Power play in Pinecone Burke Provincial Park

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      With a lineup of a dozen people behind her, Elaine Golds stood at the microphone, clearly seething with anger and disbelief. When the Burke Mountain Naturalists’ vice president spoke, her outrage that the province would even consider a proposal to build a power line across Pinecone Burke Provincial Park resounded throughout the room.

      “We campaigned to get that park protected in 1995, and when we got it protected, we thought it was forever,” she told a public meeting on the proposal in Pitt Meadows. “The public trust has been broken.”

      Golds was one of more than 400 people—many wearing Protect Our Park and Protect Wild Salmon stickers—who overflowed a hotel banquet room on February 28. With the venue dangerously full, the fire marshal shut down the raucous open house an hour early.

      The power line is part of a massive proposed hydroelectric-power project east of the park in the upper Pitt River valley—45 kilometres north of Pitt Meadows—that has environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, and politicians fuming. The project’s critics assert that if the province removes land from Pinecone Burke, dividing it in two—necessary for the 230-kilovolt transmission line to proceed—no park in British Columbia will be safe from development. And with two comment periods slated to close next month, they say a public outcry is the only way to save this slice of wilderness so close to Vancouver.

      “If they allow one business, one private corporation to do this, they won’t have a leg to stand on to say no to any others,” Golds told the Georgia Straight a week earlier, seated on a couch in her Port Moody home. “It creates a very poor precedent. So it’s not just this park. This place is every park in B.C. under threat.”

      Pinecone Burke covers 38,000 hectares from Coquitlam to Garibaldi Provincial Park, including the closest wilderness areas to Vancouver, the Boise and DeBeck valleys. Popular hiking routes and canoeing spots lie at the park’s south end, while its remote northern reaches are seldom visited.

      Building a power line is prohibited in a class-A park—the highest level of protection available to provincial parks—so Northwest Cascade Power Ltd., a subsidiary of Run of River Power Inc., has applied to remove 70 hectares from northern Pinecone Burke. B.C.’s park-boundary-adjustment policy—approved by the Liberal government in 2004—provides a mechanism for the province to consider such proposals in cases where there are “compelling provincial economic, environmental and social benefits that exceed preserving the integrity of the existing park boundary and values”.

      Forty-nine hectares of the removed land would be returned to the park after construction of a 4.56-kilometre section of the power line is complete, leaving a 21-hectare, 46-metre-wide transmission corridor. To make up for some of the impact, Northwest Cascade proposes 492 hectares of Crown land to the east be added to the park.

      The transmission corridor running across Pinecone Burke would cut through the pass between Pinecone and Cotard peaks, old-growth forest, and a large wetland. According to the company’s park-adjustment application, a grizzly-bear population considered threatened likely uses the area, along with coastal tailed frogs and wolverines, which are designated species of special concern in Canada. Endangered northern spotted owls and threatened marbled murrelets may fly through the pass.

      “Given the type of development that’s proposed, generally what we found is most of the potential impacts are not of high significance—that those uses that wildlife have for migration, for foraging, and so on through there should be maintained,” biologist Iain Cuthbert, president of Barkley Project Group, which is studying the project’s environmental impact for Northwest Cascade, said after the Pitt Meadows meeting.

      But Joe Foy, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee, maintained that the transmission corridor would help all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles enter the park, and that their presence could come at the expense of wildlife. Michael Feller, editor of the B.C. Mountaineering Club’s newsletter, said the power line would also detract from the backcountry experience.

      Foy and Feller sat on the Pinecone Lake–Burke Mountain Study Team, which recommended the park’s creation in the 1990s. They agree the proposed park addition wouldn’t make up for the land that would be taken away.

      “You can’t sort of bisect a park and separate two bits of it and then add on a little chunk to one of those bits and think that you’ve sort of made an equivalent type of swap,” Feller, an associate professor of forest sciences at the University of B.C., said by phone. “That’s not the case. The area is effectively at the moment protected—the area that they’re wanting to add to the park. There’s no logging going to happen up there. It’s way, way in. No one’s doing anything there. So, adding it to the park doesn’t change anything.”

      Every week and a half or so, Chris Laustrup and his family make the one-hour trip across Pitt Lake in their aluminum boat, pile into their pickup truck, and drive into town to get food and other supplies. He, his wife, and their two-and-a-half-year-old son reside in a cabin six kilometres up a logging road from the head of the lake, where they’ve been building a nature-based retreat for the past five years. At night, they can hear wolves howl, and by day they can find bear dens and beaver lodges on the 50 hectares of mountainside, valley bottom, and riverfront they call home.

      Speaking with conviction from his mother’s home in Coquitlam, Laustrup said the Upper Pitt River Water Power Project has “no business” breaching the wilderness of Pinecone Burke. The park joins with Garibaldi and Golden Ears provincial parks to encircle the upper Pitt—rendering the valley accessible only by boat, air, or an epic backpacking or ski-touring trip.

      “I think that the fortress that these parks create keeps the integrity of the valley ecosystem by allowing animals to move through those areas,” Laustrup said.

      If Northwest Cascade has its way, seven run-of-river power facilities will be built in the valley on eight tributaries of the Pitt River. Such developments use the natural elevation drop of a stream to generate electricity, so—rather than erecting high dams and filling vast reservoirs—the company would send water into penstocks totalling 30.8 kilometres in length. Northwest Cascade has applied for licences to divert water at a total rate of 30 cubic metres per second, as well as for tenure to build intakes, penstocks, powerhouses, power lines, and roads on Crown lands. The Pinecone Burke crossing would be part of a 42.3-kilometre transmission line connecting the project to the power grid at Squamish.

      Stephen Hui photo.

      Gwen Barlee and Joe Foy of the Wilderness Committee argue that the proposed Pinecone Burke power line would pose a threat to wildlife.

      The project would cost $350 million to $400 million to build between 2009 and 2016, have a combined capacity of 180 megawatts, and generate 557 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually—enough to supply more than 55,700 homes. Delta-based Run of River Power already owns a 7.6-megawatt project operating on Brandywine Creek, near Whistler (and from which, according to the company’s Web site, it expects to gross $50 million in revenue over the term of its 20-year energy-purchase agreement with B.C. Hydro), and it also plans to harness the energy of three streams in the Mamquam River watershed, west of Pinecone Burke.

      “We’re responding to the B.C. government’s energy plan, where the province seeks to become energy self-sufficient by 2016 from green, renewable sources,” Jako Krushnisky, president and CEO of Run of River, said by phone. “That’s what we’re doing.”

      Although Krushnisky says he’s in the business of green energy, environmentalists argue that run-of-river projects have numerous impacts on aquatic and terrestrial habitats, and therefore can be anything but ecologically sound. Critics also say the multitude of these projects under development is part of a modern-day “gold rush” for private power producers—spurred on by the province’s energy policies—that will only result in higher electricity costs and ultimately less energy security for British Columbians.

      “These projects, because of their nature, aren’t green,” Shane Simpson, the provincial New Democrats’ environment critic, said by phone. “It’s a massive project, the construction of these. The impact on habitat is quite massive. The power itself is not firm power. It comes mostly at the time of year—in spring runoff—at a time that we don’t require the power. What this really is about is the privatization of B.C. Hydro.”

      From 2001 to 2007, the province received 396 applications for waterpower licences and issued 80. Thirty-five run-of-river projects are operating in B.C., and the owners of another 45 have signed electricity-purchase agreements with BC Hydro. With so many projects in the works, environmentalists worry that it’s just a matter of time before another company applies to alter a park. Already, there are proposals for five run-of-river developments on lands that are part of four planned conservancies.

      In October, Coquitlam city council unanimously passed a motion opposing such developments in class-A provincial parks. Maple Ridge district council followed in December with a resolution objecting to power lines crossing Pinecone Burke.

      Both the park and the upper Pitt lie at the heart of Katzie First Nation traditional territory. The band, which comanages Pinecone Burke, is negotiating a formal agreement with Northwest Cascade to address the project’s impact on its territory.

      “What we are doing to this point is not affirming or denying this project,” Katzie chief treaty negotiator Debbie Miller said by phone. “We are interested in really understanding the whole breadth and scope of what it would take to see this be successful or to see this be unsuccessful.”

      The Squamish Nation told Northwest Cascade in October it’s against the power line running through its territory. In a February 26 letter, the Kwikwetlem First Nation expressed concern about the impact on upper Pitt salmon runs, the environment, and heritage sites, and demanded full consultation.

      “Sorry for the small, cramped quarters, everyone. We really didn’t expect this many people,” Krushnisky said at the start of his presentation in Pitt Meadows, before being drowned out by a reproving roar from the crowd.

      The purpose of the open house—arranged by Northwest Cascade and held in a room approved for 140 people—was to allow the public to comment on both the park-adjustment proposal and the draft framework for the project’s overall environmental-assessment application. For the development’s opponents, the meeting provided the latest evidence of just how much both processes favour project proponents over the public. They had called for open houses in Vancouver and Coquitlam, where hundreds came out to meetings in the lead-up to Pinecone Burke’s creation, but they got meetings in Squamish, Pitt Meadows, and Mission instead.

      When the Pitt Meadows open house was shut down, Krushnisky conceded to demands for a fourth meeting in a larger room. Responding to a request from Golds, Brett Hudson, a senior parks and protected areas planner with the Ministry of Environment, told the Straight after the meeting that B.C. Parks will post comments it receives on the park amendment on-line, as the Environmental Assessment Office does.

      At the open house, former B.C. NDP environment minister John Cashore slammed the current minister, Barry Penner, for his absence. In a message left on the Straight’s office voice mail during the meeting, Penner said he could not attend because the legislature was in session and noted that previous governments had amended park boundaries. A subsequent request for an interview wasn’t granted.

      After the comment period closes on April 2, the environment minister will decide whether or not the park adjustment should go ahead. If he recommends it proceed, cabinet and then the legislature will have to okay the change—as soon as this spring—for it to happen.

      The deadline for comments on the draft terms of reference for the project’s environmental assessment is April 8. Golds isn’t optimistic about the outcome of that process.

      “We know what the reality is,” Golds said in her home. “The reality is none of these applications have ever been turned down. So the whole process is a bit of a hoax.”

      Still, opponents of the run-of-river project are vowing to fight it every step of the way. If the project and its power line move forward, environmentalists warn, the upper Pitt and Pinecone Burke could become the next Clayoquot Sound.

      “I think it’s very clear that every generation is going to have to defend its provincial parks,” Foy said in the Wilderness Committee’s Gastown office. “And perhaps what we can hope to do here is pass on a story for people who live 20 years from now, a hundred years from now, that we made this park for them and we defended it for them, and after we’re all gone it’s up to them.

      “But while we’re here, there is no way a power line should be pushed in this provincial park.”