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Contentious Jumbo Ski Resort in Limbo as Province Stops Rushed Construction in Avalanche Zones

A provincial stop work order on the only two buildings under construction on the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort site comes as no surprise to those familiar with the Jumbo Valley, which is marked by the bare swaths of avalanche paths sweeping down mountainsides and across the valley.

“I think it was a foregone conclusion,” said Rod Gibbons, senior guide with RK Heli-ski, a company that has operated in the area for more than 40 years.

“We were the ones that turned in the report to government to let them know (Glacier Resorts Ltd.) had just put the footings in the runoff zone for an avalanche path,” he said.

Renowned mountaineer and photographer Pat Morrow, who, as a director of the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society, has been at the forefront of an ongoing battle to stop development of the glacial wilderness resort, said the proponent appears to be arguing that avalanches don’t go through trees or create new paths.

“This was not a surprise at all,” he said.

In a letter sent last week to Oberto Oberti of Glacier Resorts, Autumn Cousins, compliance manager for the Environmental Assessment Office, said the company must stop construction on the day lodge and service building, at least until new avalanche safety conditions are met.

A report by Dynamic Avalanche Consulting found that the service building is constructed in a high-risk red zone, where construction of new buildings is normally not permitted, and the day lodge is in the moderate-risk blue zone, where structures must be reinforced, explosive avalanche controls used and a detailed evacuation plan in place.

The controversial proposal for a billion-dollar, 6,300-bed resort, on Crown land 55-kilometres west of Invermere, has been in the works for 24 years. It was granted an Environmental Assessment Certificate in 2004, which was renewed in 2009, but, for the certificate to become permanent, the company must prove that construction substantially started before last fall’s deadline.

For the last decade, progress on the resort has been almost non-existent, but, shortly before the deadline, foundations were poured for the two buildings and preliminary work started on the ski lift site.

Foundation for the Jumbo Glacier Resort day lodge. Photo: Jumbo Glacier Resort via Facebook

However, locating the buildings in avalanche zones means the company is not in compliance with one of the Environmental Assessment Certificate conditions.

If the province gives the go-ahead, the certificate will have to be amended, even if mitigation measures are in place, Cousins said in the letter.

“It is the (Environmental Assessment Office’s) view that it is not possible for Glacier Resorts Ltd. to achieve compliance with condition 36 with the two structures as currently located,” she wrote.

The compliance investigation is separate from the process to determine whether the project has substantially started, Cousins said in the letter.

Morrow believes the avalanche report should convince Environment Minister Mary Polak to put a final halt to the resort plans.

“If she tries to cancel the independent avalanche consulting firm’s findings, it would be going too far,” he said.

If the foundations of the two buildings are removed from the equation, a new bridge would be the only new construction — and that was paid for by the Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality, meaning it was funded by provincial taxpayers, Gibbons said.

Bridge construction. Photo: Jumbo Glacier Resort via Facebook

“I am now waiting with bated breath to hear what government is going to do about that substantial start,” he said.

John Bergenske, conservation director for Wildsight, an environmental group that opposes the project, said Jumbo is a test for the provincial government and its willingness to adhere to its own regulations.

“I certainly can’t imagine what rationale there would be to say that the project has substantially started,” he said.

The proponents have failed to meet the conditions of the Environmental Assessment Certificate and have not proved that they have any major investors, Bergenske said.

“This would be handing a permit to people who have absolutely failed to come through on anything they have promised…This business has been given every conceivable break — is the province going to change the rules every time someone wants to do something different?” he asked.

“If, in fact, there are any rules, there’s only one decision that the minister can make.”

The original resort plans show the day lodge was to be built in another part of the valley outside avalanche zones.

“They changed their minds for some reason at the last minute,” Morrow said.

“It’s mystifying — who knows what they were thinking.”

Gibbons is also nonplussed by the decision to move the lodge.

“I suspect it was for economic purposes. Maybe it was quicker and easier to put it there,” he said.

Lift towers are at even more risk from avalanches than the two buildings, said Morrow, who is hoping the province is looking at the whole picture.

“It’s almost impossible to put them any place that is completely safe,” he said.

“Even the wind from an avalanche can knock a gondola right off the cable. The winds can cut trees in half.”

DeSmog Canada was unable to contact Glacier Resorts Monday, but in a written response to the Environmental Assessment Office, the company said mitigation efforts for the day lodge will include structural reinforcement, comprehensive avalanche control and an evacuation plan for employees and the general public.

“The service building will be converted to a structurally reinforced storage building that will not be accessed during winter,” said the company response.

Image Credit: Jumbo Glacier Resort via Facebook

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When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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