Opinion » Alta States

Searching for soul – could a rootsy alternate-style ski area actually be developed in Sea to Sky?



"The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance."

- French writer Anatole France

Seems like last week's Mt. Future story resonated with more than a few people. Seems too, like Whistler has reached some kind of new tipping point. At least that's what I've been hearing from readers.

Nostalgia is rampant. The feeling that we've lost something precious is strong. And we have. Whistler Blackcomb no longer belongs to the locals. Remember that famous 1970's Ur-article about Whistler "The Mountain Belongs To The Bums?" Sadly, that's not the case anymore. Over the last decade we've been — almost literally — pushed off our patch. Ouch.

I know. I know. That's the way things go when life is dictated by bottom-line thinking. Numbers have it all over people. Money has it all over culture... at least in the short term. Still, that leaves a whole tribe of keen snoweaters with nowhere to really call home anymore. And that just won't do.

So I decided to take last week's philosophical ramblings to the next level. Was my Mt. Future idea pure bunk? Or was there actually a place in the Whistler Valley for a slow-food-style ski movement? In other words: could my stripped-down, post-modern-snowplay area concept ever see the light of day in 21st century B.C.? I was determined to find out, and as it turned out, I knew exactly who to call.

"I love the concept," says BHA's Brent Harley. He laughs. "I mean, look what's going on with the uphill ski movement in the U.S. It's booming! As for the sale of touring gear... it's the only growth segment in the industry. So the timing's right for it too." He stops. Sighs.

Dang, I can sense a "but" coming. Brent, you see, is one of the most respected mountain resort consultants in Canada — and one of the few in this country who understands the value of "less is more" in high-country development. More importantly, he's a realist... and refreshingly honest. He's not going to tell me it's "all good" if he finds a flaw in my argument.

"Well," he starts, "Hmm... there are two different paths you could take to reach your goal." He pauses. Takes a breath. "But neither one is cheap... or easy." More laughter. "And neither one is really set up to facilitate a concept like yours."

Noted. Let's move on. "The first thing, of course, is finding the right location. That's the most important." Another long pause. "We have a lot of beautiful mountains in Southwestern B.C... but we also have a lot of overlapping tenures. And varying agendas. So your choice of terrain is surprisingly limited... you really have to do your homework. As for access, hmm... if you have to build a new road to reach the base of your mountain, well, you've just upped the financial stakes by a considerable number of zeros."

SLAP. That's my first reality hit: Location and access. Conclusion: Doesn't matter how beautiful your mountain is — or how perfect its layout — your concept simply won't work if people can't get to it easily and cheaply.

OK — let's assume I've found the perfect site... unclaimed Crown land, relatively close to the highway, accessed from a still-functioning logging road. Now what?

"This is when it gets interesting," he says. "Normally you would seek approval for your ski area project by following the guidelines in B.C.'s All-Season Resort Policy." He smiles. "But your project's not normal, so you could probably apply for tenure through the province's Adventure Tourism Policy as well." He sighs again. "But as I said — neither one is really set up to address what you're proposing."

Falling between the cracks, eh? "Sort of," he says. "There's really nothing like this in B.C." And yet... "In recent years," he continues, "every mountain project I've worked on — doesn't matter what country — has had a backcountry component to it. That's what people want these days. So why not a pure backcountry resort?"

I'm excited now. We're finally getting somewhere. Almost ready to address the bureaucratic hoops. Right?

Hang on there, says Harley. "We haven't really talked about your finances yet. You do know how expensive this kind of venture can get — even as stripped-down a development as you propose?"

Yeah, yeah. Whatever. How expensive can installing a second-hand chairlift be?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. "It never seems that way," says Brent. "And there's a lot of used stuff around. For example, the Peace River Ski Club was gifted a fixed-grip quad chairlift recently. I mean, they got the whole thing for free... they thought they'd made the deal of the century. But by the time they'd paid for the delivery, engineering permits and installation, the bill was still over a million bucks."

Gulp. Second reality slap. "And that's just the beginning," he explains. "You've still got to build a parking lot, a base lodge, and a work area for your staff." SLAP. SLAP. SLAP. And there's more. "Great idea about investing in state-of-the-art avalanche-control technology," he adds offhand. "But do you know how much that stuff costs? Beaucoup dollars..." Even amortized over a ten- or fifteen-year period? "Hmm..." he responds. "Might work. But you're still talking a significant investment."

Fine, I say. Let's assume I've found a great mountain with easy access and assembled a group of investors with patient money who believe in my concept. Now what?

Time to put your Master Plan together. Meaning? "This is the document," Harley tells me, "That will be used to convince the government to allow you to pursue your business on the public land you've designated in your proposal."

Sounds simple, right? Think again. "You've got to account for everything in that document. Everything!" Another smile. "And once you've done that successfully," he adds, "your completed Master Plan goes through an inter-agency review process where the different government departments (and user groups) that might be affected by your project get to poke holes in your plan."

That's why, adds Harley, the master-planning process can be a long and very expensive undertaking. "I mean, imagine if the Ministry of Forests has already designated your area a special test-growing zone. It's back to the drawing board for you and your team..." And I roll my eyes in despair. He smiles sympathetically. "But the prize is worthwhile," he says. "For once your master plan is approved, and a Master Development Agreement is negotiated, you're granted an exclusive-use tenure on the land in question. It's now considered a 'Controlled Recreation Area' (CRA) and nobody but you and your clients have the right to use it."

Interesting. So what about the second way? "The Adventure Tourism Policy route is a much simpler process," he admits. "You don't have as many bureaucratic hoops to jump through. Not even a master plan to develop... all you need is a management plan that describes what you're proposing to do. Which means you can get away with spending a lot less money up front..."

I like this path better already. But there's still a "but."

"Indeed," says Harley. "This is the provincial policy designed to manage guided heli- and snowcat skiing operations, hut-to-hut ski-touring outfits... you know, those kind of businesses. It wasn't really designed for lift-served ski areas." He laughs. "But then your concept defies convention." He pauses. Smiles. "That's why I think you could still probably fit under the adventure tourism umbrella."

There's an even bigger "but," however. "One of the policy's weaknesses," he says, "is that it doesn't grant an exclusive-use tenure to the area operator." No CRA then? He shrugs. "No — and it's a huge problem." As is the 90-Day Clause, that grants the province the right to terminate Adventure Tourism tenures without compensation. "Can you imagine walking into a bank and asking for a loan for a business being conducted on land you're not sure you'll have a year from now?" He pauses. "That's why I'd still counsel taking the All Season Resort Policy route for your project."

I'm doing my best to keep up with Harley's patter. But my head is already spinning... with CRAs and Master Plans and MDAs and exclusive use tenure and... "But Brent," I say. "All I want to do is test the viability of my idea. I'm not trying to re-invent nuclear fission here. I mean, is it really that complicated to get something as simple as what I'm proposing off the ground and running?"

He smiles sadly, "It's probably more complicated," he says. "But I still think it's a worthy project... and one that deserves a lot more attention. Let's just hope that others, including the province, see the value of creating the mechanisms to enable a concept like yours to get developed in a timely manner.

"Need a consultant?" And we both laugh.