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Prove heli-biking is carbon neutral, council demands

Application for trail tenure on Rainbow and Cougar is a ‘line in the sand



By Alison Taylor

Council is asking West Coast Freeride Guides to prove their heli-mountain biking proposal does not move the resort away from its sustainability goals.

“Whistler is expected now to start walking the talk,” said Mayor Ken Melamed.

After the meeting he added: “This is kind of a line in the sand. We cannot support this on the basis that it is going to, in a marked way, increase (greenhouse gas) emissions. That is inconsistent with our vision.”

West Coast Freeride Guides spokesman Michael Hallett said he could not comment Tuesday because he was not aware of council’s decision.

The impromptu debate arose Monday night as part of the provincial referral process for the heli-biking application, which is asking for tenure of roughly 10 kilometres of trails on Rainbow and Cougar Mountains. Riders will access the trails via helicopters and be guided down either mountain.

Generally the council-appointed Forest & Wildland Advisory Committee (FWAC) is responsible for Whistler’s position on tenure applications like these. The proposal, however, caught the mayor’s attention because heli-biking appears to be on Tourism Whistler’s radar screen as a potential market segment to tap into.

Melamed said he came across heli-biking in the Tourism Whistler package as he was preparing for the upcoming board retreat this week.

“There’s a huge section on mountain biking and the commercial tourism potential to the resort and it’s already materialized in a significant way,” said the mayor. “But in there it’s mentioned a couple of times that heli-biking is an area of opportunity and growth in the business.

“I need to go to the board and say: how is this consistent with Whistler2020?”

Councillors were at first reluctant to take a position on the West Coast Freeride Guides’ application.

“I can’t make a decision like that without the information,” said Councillor Ralph Forsyth.

Councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden asked for more time to consider and called for FWAC to move forward with its assessment of the application.

“I agree, on the surface of it, it seems like an environmentally poor decision,” she said.

Staff then weighed in on the issue. Brian Barnett, the municipality’s general manager of environmental services, said staff had reviewed the application and does not support it because the Rainbow trail is most likely within Whistler’s watershed.

Council unanimously supported the direction to have the proponent prove its plans do not move Whistler away from its sustainability objectives, particularly as it relates to the community’s watershed.

The motion emphasizes council’s commitment to its Whistler2020 plan. All decisions must be reviewed through this new lens, said the mayor.

“If they can come forward with a carbon offset program which is verifiable and makes sense in the business plan and assures that it’s going to be carbon neutral, that’s absolutely the kind of conditions that we’d be looking for,” he added.

He also added that heli-biking is not the same as heli-skiing, which predates the sustainability plan.

The application was submitted to Land and Water B.C. in May. The public comment period ends on June 30.

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