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AWARE could fold this month

Environmental organization needs more people to run for its board



The Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment may be at the end of its days.

There are just too few people doing too much work, say current Association (AWARE) officials.

"We were clear that we needed more board members," said AWARE president Claire Ruddy.

"As you go through a board, especially in this town, you'll lose a couple of people leaving town, but within the space of a year, people commit time and then things change and so on.

"I think for us, we know that we can't do that again. We need people who are committed to programs and projects."

The decision to fold the organization if it doesn't get enough members is that of the executive. They're not sure whether B.C.'s Societies Act requires them to have at least five on the board, as they feel the language is unclear, but both Ruddy and Vice-President Sara Jennings feel the organization is unsustainable with so few people.

"People are busy, they've got a lot on their plate and we're not a voting board, we're a working board," said Jennings, formerly an AWARE president herself.

"It's a lot different from some other boards in town, you have to get your hands dirty, you have to take on a lot of tasks, attend a lot of meetings, not for the sake of meetings but to get stuff done, and I think that can be a bit daunting for people."

The folding of the Association is one both Ruddy and Jennings wanted clear ahead of the organization's Annual General Meeting on June 22.

Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed, who served as president of AWARE from 1990 to 1996, said he was "saddened" to hear that the organization might fold but added he knows how difficult it is to keep a volunteer organization going.

"It takes a tremendous amount of time and energy on behalf of the executive," he said. "It really does become a burden without the support. At a certain point in time, the directors can only do so much. I do hope that their appeal for renewed interest is successful because in my view I think AWARE plays a very important role in Whistler."

In an e-mail sent to members on June 1, Ruddy and Jennings warned that the Association would shut down after its AGM if it didn't get enough people to serve on its board of directors.

"The last few years have been a struggle for AWARE as our board of directors has continued to shrink in size even as our membership has climbed and our projects have continued," they wrote.

"In the spring of 2010 we convened a strategic planning meeting to discuss our issues with the broader Whistler community and seek answers.

"However, our board has continued to shrink since then and is unsustainable at its current size and AWARE will have to discontinue its work if things do not change. The AGM (June 22, 6 p.m. at the Whistler Public Library) will be our final attempt to reinvigorate AWARE. The current board has decided that if we do not get at least a board of 10 at this year's AGM, AWARE will shut down."

In a recent statement Ruddy added: "What attracts people to volunteer for groups like AWARE are large campaigns that have tangible outputs so people can see a direct translation of the time they are committing to the successes achieved.

"While we had some great campaigns this year we lack the manpower to work on the campaigns and effectively communicate our work. Without the communication piece it is hard to promote through projects as a means of attracting new board members.

"We have recently done a lot of strategic planning as a board and had a well-attended stakeholder workshop, so we feel like we know how we can improve and a number of different options for AWARE should it continue as a group."

With the loss of AWARE will go a prominent voice for the environment that has thrived in Whistler since the late 1980s.

The association began with an ad in the October 27, 1988 issue of the community newspaper. Back then Whistler resident Michele Bush placed a classified ad asking anyone interested in starting a recycling program to give her a call. Fifteen people showed up at the first meeting at Citta, where participants discussed what to name their organization.

They got creative with acronyms and came down to two options. The first was the Whistler Association to Save the Environment (WASTE) and the other was AWARE. They went with the other because it was more positive.

AWARE's first act was to put together a community recycling program that would see members truck bottles and cans down to the city in the back of a van.

Dave Williamson, a board member for AWARE for three years and now principal of Cascade Environmental Resource Group, remembers it well. AWARE members would bring a van into which people would drop their tin cans and recyclables and haul them down to the city.

"Recycling was huge back then because there was no recycling program," he said in an interview. "It was early days, like I say, the municipality wasn't really interested and AWARE ran it for quite a number of years."

Eventually the municipality took an interest in the recycling program and adopted it for themselves, allowing AWARE members to focus on issues such as protecting old-growth forests and wetlands.

In the early 1990s Whistler's economy was emerging from a lull period over the previous decade. It was a time when the organization was watching golf courses like Nicklaus North being proposed for areas close to wetlands in the valley bottom.

"The original concept plans had development right up to the edge of the River of Golden Dreams," Williamson said. "I would say that AWARE probably played a role in pushing that back and establishing the River of Golden Dreams conservation area."

In 2002, various groups asked to represent environmental interests for the provincial government's Sea to Sky Land and Resource Management Plan, which would determine how Crown land in the region would be used for years to come.

In 2007 AWARE took a hard stance against a plan by Olympic organizers to build 25 kilometres of recreational trails near the Whistler Olympic Park, which would be close to a grizzly bear intersection between valleys. The trails were later approved.

More recently, AWARE has supported a campaign to reduce the distribution of plastic bags by Whistler businesses. The initiative, which has the support of at least one member of municipal staff, last saw the municipality hold an open house on March 26 in which 25 individuals and business owners provided input on whether they should be banned.

This isn't the first time that AWARE has come close to folding. In 1999 the organization was taking on a heavy volume of issues, leading to member burnout. Four residents, including now-Councillor Eckhard Zeidler, Brad Kasselman, Inge Flanagan and Mitch Rhodes showed up at the AGM and joined the board. The new board developed a strategy for the organization and helped promote the "Natural Step" framework that has guided much of the municipality's planning around sustainability.

In 2009 the organization celebrated its 20th anniversary with a talk by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the Whistler Conference Centre.

Anyone interested in running for the board can contact AWARE at or call Sara Jennings at (604) 932-2664.



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