Miners and loggers used to pose the greatest trouble to backcountry and wilderness travel, now with the B.C. Liberals allowing more crown land to be tenured, the enemy comes from within. Some blame the competition, others blame the government, but all agree there’s a $1-billion industry at stake.
At last, the week you’ve been waiting for all winter has arrived. You’ve shelled out $2,000 for seven days of ski touring and pampering in a catered backcountry lodge nestled in the mountains of B.C. You’re following the guide to the top of an un-tracked ridge, snow as light as goose down, not a breath of wind, nothing but the sound of skis gliding across snow. Suddenly, a helicopter crests the ridge, shattering the silence. Moments later the mosquito-like buzz of snowmobiles destroying a basin of fresh snow across the valley is added to the scourge of sounds you paid good money to escape. This is no place in particular, but it could be any place in the not too distant future, warns Paul Leeson. Leeson is the outspoken owner of Purcell Mountain Lodge, a luxurious chalet with 10 deluxe suites and a gourmet kitchen nestled in an alpine meadow 20 kilometres due west by chopper from Golden. It’s a base for summertime hiking and winter cross-country ski holidays that caters to a largely American clientele. Leeson has seen a lot of changes in the outdoor tourism sector since he welcomed his first guest 16 years ago. Back then, there was just a handful of commercial backcountry lodges and B.C.’s mountains seemed like an inexhaustible draw for tourists. Now the market is increasingly busy, with snowmobile tourists competing against backcountry skiers for a chunk of wilderness, backcountry skiers butting heads with high-paying heli-skiers and hikers running into ATVers. A lot is at stake. According to a study by the Wilderness Tourism Association, ‘nature-based’ tourists poured $909 million into the B.C. economy in 2001, with businesses reporting average revenue growth of 48 per cent over the five previous years. “People aren’t just coming here for scenery, you can get that in Switzerland. If we can’t give a pristine product with wildlife like mountain Caribou and a little peace and quiet, we’ve lost our competitive advantage and we can no longer offer a world-class product,” says the bushy-bearded Leeson while sipping coffee in Jita’s Cafe in downtown Golden, a mountain-encircled town of 4,500 people three hours west of Calgary. The walls of the café are adorned with photos of folks seeking thrills on mountain bikes, skis and mountain walls. Around here, people cherish the outdoor lifestyle and it’s the reason people are moving to Golden. There’s a different kind of ‘gold’ in the hills that increasingly drives the local economy. Four years ago, Gordon Campbell’s Liberals announced aggressive targets for revenue generation from the province’s Crown lands through property sales and tenure leases, which includes recreation enterprises like Leeson’s backcountry lodge as well as places such as gravel pits and fish farms. That was nothing new – previous governments had also set revenue goals for Crown lands. This time, however, the Liberals meant it. Land and Water BC, an agency within the ministry of sustainable resource management, was the powerful Crown corporation in charge of this vast asset. Along with specific revenue targets, LWBC was mandated to process new tenure applications in 140 days or less. The size and scope of recreation tenures ranges widely. At the high end, heli-ski operations pay the Crown anywhere between $50,000 and $150,000 per year for the right to build lodges and ski on public land. Smaller scale operations without lodges, for example an outfit that offers day hiking trips, may pay less than $1,000. Making money from Crown land and streamlining the process sounds well and good, however, Leeson charges that as far as commercial recreation goes, tenures are being awarded too fast and without determining what the wilderness can sustain before that elusive ideal of the wilderness experience is eroded – the solitude, quiet, pristine scenery – the very attributes upon which B.C. has built its Super, Natural reputation. The situation came into sharp focus for Leeson two years ago. That’s when he learned that a nearby helicopter skiing outfit had been awarded a tenure to use the same terrain on which Leeson was selling tranquil, non-mechanized skiing to his lodge guests. He calls the practice “tenure stacking,” in this case between incompatible uses. It took the intervention of a government-appointed mediator and some last minute hand wringing to work out a compromise between the two businesses that would ensure their guests wouldn’t be treading on the same ground. Needless to say, it was a headache Leeson could have done without and it highlighted what some feel is the over-enthusiastic exploitation of B.C.’s backcountry. “It was a mistake. It shows what happens when you layer tenures on a limited land base,” Leeson says. Though Leeson’s story may be an extreme example, in certain regions of the province conflicts in the backcountry are more and more common. Recently Valhalla Powdercats, a cat skiing operation in the West Kootenays, had to abandon its tenure in the mountains above Slocan Lake and move to a new location after locals protested the commercial use of Crown land that had for years been their backyard ski paradise. RK Heli-Ski, out of Panorama, is taking the provincial government to court over its environmental approval of a ski resort near Jumbo Glacier, where the company has been skiing for 35 years with clients who pay big dollars – $5,000 to $7,000 per week each – and expect fresh, untracked snow. And to the north, Christoph Dietzfelbinger, a mountain guide who owns Burnie Hut near Smithers, is battling snowmobilers over land use. All this brings up troubling questions about the future of B.C.’s celebrated wilderness. How much tourism is too much tourism? And what about the public’s right to access Crown land that a lot of people treat as a de-facto playground? Rob Hood heads up the tourism department at Thompson River University in Kamloops and has a special interest in the backcountry sector. A whopping 94 per cent of B.C., or 948,600 square kilometres, is publicly owned – a higher percentage of Crown land than any other province. In the 1999/2000 fiscal year, LWBC grossed $30.7 million from all land and water tenures. Last year, that figure had jumped to $51 million, far exceeding projected revenues of $31 million (2004/2005 revenues are targeted at $37 million). By spring 2004, there were 743 commercial recreation tenures which, given B.C.’s wealth of scenic, sparsely populated country, seems like a modest number (Germany is half the size of B.C. with a population of 80 million people – no wonder they like it here). However, considering that a single heli-ski tenure can be as much as 100,000 hectares, the potential for conflict grows. That’s why Hood says B.C.’s abundance of Crown land can be both a blessing and curse: a blessing because it’s an asset that in theory benefits all, but a curse because everyone wants a piece of it and nobody truly feels responsible for it. The tragedy of the commons, you might say.
“The growth in the number of applications and business start-ups is phenomenal. I don’t believe the people who work for LWBC have the skills or the people power to keep a close eye on this,” Hood says. [pagebreak] When it comes to defining the wilderness experience, Hood believes we begin to stray into ambiguous territory – a wilderness of flexible values, goals and desires. In other words, wilderness means a different thing to a couple of investment bankers from Manhattan than it does to someone like Leeson. “It boils down to whether we want to govern this sector by market principles or certain values that we’re trying to maintain,” Hood says. So far, the provincial government seems content to let the market rule the backcountry. But it’s not all doom and gloom on the wilderness horizon. The province is indeed huge and while Leeson is starting to feel crowded around Golden, many players – not just government – see plenty of room for growth in the far flung corners of B.C. Bernie Fandrich has been running Kumsheen Raft Adventures on the South Thompson River for over 20 years and now shares the river with at least three other rafting outfits – without conflict. “I’ve never been asked the question of capacity but I don’t think we’re anywhere near capacity here,” Fandrich says. Farther north, Martin Daburger forms one-third of a partnership that’s angling for a massive 5,000-square-kilometre heli-ski tenure in the Rockies east of Prince George. From his point of view, LWBC has been anything but carefree in its approach to the application, which has been hung up for almost two years because of concerns over impacts to mountain caribou (30 per cent of the total B.C. population of this threatened ungulate resides in the proposed tenure). Daburger and his partners have taken the caribou issue seriously and hired an independent wildlife biologist to come up with a management plan. When it comes to potential conflicts with other user groups, he believes they can be easily mitigated because, simply put, the north is vast and there’s not a lot of commercial recreation going on. “The most frustrating thing for me has been conflicts between ministries in dealing with this application,” Daburger says. As for the impetus for getting into high-end outdoor tourism, Daburger is candid: “Everybody was rabbing, so we grabbed too.” This grab-fest, gold-rush attitude in the wilderness worries people like Brad Harrison, VP of the 29-member Backcountry Lodges of BC. Harrison is part-owner of Golden Alpine Holidays and when his outfit opened its doors in 1985, he estimates there were 10 other operators in the entire province. Now, there are perhaps 10 backcountry cabins within a 15-minute helicopter flight of downtown Golden. Lodge owners banded together two years ago in an attempt to buck the trend of tenure stacking and milking revenues from Crown land without taking into account businesses that have established a client base and reputation on the strength of a wilderness asset. “From the lodge owner’s perspective, there isn’t any protection in terms of compensation if you lose your tenure or if someone wants to come along and ruin your product. There’s a big push for increasing tenures and the onus is on the tenure holder to prove that a new tenure will affect their business,” Harrison says. “Most of these businesses don’t have lawyers to deal with this.” It’s true – most people involved in the outdoor business would rather be up at their lodges guiding guests or tinkering around with the solar-powered lights than dealing with red tape and bureaucrats. Besides, they have had to battle a weakening U.S. dollar, a reluctant post-9/11 American traveller and negative perceptions south of the border. While guides, lodge owners and wilderness entrepreneurs ponder the future of their industry, the manner in which the provincial government manages Crown tenures may be in for a change. In a surprise turn of events, a missive from the premier’s office in late June announced that LWBC, which had acquired all the hallmarks of a corporation with a CEO and board of directors, was going to be deep-sixed and its far-ranging responsibilities farmed out to five different ministries. Grazing is going to forests and range; Crown land sales and aquaculture will fall to agriculture and lands; water licensing heads to the resurrected environment ministry; concerns such as gravel pits are going to energy, mines and petroleum resources; and commercial recreation tenures will land in the lap of the newly minted tourism, sports and arts ministry. Over the past few years, LWBC has been maligned for its aggressive pursuit of revenues. However, as staffers are quick to point out, they don’t make policy, they only take direction from the archdukes at sustainable resource management, a soon-to-be mothballed ministry. Now the buzzword is ‘single point client service, which sounds a lot like what LWBC was trying to achieve in the first place and has left a lot of people scratching their heads. Mike Lambert, a former LWBC civil servant and now an assistant deputy minister with agriculture and lands, tries to explain the changes to the public. Gone are the LWBC offices, to be replaced by ultimately eight regional service centres around the province where people will not only be able to apply for land and water tenures, but for things such as provincial park use permits and wildlife transfer licenses. The centres will be staffed with specialists from the various ministries involved with Crown land and water. Sort of a one-stop shop for people wanting access to these public assets. “We’re building on the success of LWBC,” Lambert says cheerfully, “but if it doesn’t improve client service, it will be a failure.” But what about wilderness tourism? While government is long on re-organizational bureau-speak, it’s short on ideas about how to sustain Super, Natural B.C. John Willow still wears his title, director of tourism service for LWBC, and works closely with the recreation sector. In the past two years, as part of an outreach program, LWBC brought into the fold more than 200 renegade outdoor businesses that had been operating on Crown land without permits or leases. The question – how much tourism can the land take? – remains unanswered. “One of the things that the industry has raised consistently over the past few years is carrying capacity. In certain high-use areas there may come a time when a certain amount of people is too many,” Willow says. “I’m pretty sure that the new minister [Olga Ilich of tourism, sports and the arts] is going to hear them.” However, he echoes the point raised by Rob Hood at Thompson Rivers University: “One operator’s idea of acceptable levels of activity may be different from another operator’s idea. It’s very qualitative stuff. Is it government’s role to restrict the market? That’s an important philosophical question.” Willow says government may take a closer look at some high-use areas, like Robson Bight, where whale watchers and sea kayakers are bow-to-stern, or Leeson’s backyard in Golden where the skies are increasingly abuzz with helicopters and the powder is getting tracked up faster and faster, to see if we can indeed determine a sustainable level of tourism. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job over the last few years. The system is not perfect and we can still make improvements but look, it’s in everybody’s interest to promote a sustainable tourism industry,” Willow says. Back in the mountain town of Golden, Leeson isn’t impressed – at least not yet. “I have no idea what the new re-organization of government will mean but unless consensus-based land use planning becomes the foundation for any future uses on Crown lands, a host of new letterheads and business cards will not change anything,” Leeson says. There’s no doubt folks like Paul Leeson have much invested in the careful packaging of B.C. wilderness. A solar-powered luxury lodge, with a hot tub, sauna and private rooms sporting million-dollar views of an alpine landscape – it’s what his guests expect. Without it, Leeson’s lodge is like a polar bear in the jungle – sorely out of place. These days it’s fashionable to tout tourism as the economic saviour for heartland B.C. but Leeson puts a new twist on the theory. “The commercial recreation sector is in danger of becoming pubic enemy No. 1. It used to be logging, it used to be mining. We’re going to suffer a backlash when the average person can’t go out and find fresh powder or a quiet fishing lake.”