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Howe Sound on one side, rock cliffs on the other, and A HIGHWAY runs through it

Motorists have seen few disruptions, but Highway 99 upgrade has conservationists and property owners alarmed.

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The 100-km Highway 99 section under construction is "very unique, blessed with both staggering natural and recreational resources," reads a 2001 Ministry of Transportation highway study. But the highway has historically been notoriously unsafe – 30 fatalities and 754 collisions from vehicles crossing the centre line in the past nine years. (See Letters to the Editor this week.) With commuter numbers between Vancouver and Squamish increasing four per cent annually and in preparation for the 2010 Olympics, the provincial government earlier this year awarded the contract to the consortium Sea to Sky Transportation Group to make the beautiful but deadly highway safer and leaner.

Someone else who appreciates the beauty surrounding the highway is Horseshoe Bay resident Bruce McArthur. The 68-year-old retired electrician remembers hiking the Baden Powell Trail that runs above the highway with his parents when he was five years old. The 14 km trail, with its roots as a native trading route, runs from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove, through several biological zones. But large sections of the trail will be wiped out when a new 2.5 km section of the highway is added. Dipping inland half a kilometre from Highway 99’s present course, the overland section will bypass the B.C. Ferries terminal congestion but take its toll on nature, McArthur says.

"It’s hard to convince people that there is going to be enough damage done here that will really affect anybody," he says as, panting, I struggle to keep up with him on the Baden Powell Trail. The grade we are hiking, eight per cent, is about the same motorists will contend with and one that two local conservation groups McArthur belongs to say are unsafe. An eight per cent grade, a rise of eight feet or eight metres in a 100-foot or 100-metre section, is the maximum allowed in Canadian highway design.

In half an hour we pass six other hikers and through three biological zones, one dry arbutus, one deciduous with maples and alder, and the third, a two-hectare wetland area by Larson Creek at the junction of Baden Powell and Black Mountain trails. It’s a spot where earlier this year McArthur’s sighting of a rare red-legged frog was confirmed by a district biologist.

Neither the finding nor a lawsuit launched by the District of West Vancouver was enough to dissuade highway designers from the overland route. Surveyor stakes indicate the highway will abut the wetland. Federal fisheries guidelines recommend standard setbacks should be between 15 and 30 metres, says Steve Jenkins, West Vancouver’s environment co-ordinator. Jenkins says the district’s fear is that the wetland will suffer a massive tree blowdown if the highway is built beside the area.