip to Habrich Ridge.
The Sea to Sky Gondola would carry passengers from a base between the Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls to the wooded ridge northwest of Mount Habrich in 7.12 minutes. At a speed of 5.08 metres per second, the eight-person cabins would travel a distance of 2,123 metres and a vertical rise of 848 metres.
Sea to Sky is proposing the addition of four hiking trails and trail linkages in Stawamus Chief Provincial Park. A connector trail would link the gondola base, Shannon Falls, and the Chief viewing area. A Grouse Grind-like “high intensity” trail would connect the Upper Shannon Falls Trail with the top terminal. Sea to Sky also wants to extend the Upper Shannon Falls Trail to deactivated logging roads which link with the upper terminal and Petgill Lake to the south. A fourth trail would connect the Chief’s Third Peak trail with the top terminal through the Olesen Creek valley. The gondola right of way would cross both the Upper Shannon Falls Trail and the trail connecting the Chief and Shannon Falls provincial parks.
“The Sea to Sky Gondola could become a significant amenity for the Province of BC and has the potential to provide universal access to the stunning natural features in the Sea to Sky Corridor,” the company’s Stage 2 park-adjustment application states. “It can also provide some significant benefits to the parks experience and provide some solutions to some of the challenges currently being experienced by the Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls Parks.”
According to the application, the negative impacts from construction and operation of the gondola would be “largely moderate and short term”. Potential negative effects include increased visitation, greater access to unused areas of the park, view impacts, and construction issues, such as tree removal, rock excavation, helicopter noise, and temporary trail closures.
Sea to Sky says it would need to clear a swath of trees to make way for the gondola towers, which would range in height from 5.57 to 23 metres. An estimated 364 to 597 cubic metres of timber would be logged in the swath, which would have an average width of 12 metres. Douglas-fir, western red cedar, and western hemlock are the dominant tree species in the corridor, with the dominant shrubs being salal and red huckleberry. About 30 “veteran trees” with diameters larger than 70 centimetres would be cut down.
Several wildlife species at risk could be affected by the gondola corridor. Sea to Sky’s application notes the presence of the northern red-legged frog, which is designated as a species of special concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, has been confirmed in the area. Two other species of special concern, the coastal tailed frog and the western toad, are probably present. As well, the company says it’s possible the endangered Pacific water shrew and the threatened olive-sided flycatcher, along with the peregrine falcon, western screech-owl, and band-tailed pigeon—three species of special concern—are in the area.
On February 7, District of Squamish council granted final approval to rezoning the gondola’s base property and amending the official community plan to allow development of the lower terminal.
On March 26, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District board of directors gave the second of four required readings to rezoning and official-community-plan-amendment bylaws needed for the gondola’s upper terminal. The SLRD board has scheduled a public hearing for the Britannia Beach Community Centre (60 Copper Drive) on April 19, starting at 7 p.m.
Sea to Sky has applied to the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations for permits, leases, and licences of occupation and to the Ministry of Environment for water licences for the upper terminal area.
According to Sea to Sky’s park-adjustment application, B.C. minister of jobs, tourism and innovation Pat Bell is “very supportive” of the gondola proposal. The company is targeting the spring legislative session for the park-boundary amendment, which must be approved by the environment minister, cabinet, and the legislative assembly.
Sea to Sky has received letters of support from the Squamish Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Squamish Business Improvement Association, Tourism Squamish, and Squamish Trails Society for the gondola project. According to the company’s application, there has not been a “high level of controversy or public concern” about its plan to alter the boundaries of the 526-hectare Chief park, which was established in 1997.
However, Ourom and other FOSC organizers plan to attend the upcoming SLRD public hearing and make their opposition to the proposal known.
“We’re certainly not opposed to a gondola in some other suitable location in the area—as long as it’s not in or close to the parks,” Ourom said.
For his part, Greenfield asserted that there’s “a lot of distortion” coming from some critics of Sea to Sky’s project. The company hopes to start construction in September and open the gondola on July 1, 2013.
“We just encourage people to get the right information before they pass any kind of judgment or decision on us,” Greenfield said. “That’s the key message. We are open to anybody to answer those questions if they have them.”