There’s a mountain resort in the East Kootenays with a mayor and a council, but without infrastructure, buildings, citizens or a tax base. If that sounds bizarre, well, it is—yet just another twist in a tale that has taken on aspects of the absurd since the idea of a ski resort in the wilderness of the Purcell Mountains first began percolating over two decades ago. Opposition was fierce then and remains so today. In fact the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort (JGR) has polarized a community perhaps more than any other major development in British Columbia—at least one involving the seemingly innocuous, fun-loving pursuit of skiing.
It was a full 20 years ago that I first heard the word “jumbo” in reference to a mountain region in B.C. I was visiting my sister and her family in Invermere and saw a white, red-lettered sticker that read “Jumbo Wild” on the family van, a vehicle accessory that soon seemed as ubiquitous as standard-issue insurance decals around this town set on the shores of Lake Windermere in the Rocky Mountain Trench dividing that range from the Columbia Mountains.
In a deep valley north of the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy and east of Panorama ski resort, Jumbo Glacier rises back toward the summit of Jumbo Mountain, an icy massif straddling the watersheds of Glacier and Jumbo Creeks. Proponents and opponents alike covet this mountainscape for the same basic reason: it’s spectacular. The sight of Jumbo Glacier’s abrupt end at a cliff above Lake of the Hanging Glacier rivals any postcard-ready mountain vista. String some ski lifts up this terrain and, depending on who you talk to, you’ll have either an A-list ski resort or an environmental, social and economic abomination. The former would capitalize on commercializing Jumbo, touting the highest lift top-stations, greatest vertical drop, and by far most glacier skiing in North America with more than two-dozen lifts accessing four glaciers to a height of 3,419 metres, as well as a 110-hectare village with 6,000 beds to accommodate staff and projected peak-season daily visitation of 2,000-3,000 people. The latter calls this a pipe dream and wants to preserve Jumbo as a publicly accessible, wildlife-rich paradise for non-motorized, non-commercial recreation.
To be a JGR supporter in a town like Invermere is to be a pariah; like walking around with a sign pinned to your puffy that says “Kick me, I’m an asshole!” Even Kicking Horse Coffee, the homegrown, multi-million dollar roasting enterprise, self-brands as categorically opposed to the resort, its Invermere headquarters and cafe emblazoned with anti-Jumbo slogans. In Invermere, “Jumbo Wild” and “Grizzlies not Gondolas” stickers continue to far outnumber the proponents’ feeble-sounding rebuttal, “It Snows in Jumbo.”
But you can find one slapped on the back of the vehicle belonging to Grant Costello, senior VP of Glacier Resorts Ltd., the somewhat mysterious enterprise behind JGR that occupies a nondescript and often deserted office in an Invermere strip mall. Costello doesn’t come across as an arrogant developer. He’s generally personable, if not a little defensive from years in the line of fire, and genuinely believes in the Jumbo dream—unpopular as it is. But with such acrimonious and sustained opposition characterizing Jumbo since it first hit public consciousness, it begs a question: Why bother when support for the resort makes you public enemy No. 1?
“The answer is simple. Because we’re winning,” Costello tells me over the phone.
This claim needs a qualifier: the proponent may be winning the regulatory battle and have the provincial government in its back pocket, but it’s an unequivocal loser in the court of public opinion.
In the late 1970s, a posse of Canadian ski racing coaches—including Costello, an experienced NORAM and Kootenay regional coach—dreamed of a year-round facility to rival European locations like Solden, Hintertux and Stubai. Their collective gaze settled on Farnham Glacier about 10 kilometres northwest of Jumbo Mountain, and Jumbo Glacier Skiing Ltd. was founded to push forward the proposal for an Olympic training centre. It fizzled after Alpine Canada abandoned the idea in favor of Blackcomb Mountain in Whistler. Then, in the early 1990s, along came Oberto Oberti, a Vancouver- based architect with even bigger dreams for a four-season, high-altitude glacier skiing destination. With deep pockets, deeper connections and development savvy, Oberti puffed new life into Costello’s idea. Oberti’s Glacier Resorts Ltd. incorporated the Farnham Glacier training facility into its overall development concept for Jumbo, and from 2003-2009, race camps were held there until the $2 million in funding raised by Alpine Canada and the Calgary Olympic Development Association ran dry. It was in 1991, after Oberti made a formal proposal to B.C. Lands, that the battle with locals began in earnest, igniting the PR trench warfare that has raged almost continuously to this day. The ace in the proponents’ hands has always been the provincial government, which was onside from day one.
In 2004, the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office (BCEAO) received 5,839 individual responses throughout the public input period, a whopping 91 per cent opposed that ranged from concern over impacts to grizzly habitat and other wilderness values, to dubious economic merit given the area’s already high density of destination ski resorts including Sunshine, Lake Louise, Panorama, Kimberley, Fernie and newly minted Kicking Horse Mountain Resort—also an Oberti brainchild. The BCEAO nevertheless issued an environmental certificate (EC), albeit with nearly 200 conditions to be met before construction could start. But not a spoonful of dirt was moved. In 2008, with an EC and provincial endorsement of a master plan in hand but questions of local zoning still murky, Glacier Resorts Ltd. attempted to build a road to the toe of Jumbo Glacier to install a summer chairlift only to have an eight-week blockade thwart the effort. The following year, on the eve of the EC’s expiry, the province issued a one-time, five-year extension to the required construction start date. That same year, by a narrow one-vote margin, the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) approved a motion urging the government to designate JGR a Mountain Resort Municipality, in essence forfeiting local control and zoning oversight. In November 2012 the province complied, declaring this ghost village a municipality complete with provincially appointed mayor—Greg Deck, former mayor of Radium and RDEK chair—along with a kangaroo council of three. This mini banana republic then received $260,000 in public funds and, in its recent five-year plan, included revenue of $1 million—all of it public money.
Most see this as a bizarre and wasteful use of public funds, but then bizarre has come to signify this project. In March 2012 the resort received another boost when the Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) signed off on JGR’s Master Development Agreement that calls for a whopping $900 million in capital investment in a three-phase plan, even though the real source of money and possible investors, if any, remains unknown. In his ruling, FLNRO minister Steve Thomson concluded that “on balance, the commitments and strategies in place are reasonable” going on to say that “while there is not unanimous support for the project, all interested parties have had extensive opportunity to make their views known.” Still far from breaking ground, Glacier Resorts Ltd. nevertheless continued chipping away at opposition. The Ktunaxa Nation refers to the Jumbo region as Qat’muk, home of the grizzly bear spirit; in 2012 it filed for a judicial review of JGR in B.C. Supreme Court claiming the resort’s approval threatens their nation’s spiritual connection to the area. In April 2014 Justice Savage of the B.C. Supreme Court dismissed the file, saying “the process of consultation and accommodation” with First Nations by JGR had passed the test. The Ktunaxa vow to fight on. So to do the legions of anti-Jumbo citizens.
Costello and Oberti say bring it on. They may not be winning the battle with what they call “Kootenay hippies,” but government is on their side. The project has a longtime friend in Bill Bennett, the outspoken, often coarse Liberal MLA who has also held several cabinet posts. Though the proposed resort doesn’t fall within his East Kootenay riding, Bennett traveled to France in February 2011 on his own nickel to meet with potential investors. Then as Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, he helped stickhandle the controversial legislation that enabled the province to undemocratically appoint council members to resort municipalities. Glacier Resorts Ltd. also takes small comfort from remote pockets of vocal support, like the Kimberley-based Kootenays Rockies Tourism Association, which came out early in 1995 backing the resort. “That was our board’s decision then and it hasn’t changed. We’re in favour of tourism development that meets all the necessary criteria,” says CEO Kathy Cooper.
Beyond such rare public pronouncements, it remains a lonely business being a fan of JGR. And now it’s 11th hour again: unless Glacier Resorts Ltd. gets something in the ground this summer, the one-time EC extension will expire in October, 2014. Which is why the company has turned its focus to what it calls Farnham Glacier Adventures—and what opponents call an act of desperation. And just this spring came another strange twist: on April 15 the B.C. government enacted an order that would have exempted both sweet natural gas processing plants and all-season ski resorts from the environmental assessment process. Reaction was swift and strong from Jumbo opponents, who see the fingerprints of Bill Bennett, current Minister of Energy and Mines, all over the order’s thinly veiled effort to spare Glacier Resort Ltd. the inconvenience of going through another EA should it fail to meet the October construction deadline.
So far, the only visitors to Jumbo have been protestors, a couple helicopter loads of potential French investors (also met by anti-Jumbo activists), backcountry skiers and hikers who have seemingly been using the area since the dawn of time.
From an outsider’s perspective, the anti-Jumbo rhetoric can seem puzzling. The mountain-stripping coal mines of B.C.’s southeast corner have never garnered this much opposition. Yet the JGR story reveals legitimate issues with process through the Kafkaesque twists and turns the proposal has taken over the years, from pro-development MLA Bennett assuming the role of cheerleader, to a small-town politico appointed mayor of nothing, to a government that barely pays lip service to public input. Biologists have raised serious concerns about impacts to an already depressed grizzly population, and during the EA process, the ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection even acknowledged that “the Project would result in significant impacts to grizzly bears, both in terms of mortality risks and habitat effectiveness, including habitat fragmentation within and outside the Jumbo Valley.”
In a July 2010 letter to the BCEAO, Kootenay bear biologist Michael Proctor wrote that “keeping this core anchor sub-population healthy, intact and un-fragmented is likely essential to maintaining the long-term self-sustainability of the larger Canadian regional Purcell-Selkirk grizzly as well as maintaining the international grizzly bear distribution extending directly south into the United States.”
The problem, however, runs deeper than just process and environmental concerns. A real sense that the resort will rip the heart from one of the most cherished wilderness areas in the East Kootenays has been part of the public conversation ever since Dave Quinn, Kimberley writer, biologist and staffer with the environmental group Wildsight, was in high school.
“All our small towns have existing ski hills that were insanely overbuilt in the last real estate boom, and we don’t want to further saturate either the real estate or ski markets and lose [more] of the already thin ski-tourism pie to another, unwanted, unsustainable resort that has zero benefit for any local community,” Quinn tells me. “One of the 200 caveats of the EC is to control public access to all surrounding drainages to mitigate impacts on grizzly populations from the proposed Jumbo town and associated parasitic development. This means no more access up Horsethief, Jumbo, Glacier, and [other drainages]—all beloved and historic recreation destinations for locals.”
Many also question the resort’s technical feasibility. Last winter, climax avalanches rifled down both Jumbo and Farnham Creek valleys, snapping off huge swaths of timber and highlighting logistical challenges in upgrading forest service roads to paved winter parkways—not to mention the expense, to be borne at least in part by the taxpayer. RK Heliskiing operations manager Rod Gibbons also notes that the Commander Glacier—which falls within JGR’s proposed ski area—was an un-skiable maze of open crevasses and seracs last winter.
Pat Morrow, the renowned mountaineer, skier and longtime member of the group Jumbo Wild, lives in Wilmer, where one of his heroes and inspirations Conrad Kain homesteaded years ago. In 1919 the famous Austrian-born guide and doyen of Canadian mountaineering completed a solo first winter ascent of Jumbo Mountain, an epic tour de force in classic Kain style that would have required a 60-kilometre jaunt one way by ski or snowshoe (that detail is lost to history) from his Wilmer home. Morrow has scrambled, skied and climbed all over the Jumbo area and calls JGR a “Mickey Mouse operation” out of step with public will in the Columbia Valley. Development interests, of course, don’t often mesh well with public will. Morrow joined protesters in the Farnham Valley in the summer of 2013 to observe efforts by JGR to start work on a mini-resort at the foot of Farnham Glacier, an environmental action that included a 60-member orchestra performing “Requiem for a Glacier,” a piece written for the occasion. JGR’s efforts were again thwarted when West Kootenay activists blocked the logging road with a van, attracting the attention of Invermere police who arrived to break things up. By summer’s end JGR had loaded its bulldozers back onto flatbeds and gone home without having broken ground in summer and Morrow intends to be back shoulder to shoulder with other opponents helping to organize protests.
“We’ll be there not to blockade, but to observe and ensure that all 200 conditions of the Environmental Certificate are met,” says Morrow. “You can’t mitigate environmental impacts and damage to grizzly habitat, and you can’t mitigate impacts on people who have moved to the Columbia Valley for a certain quiet lifestyle.”
Several years ago, former NHL all-star defenceman Scott Niedermayer was enlisted to add his voice to the JGR battle and remains a steadfast opponent. He comes by his environmentalism honestly. Growing up playing hockey in Cranbrook, Niedermayer hiked, fished and explored with his parents in the southern Purcells, experiences that had a profound impact on his life and ideals. He spent the bulk of his career playing for the New Jersey Devils, and as he matured from a young player fixated only on the next game, his green sensibilities took hold, coming into acute focus every time he drove across the murky Hudson River. “Living on the East Coast of the U.S. opened my eyes to how much development and industrialization has affected the planet,” Niedermayer told me over the phone from California, where he lives with his wife and four kids while keeping a second home in the Kootenays. “Looking down at rivers that have been heavily polluted for decades made me appreciate how special the East Kootenays are and how as a kid I’d drink water out of pretty much any stream.”
That, in essence, sums up the strange zeitgeist of the Jumbo story; the thought of violating this wild sanctuary strikes a nerve with many as raw as the Lake of the Hanging Glacier is cold. Skiers, of course, are a fickle, sometimes hedonistic bunch, and it won’t surprise if some of those who proudly sport Jumbo Wild stickers now line up to buy lift tickets if JGR ever becomes more than a glossy brochure concept. Fortunately there are thousands more ready to make sure that never happens, and that this ghost resort remains a phantom.