By Amy Fendley River rafting is Whistler’s most popular summer tour activity, with six local companies guiding more than 10,000 tourists along the Cheakamus River last summer. The river itself, has become the busiest rafting river in Whistler; the third busiest in B.C., after the Thompson River and the Kicking Horse River, near Golden. But now the Cheakamus is closed. In February, the registrar of river rafting pulled all the permits for the Cheakamus from local rafting companies and stated the river is "closed pending approval from the approving officer." The problem is the river is in the Garibaldi Civil Defense Zone. "We were told we would have out permits cancelled until we got approval from Howard Hunter, the provincial approving officer, but that doesn’t seem to be happening," said Mike Sadan, owner of Wedge Rafting. "Ten years ago the (authority for rafting) was held by the Ministry of Environment... the same people who were theoretically not supposed to allow activity in the civil defence zone. The deal was, there was an oversight." In what is becoming a common theme among provincial ministries and departments, commercial rafting was licensed by one arm of the government — the Ministry of Environment — and then denied by another — the Ministry of Transportation and Highways. In a letter from MoTH’s Hunter to the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks dated Aug. 13, 1998, it was stressed that the Provincial Emergency Program (PEP) had been trying to curtail any unnecessary human activity in the Civil Defense Zone, and that the Ministry of Environment was to stop issuing permits in the zone, including amending and cancelling permits already issued. "I am surprised and dismayed to find that your Ministry has been issuing permits for rafting within the Garibaldi Defense Zone in contravention of provincial legislation and policies," writes Hunter, provincial approving officer for MoTH. The Garibaldi Civil Defense Zone is unique in its geological and hydrological features, and according to a government act presents a potential hazard to life and property. The potential hazard is otherwise known as The Barrier, a natural wall preventing Garibaldi Lake from crashing down on Highway 99, the BC Rail line and the Cheakamus River. The section of the Cheakamus from Rubble Creek to the Salt Sheds, is the area of debate. This section is deemed to offer tourists the best white water rafting in the region. It has less objective hazards than the Birkenhead River and offers a longer season than the Green River. It’s also off limits, and Sadan says that doesn’t make sense. "If the Ministry of Transportation and Highways wants to reduce unnecessary human activity in the defense zone, is that what they’ll have in mind when they draw up plans to increase the transportation infrastructure in the corridor for the Olympics? I wouldn’t expect them to shut Whistler from the Olympics because of the hazards within the corridor, they shouldn’t be shutting down rafting companies either." Commercial rafting on the Cheakamus began after BC Hydro began spilling a prescribed amount of water from the Daisy Lake dam in 1997. Six rafting companies operated on the Cheakamus last year, some of them only starting operations since the Cheakamus has become a viable rafting river. "We were all operating under permits issued by the Ministry of Environment," said Sadan. "But apparently it was unknown to the registrar that the Ministry of Transportation deemed it illegal to raft there. "Suddenly B.C. Hydro is releasing water all the time and an area that was limited in 1997, was full-on in 1998. Suddenly thousands of people are rafting the river, six companies are operating and about 50 people are employed. The reality of this is that a few companies here depend on it completely. "The problem with the defense zone is that the highway runs through it, the highway runs parallel to the river, and the railway runs parallel to it," Sadan says. And unlike car and rail passengers travelling through the civil defense zone, rafters acknowledge they are taking a risk, and sign a waiver to that effect. "Out guests are risk takers," said Sadan. "What about the millions of people who travel through the zone in cars, buses and railway cars?" The businesses issued a permit for operating on the river by the Ministry of Environment’s registrar of river rafting are now facing the possibility of business, financial and employment loss. Sadan says the best thing they can do at this time is to put the situation in the hands of elected officials. "It’s in the hands of our MLA and out mayor," he says. "As these decisions have a direct impact on businesses, employees and visitors." Rainbow Rafting owner Dan Richardson, says the whole issue is very discouraging, and that since his permit has been pulled for the Cheakamus he may not operate at all this year. "The other rivers, like Green, aren’t as sterling as the Cheakamus," says Richardson. "It depends on what happens with this whole situation, but we probably won’t run this year." Some local rafting companies won’t be coming back this season, if ever. Dan Mayberry, spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation and Highways, says that a court judgement and standing orders in council are guiding the approving ministers on the issue. He reasons that rafting is different from other forms of transportation in the defense zone because rafters travel more slowly. "There are areas on Highway 99 where there is no stopping because of rockfall hazards," says Mayberry. "It’s these areas that make all the difference between someone speeding by and someone ambling by on a raft. Rafters travel more slowly and are directly below the hazard. "If that stuff came across Daisy Lake and damned the Cheakamus River, we’re talking about something the size of the Hope Slide, if it happens." Sadan will continue to operate Wedge Rafting this year, but is feeling extremely discouraged as Whistler’s rafting industry is now punctured. "The Cheakamus was by far the best rafting river in the area," said Sadan. "A lot of people are employed by the river... there are a lot of jobs involved. There isn’t anyone I’ve spoken with who says, ‘yeah, this makes sense, this is definitely in the best interest of your business and your customers.’" Wedge Rafting and the other local rafting businesses had asked for exemption from the act prohibiting commercial operations in the area but were denied, even though the Ministry of Transportation and Highways has already exempted commercial operators such as Maverick Coach Lines, B.C. Rail, and various logging companies.