Expanding Awareness Whistler’s environmental group looks to the year ahead By Stephen Vogler "As a professional naturalist, my objective when I take people out on bird tours or natural history tours is to make wildlife and living things real to them. Because when we do that, we bring that reality to people’s consciousness and it becomes a part of their philosophy — all their actions, the directions they take, will be based on that philosophy. And by doing that, we can promote a philosophical shift that will be necessary for us to positively affect the environment." As outgoing president of AWARE, Max Gotz began his speech with these words to the approximately 75 members assembled at the organization's annual general meeting last month. He cited the incredible amount of time and energy required to run such an organization as his reason for currently stepping down, but maintained his commitment to Whistler's environment by continuing on as director and vice president, and by stating his willingness to take on the presidency again in the future. Before handing over the reigns to new president, Stephane Perron, Gotz outlined what he feels Whistler's greatest environmental challenge is in the year ahead: "We can't save animals, we can't manage animals. We have to save spaces. And if Whistler's going to make any claim to being environmentally sensitive, we will have to do that in the next two to three years or risk having nothing left to save." In between his opening and closing comments, Gotz described some of the changes he's seen in Whistler's environment over the last 10 years, and levelled some serious criticism at the policies and practices of our municipal hall. "As we know from the town hall meeting, one of the most important aspects of the residents of Whistler is access to nature, to the environment, and living in an area that is relatively natural. Yet, for the 10 years I've been in Whistler I've seen almost no movement forward towards preserving land, towards making this a reality. It just hasn't happened. I think one of the main reasons is the municipal staff, and the municipal directors in particular, haven't a single person on the municipal payroll with an environmental background." Gotz went on to say that the municipality's air and water monitoring is extremely poor, citing a meagre 5"x8" sheet describing water quality findings at the town hall meeting, and calling their attitude toward clean drinking water, cavalier. "One of the things that's bothered me most of all," Gotz said, "is the huge gap between the publicity and marketing of Whistler as an environmentally sensitive resort, and the reality which is dismal. The environmental reality in Whistler is embarrassing." Gotz finds it hard to understand how one of the richest towns in one of the richest countries in the world can not have, in his words, set aside a single inch of land for environmental protection. Brian Barnett, professional engineer and Manager of Environmental Services with the RMOW, acknowledged that there is some truth in Gotz's accusations, but in a prepared letter he pointed to some of the positive initiatives taken by the resort. These include fisheries monitoring and stewardship programs in conjunction with the Angling Club and Rotary Club; an air quality sampling program begun in 1994; a new, more extensive environmental mapping program; recycling initiatives; initial steps toward preserving wetlands; and other environmental projects. The section of Barnett’s letter on Wetlands Protection discusses plans to build a network of trails and boardwalks with viewpoints and platforms allowing visual access only into the heart of the wetlands. It also says that the municipality "retained a consultant firm to complete an extensive study of these areas and recommend a number of constraints to protect and preserve the environmentally sensitive wetlands." While the letter states that "the RMOW has taken steps to preserve" some wetland areas, there is no mention of acquiring and protecting currently unprotected areas between Alta and Green Lake in order to preserve the ecosystem as a whole. This brings up one of the key shortcomings the environmental community finds with the RMOW's environmental efforts. When development proposals are brought before council, each parcel of environmentally sensitive land is looked at in isolation rather than as an integral part of an entire ecosystem. In what is remaining of the wetland complex between Alta and Green Lake, much of the land is currently unprotected including the municipally owned Rainbow wetlands, and the privately owned Decigon and Edgewater lands. "Almost every time, if you consider a small piece of land," Gotz says, "you’ll find that the wildlife value is less than if you consider it as a larger piece of the valley." One area where the municipality and AWARE are in agreement over environmental initiatives, is with the recent construction of a wildlife platform in the River of Golden Dreams wetlands. In his letter, Barnett states that the wildlife platform, created in partnership with AWARE, "is considered to be a huge success and will allow residents and visitors to view birds and other wildlife in the wetlands without intrusion and damage to the environment." Gotz agrees, saying, "the wildlife viewing platform has been the most satisfying experience for me this last year, because the reaction of people who walk up on the platform — many of them living in Whistler for years — who now look at the area in a new light." Gotz sees the platform as an important step in "making people aware of what we have so that we can shift our philosophy toward including other life forms and habitats." The Black Bear Task Team, also a joint effort with AWARE, the Jennifer Jones Bear Foundation and other local groups, will develop a bear management plan dealing with bear-proof garbage containers, signs, education and upgrading the electric fence around the landfill. It will also identify key bear habitat and try to influence the municipality to protect those areas. Gotz commends these efforts, as well as the educational work of bear biologist, Mike Allen, who he says has "made bears real for us. Even to people who have never seen a bear, they are now a real issue in Whistler. They have lives and families and homes right here in Whistler." While AWARE and the municipality are now working together on some projects, the relationship between the local government and the environmental group has not been a particularly smooth one. Gotz says that a workbook from the town hall meeting mentioned that the RMOW had made overtures to AWARE and tried to establish contacts with the organization. "Nothing could be farther from the truth," he says. "The reality is that they are definitely not making overtures to include AWARE in anything." As an example, he points to the Black Bear Task Force Team, which he says did not include AWARE until the group phoned and bothered the municipality enough to get a seat on it. AWARE has tried many times over the years to get a seat on the Advisory Planning Committee and Advisory Parks and Recreation Committee, Gotz says, and only recently managed to get AWARE director Vincent Massey on the Forestry and Wildlands Committee. But Gotz has criticism for the advisory committees which are supposed to represent community interests and advise council on the development proposals they screen. "These (committees) are a legacy to the previous mayor," he says, "and they are basically populated by the development community. They are not populated by a cross-section of the community as they are intended... It's unfortunate that the municipal staff do not recognize their obligation to serve the community of Whistler, and not just the development community." Ken Melamed sits in an interesting position between the municipality and AWARE. He has been a driving force behind the environmental group, serving as president for six years, and now holds a seat on what is probably the most community- and environmentally-minded council Whistler has ever seen. Approaching environmental concerns from the other side of the council table has been an interesting change for Melamed. "I feel that, as a councillor, it's been positive," he says. "I've been able to have a voice at the table, where as president of AWARE you go at it from the outside, and you're really at the whim and wishes of council to have any environmental views expressed." In his role as councillor, Melamed is pleased with his ability to enact changes, even if the pace of that change is sometimes frustrating. "Bureaucracy is a funny thing," he says. "It can be very slow with some initiatives, but with others it can be very quick, and really all it depends on is the level of support." Melamed says that while the environment has a high level of support in Whistler, when it comes to budgetary considerations, it tends to get pushed further down on the priority list. "Spending money on the environment is a very difficult thing to bring up," he says. "A classic example is the Decigon property." While he says the right thing to do for the environment would be for the municipality to purchase the land outright, he has doubts as to whether the municipality, and the community itself, would be willing to spend approximately $8 million to preserve the environmentally sensitive land. Sitting on council, Melamed has also found that he must balance his priorities for environmental concerns against other community interests, such as youth programs, the library, arts and culture. Nonetheless, he points out that "community surveys show the environment is the number one issue; it’s not getting number 1 priority in terms of community planning. I’m still pushing for more attention to environmental issues," he says. Asked whether he believes communication is improving between AWARE and the municipality, Melamed says that on some levels he believes it is. He serves as the council liaison to the environmental group, and attends all of their meetings. He acknowledges the difficulty AWARE has had in getting a voice on the advisory committees, as well as charges that the committees haven’t reflected a cross-section of the community. "Council is rewriting, right now, the terms of reference for the Advisory Planning Commission and Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission," he says. "The idea is to get a more balanced representation from the community. There’ll be somebody from the youth side of the community, somebody from the senior side, somebody from the environmental side." The new committees will be appointed this spring, and members will include grassroots representatives of the community, as well as professionals in a particular field. The environmental representative needn’t be necessarily from AWARE. While there is so far no formalized green plan from municipal hall, Melamed believes the municipality has made some advancements in terms of the environment. But the biggest problem with not having a comprehensive green plan, he says, is that the municipality ends up dealing with environmental issues on an ad hoc basis. "One of the problems is that there are four main departments: Parks, Public Works, Planning, and Finance/Administration," Melamed says. "They all have important ways to contribute to the greening of municipal operations, but there’s nothing to co-ordinate any of that — there’s no itemizing of priorities, there’s no manual, or certainly no checklist." Melamed would like to see an environmental co-ordinator on municipal staff, as some other municipalities, such as North Vancouver, have done. The booklet released prior to December’s town hall meeting, entitled Whistler 2002, Charting a Course for the Future, contains a very strong environmental section and what might be seen as a formal green plan. Tasks will be phased in over the four-year implementation period. With the current, somewhat haphazard, municipal approach to the environment, Melamed says groups like AWARE are important in acting as a sort of check and balance. He also sees a positive force with the work of Jim Godfrey, who became municipal administrator one year ago. "He’s very conscious of the environment," Melamed says, "and he understands the language." One of Godfrey’s ideas has been the creation of an environmental legacy fund from money generated by a plan to extend the life of the landfill site. AWARE’s new president, Stephane Perron, is familiar with the Whistler 2002 booklet. "I would like to hold the municipality to their word," he says. "In their Whistler 2002 booklet, they paint this picture of a utopian village with people living in respect and harmony with their environment, and setting habitat aside." He would also like to see not only the public sector, but the private sector do their share for the environment. "It’s too bad that couldn’t have been done with past developers like the Green Lake’s Golf Course," he says, "but the issue of the Spruce forest still needs to be settled, and I would like to see them (the developer) show some corporate soul and realize the value of their land to the resort." Perron also points to much of the land which is municipally owned within Whistler. He would like to see the municipality assume responsibility for these lands and put firm protection on them. Parks within the resort currently don’t provide any kind of protection for wild lands. While they may contain important valley bottom wildlife habitat, they can quickly become home to a baseball diamond, sports centre or parking lot. In some cases, Perron would like to see the municipality go one step further and acquire some particularly precious pieces of land. He mentions the Decigon property, the Spruce Forest and the Edgewater lands, saying, "I realize that it’s a bit of a pipe dream, but nonetheless, that’s what I would like to see." Because AWARE is a volunteer grassroots organization, Perron says his job over the next year will be to lead it in the direction its members want to go. Some of the issues members at the general meeting said were important to them included work on a re-use-it facility (AWARE is also formulating a position on solid waste management), community composting, stepping up pressure for the municipality to hire an environmental co-ordinator, environmental input on the transportation study, environmental education for visitors and transients, re-use of uprooted municipal trees and shrubs, and many other ideas. By far, the issue brought up most often was the preservation of remaining natural habitat, with a focus on the Spruce Forest adjacent to Village North (owned by Park Georgia) and the Decigon lands between the River of Golden Dreams and Alta Lake Road. In terms of environmental priorities, both Gotz and Perron are in line with their membership in this regard. Gotz describes the Decigon lands as the "heart and soul of the Whistler valley. Depending on what happens with the Decigon lands," he says, "it’s quite possible that ecosystems will begin to collapse in Whistler." It’s hard to gauge how big an area could survive if the Decigon lands are developed, he says, because there is no baseline data and virtually no information on Whistler’s ecosystems. But in Gotz’s opinion, "any environmental assessment done on the Decigon site that shows the area to be suitable for development, flies in the face of reason when one considers the geographical position of the land, and the fact that it’s the keystone for the entire valley bottom ecosystems." As a naturalist and bird watcher, Gotz has seen various species of birds disappear, or all but disappear, from Whistler in the last decade due to loss of habitat from development. He refers to the latter group as "dead birds walking." These include the common loon, willow flycatcher and green heron, among others. Gotz says that some people would argue there has already been too much environmental damage in Whistler for anything of value to still be saved. "But I disagree totally," he says. "It’s never too late, and as a bird watcher I know that there is still a tremendous amount of valuable habitat that we can affect out there." And as long as there is natural habitat in Whistler where wildlife can exist, there will be the opportunity to shift people’s consciousness toward including other life forms in their decision making.