The Yosemite Of The North Is Under Threat, Can It Be Saved?

‘On The Verge’ Profiles the Intersection of Tourism and Industry in Powell River, BC

words :: Ben Osborne
photos :: Robin Munshaw

The license plates say ‘Beautiful BC’, the tourism board’s slogan totes it as “Super, Natural”, but the truth is we can’t stop wrecking the beauty that we seem to treasure so much in British Columbia. It’s no secret, the mining and forestry industry brings in big money for the British Columbia economy—but is there another way to prop up the provincial economy without taking from its natural beauty?

Introducing the great paradox of access and enjoyment in beautiful British Columbia. The roads that are built to cut down the forests we treasure are the same roads that we use to access beautiful alpine landscapes, shuttle our mountain bikes up and down, and camp along as we look out over a view that is only afforded to us by a clearcut.

As a province, British Columbia relies on resource extraction to fuel the economy. But is there an alternative? For Powell River, B.C., there might be. Once a booming economy centred around one of the world’s largest pulp mills, things are changing, and the local rock climbing community sees a future that doesn’t include chopping down some of the most beautiful old-growth forests in the world.

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Check out the short film from Arc’teryx as well as our Q&A with the director Robin Munshaw for a behind-the-scenes look. —ML

Hey Robin. We loved the film, and we are stoked to be talking with the man behind it all.  Tell us a bit about yourself. Also, how did you come across the project?

I’ve spent a lifetime exploring in the Coast Mountains and have always enjoyed sharing this place through photos. I got into filmmaking about 5 years ago—coming from a hobbyist photography background, I really liked the added challenges that filmmaking brings to the creative process.

Powell River’s economy and industry are undeniably intertwined—is it possible to dissociate the two?

This project came about as a result of some time I spent filming mountain biking in Powell River – I’d met some members of the community that were looking at tourism opportunities and were really excited to share their amazing backyard with the world, so I was putting some time in exploring a couple of amazing backcountry riding spots and really digging into what the folks out there envisioned for their town.

Some members of the climbing community saw the mountain bike work I had done there and invited me to come out and check out the climbing in the Eldred River Valley. Through that trip I met a bunch of the local climbing community, heard their stories, and everything just kind of started falling into place. I reached out to Arcteryx with the pitch, and they loved it right from the get-go. They gave me full autonomy to work with the community to tell their story so we started digging into it.

There are a lot of tough subjects covered in the film, one of which is the battle of welcoming tourism and ‘blowing up the spot’ for lack of a better term, or keeping a place secret. The residents of Powell River seem very open to visitors, but was there any hesitance to visitors or a film covering their relatively unknown spot? 

One of the best parts about this town is not just how kind and welcoming everyone is, but how well informed the residents are. Pretty much everyone I talked to about the town’s past and future and what they hoped to see had a really nuanced understanding of what the growing pains and realities might be.

Massive, Yosemite-sized granite walls lie just outside Powell River.

More people means busier recreation areas and roads, but more economic and social opportunities for the town. That “hug of death” that a lot of recreation areas experience is certainly a risk, but there’s a lot of room between obscurity and popularity to figure out how to manage the transition with a bit of foresight.

I don’t want to speak on behalf of the residents or pretend that there is total consensus of opinion, but there’s real awareness of how things could change and an acceptance that it was worth sacrificing some of their solitude for the positive changes that could come of it. The other reality is that given how vast the backcountry access is behind the town, you could plop Vancouver in the same spot and still be able to find your own little place to get away from everyone else so it would take a whole lot of recreation for things to feel busy back there.

As a filmmaker, what about the story initially inspired you? Was it the climbing, and the conservation came secondarily, or the conservation aspect, then the climbing?

Until I started into my career as a film-maker, I was a conservation ecology researcher at Simon Fraser University.  I worked on a few different projects studying the impacts of energy development and climate change. One of the big things I learned while working in that field is how complex the socioeconomic and cultural issues can be that underlie conservation issues. This began as a climbing film, became a conservation film, then slowly but surely ended up as a mountain culture film.

“So that’s what I decided to leave viewers with – a sense of how important places like the Eldred can be to people, but how difficult it can be to navigate the quagmire of management issues and what that journey itself can mean to a community.”

As everything progressed and came together with the filming and editing, what kept precipitating out of all the content was the story of these climbers and their relationship with the wilderness. How they’ve laboured over this zone to create something really special in the Eldred River Valley, but also in turn been impacted themselves by the area. For such a small climbing community, it’s amazing how much they’ve accomplished and how much life and legacy has been defined by the valley.

It’s easy to sit here in North Vancouver where all the forests I can see are safe and pass commentary about logging, but when you live in a place that is still heavily dependent on forestry, the path between where we are and where we hope to get with respect to conservation goals gets less clear, especially in the case of an isolated community. A big part of this process for me was trying to layout how deeply impacted people can be by destructive practices in the wilderness, but how incredibly localized the considerations around conservation can be.

One of the many big walls, according to Powell River locals—would you share it, or keep it secret?

The result is that this film by design really lacked a distinct call-to-action. The residents have a lot of sometimes very divergent opinions about how resources and wilderness access should be managed, but the most consistent element across those opinions was generally that this isn’t a simple thing to solve. So that’s what I decided to leave viewers with – a sense of how important places like the Eldred can be to people, but how difficult it can be to navigate the quagmire of management issues and what that journey itself can mean to a community. This film is not about the conservation journey of a forest, but the cultural journey of a community.

There is a part in the doc that seems to suggest that recreation is a viable alternative to the industry in a place like Powell River—I felt like that could have been expanded on a bit more (maybe even in an entirely different movie) Can you give your thoughts on that notion? 

Seriously! You could do an entire TV series just on the climbing alone there, never mind the kayaking, mountain biking, mountaineering, ridge-running, dirt-biking… the region around Powell River is a mecca for incredible and world-class recreation, and it’s exploding.

Could tourism bring in enough dollars to replace industry? It’s worked in Whistler, but will it work elsewhere?

Huge glaciers, island-studded inlets, long meandering lakes, jagged peaks, ridgelines of glacial-polished granite, roaring green rivers… it really is endless. In an effort to keep the film to a manageable length, I had to give just the barest glimpse into the opportunities for recreation and exploration, but I’m sure you can expect to see more and more content coming out of that town over the next few years. I would highly recommend going to see for yourself, especially if you like raw, untamed adventures.

What are some things that you wanted to put in that you simply couldn’t? Or did you guys get to cover all the subjects you wanted? And specific shots, moments that you didn’t get to share? 

So much. And not just on the recreation side. There are a lot of big issues in this province with regard to forestry practices and oversight, there is no denying that. Big changes absolutely need to happen, especially with regard to harvesting our quickly dwindling old-growth forests and the loss of local jobs to exporting raw wood. This film touches some of those issues, but digging into them is a much larger provincial-scale project, and an entity unto itself.

The history of our province has shown that loud protest and physical intervention in the loss of old-growth can be a very effective conservation tool.

The other side of things I would have loved to have capacity for is spending time with local foresters. Humanizing the people on the ground in this industry is an important first step towards sitting down with them to have conversations about local management. You might be surprised how many of them you find common ground with – most of them are recreationists themselves, and they wouldn’t do what they do if they didn’t love being outside in the wilderness.

Building rapport with locals in the industry is a good way to start creating relationships that can create effective change – that’s how a lot of the progress in Powell River has been made by people like Christie Dionne.

The history of our province has shown that loud protest and physical intervention in the loss of old-growth can be a very effective conservation tool. Unfortunately, some really inspiring conservation wins are much more quiet and amicable so get less news coverage. There are lots of examples in this province of communities that have established conservation stewardships and regained local agency in managing their surrounding forests by building bridges instead of burning them, and it would be great to tell that story.

Thanks for chatting, Robin. It’s eye-opening to see the amount of old-growth logging going on, but it’s also hopeful to see some of the untapped beauty in BC, and everywhere around the world. Hopefully, we can turn that beauty into something sustainable for us to learn and grow from as a society. —ML