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Pemberton heli-biking proposal raises concerns

Public can comment on commercial tenure application until July 19



The area in and around Pemberton is becoming a mecca for downhill and cross-country mountain biking.

But a new proposal by Blackcomb Helicopters is raising concerns about the growth of heli-biking in the area.

Blackcomb Helicopters, which already flies bikers onto Mt. Barbour, is applying for a 30-year Commercial Backcountry Recreation Tenure to add guided heli-biking activities to its existing Crown Land Tenure and build new trails, allowing it to operate more akin to a heli-skiing operation.

The operator has identified six potential heli-biking trails to build in the Pemberton area—off Rutherford Ridge, Mt. Barbour South, Ogre-Owl, Mackenzie Ridge, and Ipsoot Mountain—to be built by Joyride Bike Parks and other consulting groups for the design and construction.

Both the Pemberton Wilderness Association (PWA) and members of B.C.'s paragliding community oppose Blackcomb Helicopter's proposal.

Three of the proposed trails would be built in the Tenquille to Owl Lake Recreation Area (TOLRA), a large wilderness area located on the northeastern flank of the Pemberton Meadows valley. The PWA manages the area on a volunteer basis under the guidance of a provincial recreation officer.

As president of the PWA, Allen McEwan is concerned about the impact of heli-biking on the area, which has grown in popularity in recent years.

"Those alpine habitats are very, very sensitive, and they just can't stand wheeled traffic—particularly traffic that goes straight down the mountain and creates a path for water to follow," said McEwan.

He wants to see a moratorium put on heli-biking until the province develops clear legislation to govern the activity. Currently, helicopter agencies are permitted to drop heli-bikers onto Crown Land, but cannot offer guided tours or advertise without a proper tenure in place.

McEwan argues that given the province's stated goals around mitigating climate change, the province shouldn't get behind an industry reliant on helicopters to ferry mountain bikes to the top of mountains.

"We feel that the province should encourage self-propelled recreation," he said.

But Blackcomb Helicopters' Pemberton base manager Andy Meeker said getting the tenure in place would bring more accountability to the company's operations.

"Ultimately, it's going to regulate and capture the data that the province and third-party groups are looking for," he said.

"Obviously, with this application we're faced with having to be responsible, not only just with the erosion of the earth but the disturbance of any wildlife or sensitive areas in the area."

Heli-biking has "substantially gained interest each season," added Meeker, noting that in 2017, Blackcomb Helicopters flew around 400 heli-bikers into the area.

One of McEwan's concerns is that even if Blackcomb Helicopters is granted the tenure, it will not have exclusive rights to the area, and other helicopter operators operating in a legal grey zone will also drop bikers into the area, increasing traffic even further.

"What (the province doesn't) want is conflicting operations, and certain adventure tourism applications are conflicting," said Meeker.

"Ultimately it will fall to the province to give the 'yea' or the 'nay.'"

Situated at the transition zone between B.C.'s Coast Mountains and the Interior, the TOLRA provides visitors with a view of glaciers to the West and steep arid mountains to the East.

PWA members have been central to the stewardship of the area, which covers around 200 square kilometres of wilderness and over 60 kms of hiking trails.

In 2011, after significant fundraising efforts, PWA members rebuilt an old cabin at Tenquille Lake. Open to the public, it serves as a jumping-off point for multi-day hiking trips. The area, which is designated by the province as a recreation area, is home to an impressive range of wildlife, from grizzly bears to cougars.

Yet in the past few years, heli-bikers have increasingly interrupted McEwan's hikes. "You have to jump off the trail. It's not fun at all," said McEwan of meeting up with some of the bikers.

The tenure application would result in an estimated 240-per-cent jump in usership over 2016 levels, resulting in 2,400 rider days a year in the area, according to the PWA.

"The helicopters are incredibly disruptive to wildlife. It's completely against everything we're trying to do up there," said McEwan.

"It's just like hiring a taxi.

"At this point, there is no legislation to deal with heli-biking. Our recreation officer and any other enforcement people are handcuffed because they basically have no legislation to work with."

According to McEwan, Blackcomb Helicopters has been a strong partner over the years, helping with the construction of the Tenquille Lake cabin, for example. But McEwan said he remains concerned about damage to the area caused by the mountain bikers.

When trails get rutted out, bikers ride to the side of them, levelling plant life.

In order to address these concerns, in 2016, Blackcomb Helicopters and the PWA worked out a compromise in which helicopters would land in a dedicated area on Mt. Barbour, then ride down a multi-use trail built by Joyride Bike Parks, rather than ride down alpine.

The trail, however, diverts onto two trails that are close to a century old and not appropriate for mountain biking, according to McEwan.

"If you're going to run mountain bikes in the mountains, you need to have professional trail builders there to improve the existing trial or build a trail specifically for mountain biking," he said.

The Pemberton Meadows is also a world-class area for paragliding, and the West Coast Soaring Club (WCSC) is concerned about Blackcomb Helicopter's application, as paragliders often take off from McKenzie Ridge and fly down the southeastern flank of the Pemberton Meadows valley, past Mt. Barbour.

In an email to Pique, Stefen Miller, a WCSC member and champion paraglider who lives in Pemberton said, "An increase in helicopter traffic crossing the busiest paragliding route in Canada obviously increases the risk of mid-air collision considerably.

"Often there are around 30 to 50 pilots flying around Pemberton in a single day, with 20 to 30 flying past Mt. Barbour."

Said staff at the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development: "Commercial heli-biking on Crown land is regulated and administered according to the Land Act and the Adventure Tourism Policy.

"The ministry is reviewing the application by Blackcomb Helicopters, including assessing potential environmental impacts, and accepting comments from the public.

"The ministry is also assessing the need for development of additional policies and guidelines necessary for improved management of this emerging activity."

Go here to see the proposal and to comment:

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