Kevin McLane has been scaling the Stawamus Chief for decades. By his own estimation, he’s done hundreds of rock climbs on the 702-metre-high granite monolith’s world-famous cliffs.
In the midst of working on a new edition of The Climbers Guide to Squamish, McLane recalled a failed 2004 proposal to build a sightseeing gondola to the top of the landmark’s second peak. The cofounder of the Squamish Access Society told the Georgia Straight that the outcry from local residents, as well as climbers and hikers from across British Columbia, was deafening.
“One thing that really, really dug deep into a lot of people was the idea of steel being bolted—wires and steel being pounded and bolted—all the way up to the top of the Chief when you can actually walk up not that difficult,” McLane said by phone from his downtown Squamish home, which looks out at the Chief.
Now, a new gondola project has Squamish residents and outdoor-recreation enthusiasts talking. Sea to Sky Gondola Corp. is proposing to build a gondola rising 820 metres from a base between the Chief and Shannon Falls to the wooded ridge northwest of Mount Habrich.
But although it’s clear to everyone the gondola would slice through the southern reaches of Stawamus Chief Provincial Park—though not up the Chief itself—many onlookers are unaware the proponent applied in December to permanently remove land from the park to build it.
Sea to Sky envisions 100,000 to 400,000 tourists, locals, and outdoors enthusiasts a year paying up to $30 to take a seven-minute ride to the gondola’s upper terminal. The Squamish-based company, whose principals are former Intrawest executives David Greenfield and Trevor Dunn, says its facilities would be barely visible from the Chief and downtown Squamish but would deliver spectacular views of Howe Sound, Mount Garibaldi, and Sky Pilot Mountain.
Located on a former gravel pit along Highway 99, the gondola base would feature free public parking and washrooms, along with a ticket office, coffee shop, and gift shop, and trail connections to Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls provincial parks. At the top, a previously logged area, visitors would find a day lodge and interpretive centre—with a restaurant, theatre, gift shop, and guest services—and trails offering viewpoints, as well as access to hiking, snowshoeing, ski touring, mountaineering, rock- and ice-climbing, and mountain biking in the backcountry.
Greenfield told the Straight the gondola is targeted at the almost 500,000 people who visit the Chief and Shannon Falls parks every year. According to him, the first phase of the project would cost $15 million to $20 million. Sea to Sky hopes to start construction in September and open the gondola on July 1, 2013.
“Today, Squamish is missing what we call a key piece of tourism infrastructure,” Greenfield said by phone from his home office in Whistler. “It’s got some great natural amenities that cater nicely to the more high-intensity sports—rock-climbing, kite-boarding, mountain biking, things of that nature—but they don’t have something which provides a little easier access and mechanism for people who don’t necessarily have the skills or the abilities to be able to get up into the alpine.
“So if we can offer something for the more broad-based tourists, then we can hold them in Squamish for a couple hours,” he added. “They’re now more inclined to be looking for places to eat and stay and shop within Squamish itself. So there’s going to be a lot of indirect benefits that are likely going to flow into the community as a result of something like this.”
The Sea to Sky Gondola would rise 820 metres from a base between the Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls in Squamish.
On February 7, District of Squamish council unanimously gave final approval to rezoning the 2.5-hectare base property and amending the official community plan to allow development of the lower terminal.
District of Squamish councillor Patricia Heintzman told the Straight that Sea to Sky will have to obtain building and development permits before starting construction. Heintzman, who’s also the vice chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, admitted she didn’t know about the company’s application to change the boundaries of Stawamus Chief Provincial Park but said she didn’t think it was problematic.
“I think it’s been very loud and clear in our community that there’s the odd voice of concern out there but generally overwhelming support for the project,” Heintzman said by phone from her home in Paradise Valley. “So I think the town’s looking forward to it.”
Although the base sits in the District of Squamish, the 860-metre-high, 68-hectare upper-terminal site lies on Crown land in the SLRD’s Electoral Area D. On February 27, the SLRD board of directors gave first reading to bylaws to rezone the land and alter the official community plan. Sea to Sky also requires approvals from B.C. Parks and the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations to go ahead with the gondola.
Electoral Area D director Moe Freitag is the former president of the Squamish Chamber of Commerce, which, along with the Downtown Squamish Business Improvement Association and Tourism Squamish, formally supports the project.
“It’s in the public process now and we look forward to hearing back from the proponent and trying to make sure that we keep an open mind,” Freitag told the Straight by phone from Whistler. “We look forward to working with our neighbouring municipality, Squamish, and doing the right thing—whatever that may be.”
In the wake of the defeated 2004 gondola proposal by Whistler-based developers Peter Alder and Paul Mathews, the Land Conservancy of B.C. wanted to ensure that future developments didn’t target the Stawamus Chief. So the Victoria-based nonprofit bought the project’s planned base, the gravel pit between Highway 99 and Stawamus Chief Provincial Park, for $900,000.
On February 8, TLC sold the land to Sea to Sky Gondola Corp. for $2 million. A covenant prohibits the new owner from using the property for a gondola that goes up the Chief or terminates in Stawamus Chief or Shannon Falls provincial park.
Reached by phone, TLC executive director Bill Turner said he had hoped the land would be added to the Chief park but B.C. Parks didn’t have the money to acquire it. He sounded taken aback when the Straight informed him of Sea to Sky’s park-removal application.
“Well, I wouldn’t want them to be doing that,” Turner said from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal. “But that would be an issue for B.C. Parks to deal with. We can’t control that with our covenant. I guess if B.C. Parks agreed, I guess that’s up to B.C. Parks. I wasn’t aware that they were going to try and remove a corridor there at all.”
Brandin Schultz, South Coast regional manager for B.C. Parks, told the Straight that Sea to Sky has applied for both a park-boundary adjustment and a park-use permit. The boundary amendment pertains to a one-kilometre-long, 20-metre-wide corridor. This would remove two hectares of the Chief park’s 526 hectares so seven of the gondola’s 12 towers could be installed by helicopter on what is now Class A parkland.
“Based on the classification of the park, it would be difficult to justify the construction of the towers,” Schultz said by phone from his North Vancouver office. “So we’re just reclassifying a 20-metre corridor to a protected area that does allow for things like that, like power lines or gondola structures, in this case.”
Greenfield noted that the company aims to “minimize the disturbance” to the park by cutting down as few trees as possible in the gondola right of way.
“In working with [B.C.] Parks, we’re being very careful to try and locate those towers in places where we’re going to minimize any environmental impacts,” Greenfield said. “It’s quite rocky, the terrain, as you move up the slope. All of the current tower locations that we’ve selected sit on rock outcrops.”
According to Schultz, B.C. Parks hasn’t identified any concerns regarding the park-adjustment proposal. He said B.C. Parks doesn’t plan to hold public meetings about the application because Sea to Sky has already consulted with many stakeholders on the project.
However, at time of writing, the websites of Sea to Sky and the Chief park say nothing about the proposed removal of parkland.
Sea to Sky Gondola Corp. has applied to remove two hectares of land from Stawamus Chief Provincial Park. Stephen Hui photo.
Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Wilderness Committee, sees parallels between the Chief application and a proposal to remove land from Pinecone Burke Provincial Park for a power line, which was rejected in 2008 by the B.C. government after a massive public outcry.
“It would split the park in half,” Barlee told the Straight by phone from the environmental group’s Gastown office. “We don’t like the precedent it sets. Parks were created for a purpose, and that was to protect them from development. So, we would not be in support of having several towers built within park boundaries at all.”
B.C. minister of environment Terry Lake was unavailable for an interview, according to his staff. Removing land from the Chief park requires the approval of the minister, cabinet, and the legislative assembly.
The Squamish Nation has a spiritual connection to the Chief, whose traditional name is Siyám Smánit. Chief Ian Campbell told the Straight the First Nation is working toward inking an impact-and-benefit agreement with Sea to Sky for the gondola project, which lies in the heart of its territory. He noted the project would showcase his people’s culture and he welcomes its estimated 30 to 60 jobs.
“Many of our members commute to Whistler and other areas, which is hard on their time and away from their families,” Campbell said by phone from his North Vancouver office. “So having something right there seemed to be appealing to many of our younger members that would like to be out on the land and working in those types of areas.”
If the Sea to Sky Gondola is built, riders in its eight-passenger enclosed cabins will see 335-metre-high Shannon Falls as they are whisked up to the top terminal. From the day lodge, they’ll take in the views on a one-kilometre-long, wheelchair-accessible loop trail.
Sea to Sky is also proposing an alpine trail, which would give climbers and hikers easier access to Mount Habrich, Sky Pilot Mountain, and Goat Ridge. A “high intensity” trail would allow hikers to ascend from the base to the top and then ride the gondola back down, like the Grouse Grind.
According to Greenfield, the gondola would operate during daylight hours all year, though perhaps only on weekends during the low season. He said Sea to Sky is considering offering discount-rate programs similar to Whistler Blackcomb’s Spirit Pass and Edge Card for Squamish residents and frequent riders.
Author and climber McLane believes the gondola will give backcountry users a big reason to come to Squamish.
“I really do believe that this could be an amazing catalyst for alpine hiking,” said McLane, who “very strongly” supports the project.
It would cost up to $30 and take seven minutes to ride the Sea to Sky Gondola up to Habrich Ridge.
But Scott Webster, president of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C.—the umbrella group for hikers, climbers, mountaineers, backcountry skiers, and snowshoers—told the Straight his organization would be, at best, neutral on the project. Although the speedy alpine access and “Squamish Grind” are attractive possibilities, the PhD candidate in physics at the University of British Columbia worries about the impact of increased use on the lower portions of the Chief Peaks and Upper Shannon Falls trails, which would feed into the “high intensity” trail.
“A lot of commercial operations have a certain plan to start with, and over time they change their plan,” Webster said in a coffee shop near his Vancouver home. “So I would be concerned about them wanting to expand their operation in the future, say into some of the parks. That would be entirely unacceptable, in my opinion. But once a project is built, it seems like there’s a lot less for them to go through in order to actually do something like that.”
Like McLane, Anders Ourom sat on both the study team that recommended the creation of Stawamus Chief Provincial Park and the citizens’ advisory committee that helped draw up the park’s management plan in the 1990s. The former president of the Climbers’ Access Society of B.C. helped lead the opposition to the 2004 gondola proposal.
Ourom told the Straight that it’s “quite possible” the new gondola plan could compromise park values. Although he’s not “completely opposed” to the proposal, he said he doubts he’ll use the gondola if it’s built.
“It’s the sort of thing where it might make sense, but it deserves a really, really hard look,” Ourom said by phone from his Vancouver home office. “I think it’s up to the proponent to show that, yes, balancing all the factors, it’s a benefit to the park and the public.”