He wanted to build a ski yurt. Others wanted to log. Ecological concerns killed only one of the proposals
There’s a battle in the backwoods of BC between adventure tourism and raw resource extraction, and according to some, tourism is losing in a big way.
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This article was produced in collaboration with Fraser Valley Current, and is being published today on both websites.
Chilliwack mountain guide Paul Berntsen thought he had a solid proposal. He wanted to bring clients to a yurt on a chunk of Crown land between Manning Provincial Park and the Upper Skagit River Valley to experience the area’s bountiful backcountry skiing.
Located just north of the US border, the unprotected chunk of mountains is known as the “donut hole.” Berntsen knows it well, having explored and skied there extensively as a young man. Decades later, in his 60s and a seasoned professional mountain guide, he was growing tired of heli ski guiding and was looking for an opportunity closer to home that he could co-manage with his two adult kids. So in 2017, he applied for a commercial recreation tenure in the Upper Skagit area at the Surrey office of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development (FLNRO.) His pitch: a small, locally-owned business that would have minimal environmental impact.
But Berntsen was about to descend into years of shifting goal posts, changing personnel, and confusion. On Aug. 10, 2020, three years after first submitting his application, and following numerous changes to it, FLNRO told him his proposal had been denied. In a letter signed by Jacqueline French, Section Head for Crown Land Authorizations, the ministry cited safety concerns regarding Berntsen’s proposed road access for shuttling guests via snowcat to the yurt. The ministry also said his application “did not include sufficient detail on how the proposed activities would minimize or mitigate impacts to sensitive species and habitat.”
Berntsen was dumbfounded: he had spent about $50,000 in wildlife consulting and other fees as he worked his way through the paperwork. While his application ground through the approval process for three years, BC Timber Sales (BCTS), which also falls under FLNRO’s purview, greenlit a logging operation in the same area. Furthermore, Imperial Metals, the company that owns the notorious Mount Polley mine near Williams Lake, was permitted to conduct exploratory work on a mineral claim that it owns in the valley. Both left behind a mess, Berntsen says.
He isn’t anti-logging. Having worked as a faller before getting his mountain guide’s ticket, Berntsen knows his way around the woods.
“If the environmental concerns over our non-mechanized ski touring operation are legitimate, what about the same concerns applied to logging? They trashed the place and the small creek coming out of Norwegian Lake has been re-routed and diverted out of its creek bed,” Berntsen says. “This is just about double standards. I still get really upset about it.”
The salt on the wound for Berntsen came when he discovered that the logging company—after an increase in stumpage rates—had left what he estimates to be dozens of truck loads of Engleman spruce, Balsam, cedar and hemlock stacked up and lying on the ground where he had just wanted to ski.
Revision number 13
Lower Mainland helicopter pilot Nick Drader has also run up against a wall at FLNRO since he applied for a commercial recreation tenure for a chunk of mountains between Harrison Lake and the Fraser Canyon. His plan was to fly guests into remote lakes for guided fishing and paddleboarding trips in summer, and in winter run a boutique helicopter skiing operation. In his original application, he also asked for a permit to build a small, six-person cabin on Winslow Lake, east of Harrison Lake. But FLNRO rejected the cabin idea while BCTS approved several logging cutblocks, one of which overlapped his proposed cabin site on the north side of Winslow Lake. BCTS has since removed the offending cutblock from its operating plan, but only after Drader made his concerns loud and clear to FLNRO.
Five years after submitting the application, Drader says he’s on revision number 13. He says he has done all that’s been asked of him, including shrinking his proposed tenure by one-third to accommodate wildlife habitat concerns. Drader estimates that he’s spent roughly $100,000, most of it in helicopter time doing flyovers and aerial surveys. Still, he hopes that by early 2022, FLNRO will greenlight his application for the next stage, First Nations consultation.
“The experience has left me feeling so frustrated,” Drader says. “I’m a one-man show. It’s all a bit strange.”
It’s a familiar feeling for Paul Berntsen, who is so upset about his experience that he lodged a formal complaint with the Office of Ombudsperson, the arm’s-length government agency responsible for investigating public complaints about the administration of government programs and services.
The office has a big mandate, like FLNRO, the sprawling super-ministry responsible for the stewardship of Crown land and, according to its website, ensuring the “sustainable management of forest, wildlife, water and other land-based resources.”
It’s also the ministerial nemesis of many other tourism operators, who say FLNRO is stacked against them and is rife with contradictions and confusion about what exactly is “sustainable” land use.
Scott Benton, the Victoria-based executive director of the Wilderness Tourism Association, says Drader’s and Berntsen’s boondoggles are all too common.
“This is a very lively discussion within the adventure tourism sector,” Benton told Capital Daily. “And it’s not a perceived bias, it’s real.”
According to Benton, bias in FLNRO offices that seems to favour resource extraction over tourism has been the topic of many phone calls and in-person meetings between tourism sector leaders and government officials.
“It’s not an either/or thing. We’re just trying to get some policy in place and have government recognize that tourism is a valuable economic driver,” Benton says. “We’ve been at it for two and a half years and we haven’t really gotten anywhere.”
And that says a lot, according to Benton, especially in a province that bills itself Super, Natural BC. In 2018, tourism amounted to $8.3 billion in GDP, more than mining and forestry combined. Adventure tourism—activities like heliskiing, mountaineering, rafting, hiking and backcountry skiing—was responsible for 10% of overall tourism revenues. In the Fraser Valley alone, outdoor recreation is estimated to contributed about $950 million each year to the local economy. Though these numbers may speak loudly, tourism businesses and advocates still struggle to get their voices heard. FLNRO did not respond to an interview request.
‘Tourism is at their mercy’
Breanne Quesnel, who co-owns Spirit of the West Adventures with her husband Rick Snowdon, knows the struggle well. In fact, it’s an ongoing battle for their Quadra Island-based kayaking business.
One of the company’s bread-and-butter sea kayaking base camps is located on Boat Bay, directly across Johnstone Strait from the Robson Bight Michael Biggs Ecological Reserve. In 2011, TimberWest was set to log a 60-hectare chunk of forest within sight and easy hiking distance of their camp. So Quesnel and Snowdon decided to crunch numbers and do a quick comparative economic impact study. They concluded that the revenue generated by tourism from their company’s one-hectare Crown land tenure on West Cracroft would earn as much in three years as clearcutting 60 hectares behind their camp.
“We didn't put together a formal study or anything, but based on the numbers of the day, we would out-earn the cuts that were going to affect our camp in under three years,” says Quesnel, who is also a WTA board member. “The rotation on the trees is a minimum of 60 years. Our camp keeps on ticking while the trees keep appreciating in value and the government keeps collecting our taxes and fees year after year.”
Despite phone calls and emails asking the district forester to adjust the cutblock size and location to minimize the visual impact on tourism, logging went ahead as planned.
What bothered Quesnel wasn’t even the logging itself, she says: “It was the unwillingness to leave a small strip that would be very visually impactful and just continue logging over the height of land that we fought so hard to prevent. It’s all Crown land and it’s supposed to be managed in the best interests of the people of BC,” Quesnel says. “The current legislation definitely gives forestry the upper hand and tourism is at their mercy.”
Gabriola-based biologist Steve Wilson has worked for many similar mom-and-pop adventure tourism operations in more than 20 years of wildlife consulting. In that time he has helped more than one client navigate the tenure application process. The problem, he says, boils down to entrenched institutional bias in FLNRO.
“When a lot of staff did their schooling and fieldwork, it was more often than not in the resource extraction sectors,” Wilson told Capital Daily over the phone from his office on Gabriola Island. “Many of these civil servants just don’t understand adventure tourism.”
But there are other issues, Wilson says. Specific legislation and acts govern both the forest and mining operations: the Forest and Range Practices Act and the Mines Act. No such legislation exists for tourism. If it did, Wilson says it would give FLNRO staffers a more solid framework for assessing the environmental impact of wilderness tourism.
There is little conclusive science around the impact of helicopter skiing, cat skiing, mountain biking, guided hiking, and other backcountry pursuits on, for example, mountain goat or the critically endangered mountain caribou. And field research is expensive and time-consuming. Then there’s the fact that mining and forestry are legacy industries that have been part of BC’s economic DNA for more than a century, while adventure tourism is relatively late to the party. As the demand on BC’s Crown land continues to grow, it adds up to a challenging scenario for small adventure companies trying to get a piece of this shrinking pie.
“There’s this patchwork of requirements throughout the province and they vary depending on what FLNRO office you deal with. There’s no consistency and this has been identified by the [tourism] sector as a problem,” Wilson says. “If you leave it up to the staff’s discretion they’ll use a higher level of precaution in their decision-making.”
It results in FLNRO staffers making land-use decision that are opaque and at times even absurd. For example, Wilson points to a scenario where a backcountry ski touring company may be prohibited from guiding clients in winter ungulate range, while a month earlier a snowmobiler could have been allowed to access the same area to hunt deer.
“Let’s face it, when the snow melts and the tracks are gone there’s very little impact from a ski-touring operation,” Wilson says.
He believes what is needed is a clear line of authority in Victoria with someone in government directly responsible for the environmental impact side of tourism. In the meantime he fears tourism entrepreneurs like Berntsen, Drader, and Quesnel will continue to get frustrated by the process.
Old habits die hard, but it’s past time for BC civil servants to move on from the days when falling trees and mining rocks were the only Crown land considerations, Wilson says.
“I support adventure tourism. It aligns well with BC’s image and I think it’s only going to grow.”