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Jumbo Valley Wilderness Protected as Land Management Case Comes to a Close

by |June 3, 2020

After nearly 30 years of protests, lawsuits, and debate, the proposed 60-square-kilometer British Columbia Jumbo Glacier Resort project has been laid to rest. In 1991, the plan to create the resort, which would have been the largest and highest-elevation destination ski area in North America, was put forth. Soon after, it was challenged by the Ktunaxa Nation Council, locals, and environmentalists. Earlier this year, the matter was settled in favor of those opposed; an area of 700 square kilometers in the Purcell Mountains has instead been slated for protection through the creation of an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA).

jumbo mountain

Jumbo Mountain. Source: nwpuzzlr/Creative Commons

IPCAs prioritize maintaining a connection between a healthy environment and strong culture.  They aim to safeguard indigenous cultural values, laws, knowledge systems and language while simultaneously conserving nature in the area. The Ktunaxa Nation Council (pronounced ‘k-too-nah-ha’), a First Nations tribal council government made up of six bands of indigenous peoples, will be responsible for conserving the land. The Ktunaxa people have occupied lands in British Columbia for more than 10,000 years. Their territory covers about 70,000 square kilometers in southeastern British Columbia, Canada and historically extended into parts of Montana, Washington, and Idaho in the United States.

In a joint effort to secure protection of the area, public and private sector groups managed to successfully purchase all rights and interests to the land previously held by the resort development company, Glacier Resorts Ltd., to secure the protection of the area. The Canadian federal government invested $16.1 million CAD and an additional $5 million CAD was contributed by Patagonia, the Columbia Basin Trust, Donner Canadian Foundation, the Wyss Foundation, and the Wilburforce Foundation.

The Ktunaxa fought against the resort because it would have infringed upon an area, which they call Qat’muk, that holds a great deal of spiritual significance for them. “Qat’muk is the spiritual home of the grizzly bear and of profound importance to our Nation. Grizzly bear spirit’s home will become part of a larger Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area,” said Kathryn Teneese, Ktunaxa Nation Council Chair, at an event celebrating the protection of the area. The Ktunaxa believe the grizzly bear spirit would have been driven away by the resort.

Environmentalist groups united with the Ktunaxa against the resort because of their shared concern for the grizzly bear: the area is a critical habitat corridor for grizzlies and other wildlife as well. It was estimated that about 600 grizzly bears live in the region. This population is doing quite well and acts as an anchor for more fragmented populations to the south. The bears’ habitat extends along the Rocky Mountains from Central Canada down to Wyoming, but that area has been diced up by highways, towns, and cities. The IPCA thus helps to ensure the well-being of the species on a broader scale.

“What used to be a big, solid population is now broken up by patterns of human settlement and transportation corridors,” research ecologist Michael Proctor told the NRDC. “And when bears try to move across that patchwork of roads, towns, and housing developments, it can lead to untimely death.”

Non-First Nation locals were also against the new development. There are already several existing ski resorts that provide visitors with options for recreation and residents did not want to see the wilderness transformed into yet another. Many locals hike and explore the undeveloped wilderness near their homes and feel strongly connected to the area. These connections fuel their desire to see it protected.

The site was originally selected for development back in 1991 because of Jumbo Valley’s high elevation, heavy snowfall, and long winter season. It would have been able to remain open year-round and was pitched as having the potential to become an Olympic training ground.

resort layout mockup

A mock-up of the resort layout. Via Daily Hive

The resort was planned to hold 5,500 bed-units in a 110-hectare base area, and to accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 daily visitors in peak season. It would have given skiers access to trails on four different alpine glaciers.

It took nine years for the developers to obtain the environmental assessment certificate required before construction could begin. It was granted in 2005, with 195 conditions to lessen the potentially harmful environmental impacts of the project. The Ktunaxa Nation and other members of the local community were already protesting the development at this time. The Ktunaxa had been involved in negotiations aimed at minimizing the environmental and cultural harm caused by the development of the land.

In 2010, the Ktunaxa published the Qat’muk Declaration, pronouncing the spiritual significance of the area and setting forth principles of stewardship for the glacier- and snow-covered land. The document explains the spiritual significance of the area to the Ktunaxa and maps out an area in which the Ktunaxa would not permit development of any kind. The resort fell partially within those bounds. The document signaled that the Ktunaxa no longer wished to engage in negotiations to merely minimize the harms from the resort, but were opposed to its construction in any form.

A master development plan for the resort was approved by the province in 2012. The Ktunaxa responded with a legal challenge in the Provincial Court of British Columbia that the project would infringe upon their religious freedoms and the parties met in court. The case moved up the court-system until it landed in the Supreme Court of Canada in 2017.

There, in the Supreme Court, the majority ruled against the Ktunaxa, deciding the approval did not violate religious freedoms. In doing so they gave the project a green light.

In the meantime, however, another legal issue had arisen: the project’s environmental assessment certificate had expired and was mired in another court case. Such certificates are typically granted for a period of five years, and this project had already been granted a five-year extension. By 2015, only two concrete slabs had been poured on location and the provincial government of British Columbia ruled that such work did not count as meeting the threshold of a substantial beginning to the project by a required deadline in 2014.

Jumbo Valley

Jumbo Valley. Source: Danny Laroche/ Flickr

Developers challenged this decision in court, but the British Columbia Court of Appeal affirmed the provincial government’s assessment and allowed the certificate to lapse. This threw up a substantial roadblock to the progression of the project. Such a certificate is the first step in obtaining a number of provincial permits and approvals for construction.

This left the developers at a dead end and illuminated a new path forward for the Ktunaxa and others opposed to the resort. With few options left to choose from, the developers sold their land rights. Once the development rights had been extinguished, plans for the establishment of an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area began to materialize through talks between the Ktunaxa Nation, the Government of British Columbia, and the Government of Canada.

The protection of this wilderness marks not only an important cultural and environmental victory that will ensure the continued enjoyment of this undeveloped land for future generations, but also the coming together of diverse groups with intertwined values that highlights the deep meaning of mountain landscapes to people the world over.

Going forward, the Ktunaxa plan to work with the provincial government, local communities, and stakeholders to define the boundaries of the area and their stewardship objectives for how to best maintain this vast landscape.

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