Holding Court at Castle

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“Last season we had some of the lowest lows you could possibly imagine,” says Andrew Rusynyk, Castle’s director of snow sports, marketing and development. “We had liftees and instructors handshovelling snow to try to keep the mountain open.”

And yet, and yet… The radical environmentalists who engineered Haig’s delay delivered a blessing in disguise. Even the grim season of rain and skiers’ discontent brought some good. “We ended the season with stronger support from local businesses and communities,” says Rusynyk. Bottom line: Castle and the doughty local businesspeople who jointly own it have emerged from their annus horribilis tougher, tougher, politically smarter and fi nancially sparer—but with their optimism undimmed.

After one of the warmest, sunniest Novembers in memory, Castle opened late and with scratchy conditions for the 2004- 05 season. After gaining a reasonable base by mid-January, the mountain was hit with 17 cm—of liquid, a rainstorm holding the equivalent of 170 cm of Rocky Mountains cold smoke. The rain washed away the snow, forcing the mountain to close. Castle reopened weeks later, with limited skiing that included having to negotiate the fabled South Chutes in guided groups. There was great powder on top, but the lower zones were stump and rock fi elds requiring tortuous navigation on tiny ribbons of crust and ice. The mountain shut down again in March. “We had no skiable exits, and with only 10 per cent downloading capacity on the chairlift, we had no safe way of getting people off the mountain,” says Rusynyk.

Castle’s numbers plunged to just 15,000 skier-visits for the season (a busy day at at Whistler-Blackcomb can top 25,000). Even this, however, contained a Nietzschean element. Says Rusynyk: “Everyone got a taste of what their lives would be like if we weren’t around. There were gas stations and motels down 50 per cent or more, and many stores were significantly slower. The low numbers proved our economic importance to the local region.”

The Haig delay also proved fortuitous. As described in a previous issue (see Ski Canada, November 2004), a 335-vertical metre, 28-hectare development on the lower ridge of the mountain adjoining the main ski hill would provide more than a dozen new groomed runs in sheltered terrain, all below treeline and at the lower angles congenial to intermediates and novices. Haig would complement Castle’s famously fearsome main mountain, enabling the resort to nurture the stable base of family skiers it will require for the long term. The development would lift Castle’s annual skier-count from about 65,000 to an estimated 150,000, elevating it from ski industry sideshow to boutique resort. Opening Haig under last season’s conditions, however, would have been an even bigger disaster than the court-induced delay. With no revenue to show for its $2- million investment, Castle would have been hard-pressed to survive.

Instead, it’s now ready to forge ahead. In summer 2004, the grandiosely named Castle-Crown Wilderness Coalition (I guess that sounds better than “Three Curmudgeons in a Cabin”) persuaded the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench to halt Haig. The plaintiff’s argument—I simplify somewhat—was that provincial environment offi cials had no legal right to permit the development without a full environmental impact assessment (EIA). The bureaucrats had decided that, because a previous proposal for a much larger resort scheme had gone through this arduous, costly process, the smaller Haig proposal didn’t require a second EIA. The court, however, agreed with the Coalition, ordering the government at minimum to revisit its internal process and rewrite its decision, if not order another EIA.

In May 2005, the provincial government and Castle appealed the ruling. Although a ruling had not been handed down by late July, Brian Cusack, Castle’s general manager, says the hearing before a three-justice panel seemed to go very well for the resort. The government’s lawyers argued that provincial legislation affords the environment minister and senior officials broad discretion to make decisions on questions of policy. Further, the Haig proposal falls below EIA-triggering thresholds specifically set out in provincial law. A key one is a projected 250,000 skier visits at build-out, far larger than Castle would become.

Castle’s lawyer argued that the trial judge failed to take into consideration the numerous other provincial and local agencies and mechanisms already in place to monitor, limit and mitigate environmental impacts. In other words, an EIA isn’t the only way to protect the environment. This seemed to resonate with the court, says Cusack, with the justices pointedly asking the Coalition’s lawyer whether this was not the case.

Although appeals normally concern themselves with lower-court errors of fact or law, the Coalition also tried to introduce new evidence. It argued that Castle’s “fi re smart” program to protect the village from forest fi res was a pre-development logging program in disguise. It also questioned the resort’s projected visitations, arguing that Haig’s impacts would be far higher than claimed. “Basically, the court tore apart the Coalition’s case,” says Cusack. “We feel confident we won the appeal.”

The Alberta Court of Appeal had not ruled at the time I wrote this. Castle was fervently hoping for a decision before the court broke for summer vacation on July 1. Further delay would push back construction by another year. Meanwhile, resort managers also met with halfa- dozen provincial cabinet ministers, arguing the importance of Castle to the regional economy and urging the government to make plans to meet the court’s demands if the appeal went against them.

Either way, Castle is ready to go. In June Derrill Murphy, one of Castle’s key financial backers and a man of strong personal initiative, purchased a well-maintained Doppelmayr triple chairlift from Beaver Creek, Colorado. (Murphy also built the 110-bed Castle Mountain Ski Lodge and Hostel two seasons back.) The resort had previously envisioned installing a new, fi xed-grip quad, but last season’s poor results make that out of the question. Instead, thanks to the loose change jingling in the cheroottwirling Murphy’s pockets, going the used-lift route will halve the $1.6-million project’s cost.

As of July, Castle had a disassembled lift sitting at its base, ready to go. Says Cusack: “We think we can do the engineering work and cut the runs in six weeks, after which we would install the lift ourselves, in time for this ski season.” All the resort needed was the court’s go-ahead. At worst, says Rusynyk, Castle’s customers and supporters will just have to wait one more year. Regardless, Castle tends to have an epic season about every third year. By my count, this will be one.

This column appeared in the Fall 2005 issue.

George Koch
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