No more mumbo-Jumbo

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I figured I’d have long been writing travel articles on riding Canada’s highest ski lifts and exploring almost 2,000 verical metres of dramatic, glaciated terrain. No such luck.

Still, Vancouver architect and skiing visionary Oberto Oberti’s plan has made progress in the year since B.C.’s Cabinet accepted the recommendations of the province’s Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) to issue the project’s environmental certificate. In August the Jumbo development company, Glacier Resorts Ltd., took the next big step: filing its master plan report with the province. If accepted, this report would enable signing a master development agreement, another gargantuan document that would set out every aspect of the project and the responsibilities of all the players. Oberti was fervently hoping to see this done by Christmas.

“After 13 years of process, I don’t think there is a single unknown issue,” Oberti said in his usual style of slightly rueful humour. “We’ve been explaining for years and years the fundamentals of this project…We have a range of mountains that’s bigger and longer than the Alps. Yet in Canada we have not a single resort at the top and in the heart of one of these ranges—mind-boggling.”

From Oberti’s standpoint, the pugnacious and at times poisonous oppositionism of environmental groups has fallen into an almost predictable routine. “The people who are against it will continue to be against it, and we’ll continue to respond,” he says. “We anticipate that our arguments will be seen to be correct, and out of this we’ll get the master development plan approval and the master development agreement.”

The last formal step—but potentially the thorniest—will be local approval. “Few mountain resorts come before local governments because most fall within unorganized, unpopulated rural areas that are basically run by the province,” says Oberti. But in Jumbo’s case, the Regional District of East Kootenay is in charge. This “R.D.” oversees a large but generally sparsely inhabited area. Its in-house technical expertise (which Jumbo approval will require) is similarly sparse. And it appears vulnerable to small-town factionalism and environmentalist pressure. Indeed, in February the R.D. voted not to participate in the Jumbo master plan process, yet simultaneously rescinded an earlier request that the province control Jumbo’s development directly.

B.C.’s government could have mimicked its previous transformation of Whistler into an independently run “mountain resort municipality,” or its recent designation of Kicking Horse as a “mountain resort area” (jointly administered by province and developer). There are also precedents from remote mining towns that were subsequently governed by ad hoc multi-stakeholder boards. Yet in Jumbo’s case, the province opted against detouring the potentially toxic local politics. A cynic might conclude that some B.C. ministers still want Jumbo to fail, or at least have washed their hands of the entire affair.

Even if Oberti navigates the region’s labyrinthine local politics, he’ll also have to overcome the festering dispute with R.K. Heli- Ski Panorama Inc. Based at nearby Panorama resort (but under separate ownership) with access to a huge tenure area, R.K. in June filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court claiming it had not been adequately heard in the environmental assessment process. Seeking a “judicial review” of the process, it asked the court to declare “that the [EAO’s] Report is void and is of no legal effect.”

R.K.’s principal contention is that its objections to the Jumbo Resort plan, which R.K. argues will destroy its business, were not taken seriously by the EAO. R.K. says the EAO ignored its substantive objections to a toughly worded report by outside consultant Sierra Systems Group Inc. Sierra concluded that R.K. does not depend crucially on the Jumbo terrain, and that a resort there would not undermine the heli-skiing experience. R.K. deems the Sierra report “demonstrably inaccurate.” For this reason, R.K. asked the court both for “A declaration that the EAO exceeded its jurisdiction by acting with bias or, alternatively, with a reasonable apprehension of bias,” and “A declaration that the EAO exceeded its jurisdiction by denying R.K. a real opportunity to be heard prior to preparing the Assessment Report.”

Oberti points out, “Both our 3,772-page Project Report and the EAO’s report have sections on heli-skiing. R.K. made written submissions to the EAO, and the provincial ministers involved in approving Jumbo’s environmental certifi cate took time to specifi cally review the issues surrounding R.K.” The EAO report condensed the decadelong process’s hundreds of thousands of pages of studies, reports, claims, arguments and memos into 128 pages. (Of that total, R.K. received four pages.)

While Glacier Resorts is not the defendant in R.K.’s petition (the provincial government is), it has fi ed affidavits backing the government. R.K. has received moral support from the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society (Oberti’s environmental nemesis) and leftwing Globe and Mail columnist Mark Hume.

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George Koch
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