By Clare Ogilvie
Whistler’s environmental watchdog says Olympic organizers are placing economic values ahead of science in their push to build up to 25 kilometres of “legacy trails” at the Nordic centre.
“Our position is based on their science and we have drawn a line in the sand,” said Wendy Horan, a director of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE).
“We are concerned that they are not placing biodiversity first and they are not living by their own sustainable principles.”
At issue is the impact 20 to 25 kilometres of recreational trails, planned for construction this summer, would have on the recently documented grizzly bear population. Those trails would be in addition to the 15 km of trails already built for Olympic competitions.
Some of the legacy trails are close to a grizzly bear intersection between valleys. Provincial biologists have identified the Callaghan as a grizzly recovery area and classed the local population as threatened.
“The trails are in the wrong location and as far as we are concerned enough is enough,” said Horan, an ecologist, adding that AWARE has had several meetings with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games outlining its position.
“We haven’t been satisfied with their answers. If they did go forward (with the legacy trails) we would be significantly disappointed especially when they continue to tell us they are going to be the greenest Games ever.”
Last week AWARE wrote a letter to the B.C. Environment Office stating its “firm opposition” to the environmental assessment for the trails.
Even Whistler’s mayor is concerned about VANOC’s plan. He would like to see the trails, which he views as an important asset for Whistler, re-located.
“It behooves us to demonstrate a high level of concern for this species,” Ken Melamed said. “If (the legacy trails) are going to negatively impact the grizzly population we should take a precautionary approach.”
He pointed to the fact that the grizzly habitat has shrunk markedly over the years.
But at a public meeting on the legacy trails held last month, many residents supported the plan. Said Tom Barratt, president of the Whistler Nordics: “We are right behind it. We see it as a very important community resort facility and also a real asset for athlete development.
“If we lose those trails that will be a big step backward for sport development and the community of Whistler.”
VANOC feels the legacy trails are needed to make the Nordic centre economically viable after the Games.
While it is very unlikely that the legacy trails can be moved at this late date, said VANOC’s George McKay, “Impacts to bears (are) an important issue to us.
“… It is one that we take very seriously, and we are going to continue to work to address the issues through management plans, proper venue design, and habitat considerations just to make sure that whatever we are doing out there is everything we can possibly do to avoid any of those perceived wildlife impacts.”
The Callaghan and the Madeley Valley, where the legacy trails are located, have been utilized extensively, with some areas logged. There has also been mining in the area. And it is a popular place to go snowmobiling in the winter.
McKay pointed out that the new legacy plan will mean that the area will no longer have motorized recreation at all, though 38 hectares of old growth will be cut for the trails.
“The area is extensively roaded and there are trails already,” said McKay.
“… As part of our commitment to our sustainability principles our intention is to develop a trail system utilizing existing roads and trails and minimize the construction of new trails.
“But it is important for us to build this legacy facility (because it) will provide the post-Game recreational opportunity for the Whistler community, Whistler families, and to help us diversify the tourist economy in Whistler.
“We will continue to look at fine tuning the development of the trails… (to) avoid the habitat impacts to the best of our ability. But in terms of relocating the trail network to some other location I don’t think that is an opportunity for us today.”
The public can comment on the Environmental Assessment until April 29. Visit www.eao.gov.bc.ca.