Update: Province rejects Mount Begbie protection plan request

In a response to a request to protect Mount Begbie from a proposed heli-access development, the B.C. government says it is busy working on land use plans in other areas. The response has touched off a new wave of interest in the Mount Begbie development issue.

Mount Begbie, with Revelstoke in the foreground. Photo taken from the Monashee Lookout on Mount Revelstoke. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine
COVER PHOTO: For our Summer 2020 Revelstoke Recovers cover contest, we invited public submissions, and received some great shots. We chose Adam Whittingham’s image of an osprey returning to its nest, with the majestic Mount Begbie in the background. In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the image is a great juxtaposition of things eternal and the temporal. See our other finalist images on pages 28 and 29. Photo: Adam Whittingham

Editor’s note: An abbreviated version of this story was first published in print as a news brief in the Summer 2020 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. Since it was published, it has led to renewed focus on this development proposal in Revelstoke, leading to a new online petition that has garnered more than 2,500 signatures in several days.

This story is an expanded version of the print version and also includes news on developments since we first distributed our print magazine on July 10.

The provincial government has rejected a request from the City of Revelstoke and the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District to create a management and protection plan for Mount Begbie, citing limited resources.

The provincial letter rejecting the request from the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District came from Kevin Eskelin, regional manager for the Southern Interior Recreation Region, on behalf of forests minister Doug Donaldson. The letter said that the province had updated its land use planning procedure, but was busy with several other plans, including Qat’muk Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, where the now dead Jumbo Glacier Resort was to be located, and backcountry land use plans in the Columbia Valley and the Golden area.

The letter also said the B.C. government is focusing on “projects identified as a high priority by First Nations to further the government’s commitment to Reconciliation.”

Mount Begbie as viewed from the Illecillewaet Greenbelt. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Eskelin continued: “Although we cannot initiate a new [land use plan] project for the conservation and protection of the Mount Begbie area at this time due to the constraints I described above, we do encourage you and all valued stakeholders on the land base to utilise the public engagement processes to insure their values and interests continue to be heard for projects within your local communities. Updates to the planning process will be posted on the website to keep the public informed of the projects’ progress.”

Read his entire response letter here.

In late June 2020, the Mountaineer reached out to a representative for the developers, who said the organization is still moving ahead with development plans, although Covid-19 has delayed progress. Nick Holmes-Smith is the owner and operator of Mustang Powder, a CAT-skiing company. Former spokesperson Ian Tomm said he is no longer with the development group and is now president of Eagle Pass Heliskiing.

Background on the Mount Begbie proposal

The Revelstoke Mountaineer was first to break news about the proposal for a resort on Mount Begbie. Rumours of the proposed development had been circulating around Revelstoke for months before we assigned freelancer and former Revelstoke Review editor Alex Cooper to dig into what was happening. The proponents had hired consultants and technical field workers to do preliminary studies on Mount Begbie, and in a small town, you can’t keep the lid on something like that for too long. Read Alex’s October 2018 story here.

Chasing rumours of gondola plans for Mount Begbie

We had spoken with Ian Tomm, who is no longer associated with the project, but it took some effort to get the story on the record. We published the first story outlining proponents’ plans in September of 2019.

Plans emerge for backcountry chalet and ski hut on Mount Begbie

Tomm is has been associated with the mechanized outdoor recreation industry for years, and once served as executive director of Heli-Cat Canada, a heli-skiing and CAT-skiing industry lobby group. He was a provincially registered lobbyist and appears to have been selected by the proponents as the man to advance the project through government hoops, and was the public face of the project.

After news of the proposed heli-access resort was made public, the proponents held a public meeting in Revelstoke, but faced a negative response from attendees, who criticized development plans on the mountain, which is currently accessed in summer and winter by backcountry enthusiasts.

Read our story about the September 2019 public open house meeting here:

Residents negative on Mount Begbie chalet plans at public debut

CSRD Area B rep weighs in on rejection

David Brooks-Hill is the director for the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District’s Area B (CSRD), an electoral area that covers all areas outside of City of Revelstoke limits, but has a permanent population of only hundreds.

He said the letter from the province was “disappointing,” noting the call for land use planning in the area existed before he was elected this term.

“I really do view it as being brushed off, which is pretty annoying,” he told the Mountaineer in a July interview.

Brooks-Hill said that land use planning was only one way to protect the area. Another possibility would be creating a park, but Brooks-Hill said CSRD staff are working on another park plan elsewhere, so it could be a couple years before they have resources to look into it here. In addition, a park would be expensive to develop, including costs like buying out logging tenures. Brooks-Hill said he wasn’t sure if residents are interested in a legally designated park.

Everywhere you go in Revelstoke, there’s Mount Begbie. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

One of the concerns of current backcountry users is that a park could further restrict existing uses on the mountain.

Aside from land use planning, Brooks-Hill said the request was for some kind of protection of Mount Begbie, but not necessarily a park, and that is up to the B.C. government.

“A lot of people seem to have a misconception that the CSRD has control over Crown land, which isn’t really true,” he said.

Revelstoke Mayor Gary Sulz is the Revelstoke municipal representative on the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District (CSRD) board of directors. He did not respond to our June request for comment.

NCES: Environmental group reacts

Kate Borucz, executive director for the North Columbia Environmental Society, said the NCES had received a similar letter from the province. She expressed disappointment. She noted an effort starting in 2012 that had brought many disparate backcountry user groups together to push for a land use plan (LUP) to settle issues created by expanding backcountry use.

A renewed drive starting in 2017 brought several backcountry groups together, calling for a LUP for the Revelstoke area. This, said Borucz, was caused by increasing conflicts between different backcountry users, such as hiking and biking on trails, berry harvesting, or mixed snowmobile and skiing use in the backcountry.

The LUP process must be led by the provincial government and would involve creating a plan for backcountry use in the Revelstoke area, hopefully settling outstanding issues created by increased backcountry volume. It would also involve surveying and research into existing uses.

“Once all of that is identified then user groups can find a way to use the area sustainably,” Borucz said. “The idea being that we have a sustained usage understanding between all of those user groups.

Mount Begbie, framed through the Revelstoke Workers’ Memorial. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

“We want to help expose people to nature, to have them feel passionately for these wild areas. We are not the end all and be all. We have to protect these areas for future use,” Borucz said. “We are not going to give up on this land use planning.”

Borucz said plans for a heli-access lodge on Mount Begbie was a catalyst for calls for backcountry planning. “It sparked a flame under people to protect wild spaces around Revelstoke,” she said.

In addition, the Revelstoke-based chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada is proceeding with plans for a backcountry trail and campground improvements on Mount Begbie, and has recently attained grant funding for some upgrading work on existing infrastructure on the mountain, such as trail maintenance. The drive by the ACC can be seen as competition to the Mount Begbie chalet proposal.

Analysis: Mount Begbie is an abiding symbol in a changing community

For all those looking in from outside the Revelstoke bubble, here’s our take.

Since the opening of Revelstoke Mountain Resort in 2007, tourism development has continued at a significant pace. Currently, there are five hotels in the development or construction process, including a major new hotel and conference centre at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, for example. Major housing developments are in the development queue. However, like with most mountain ski towns, Revelstoke is facing significant negative impacts of this development. Local resources are strained, and the municipal government is struggling to keep up with new urban-like pressures, on top of crumbling post-war infrastructure woes. Housing has become prohibitively expensive for working people when it is available at all, the sewage treatment plant is at capacity and creates a god-awful smell that affects an entire neighbourhood during bad years, and the blue-collar heritage character of the town that locals and visitors like so much is changing with each new wave of residents and visitors.

File photo: Hiking up Revelstoke’s imperious Mt Begbie is worthwhile even in overcast weather to see the glacier. Photo: Emily Kemp/Revelstoke Mountaineer.

For a good local summation of the local history of resort development and ensuing pressures from former Mayor Dr. Geoff Battersby, read these two stories from our colleagues at the Revelstoke Current, here and here.

Many in the community welcome the changes — after all, it was once a ‘dying’ town with no long-term plan or economic basis to tackle its infrastructure challenges. However, calls for more sustainable tourism development are now pervasive across the community.

The Revelstoke-area backcountry is peppered with high-end heli-skiing lodges, but the proposed location — the iconic Mount Begbie — was a bridge too far for many. You can see its peak from everywhere in town. It’s accessed by hikers and winter recreationists, and is truly special for many. Comments in public meetings and forums often talk of its symbolic value to residents.

If you ask around, you’ll find people in favour of the idea too, but the voices in opposition seem far more numerous. It has the hallmarks of another Jumbo Glacier Resort controversy, although the proposal isn’t on that scale.

The latest flare up of the issue also highlights some political disconnect at all levels. Although the provincial government had in recent years signaled potential involvement in land-use planning in the Revelstoke area, to some extent you can take the rejection letter from the provincial ministry at face value: as they outline in their letter, they are just busy with other LUP processes — they’re complicated, involved processes. Provincial staff already have a lot of resources deployed formulating mountain caribou recovery herd plans, which adds another layer of complexity on backcountry LUP. However, you wonder if the B.C. government was aware of the reaction the letter would garner. In addition, provincial authorities pay attention the local and regional government affairs; is it the time to partner with them on this plan? Has the municipality and regional district demonstrated they’ve laid the groundwork for land use planning by engaging with First Nations, key stakeholders in the process? Just this week, the City of Revelstoke adopted changes to its official community plan vision statement that dropped wording that said the organization would try to be influential in affairs in the North Columbia region outside of city limits.

It’s undeniable that the federal government has been more involved in the region in recent years, with Qat’muk, and especially using the federal species at risk act to force the provincial government to make plans for mountain caribou. Alongside, larger environmental NGOs have also gained more influence, taking their agenda upstream to lobby for legislative action at the federal level, the impacts resulting in challenges on the ground. Although residents’ working model of political lobbying may be to start municipally and work it up the chain to regional and provincial authorities, it’s clear that the political dynamic around land use plans is more fluid and dynamic, and will require expending more political capital and staff labour than just writing a letter to a provincial ministry.

Within this shifting political landscape, the online change.org petition that has sprung up has asked people to write the Columbia-River Revelstoke MLA, Doug Clovechok, a BC Liberal, yet the petition spells his name wrong and incorrectly identifies him as a federal Member of Parliament, which doesn’t help the cause. Partisan political involvement in translating the rejection letter into damage to the provincial government is apparent.

A new Facebook group, Project Begbie, has sprung up, featuring commenting and planning on the issue from opponents. Although the backcountry development scene can be a long game, due to the amount of local opposition that will translate into votes at the local, regional and provincial ballot, it’s hard to see this project coming to fruition anytime soon, but what will happen — a park, a protected designation, a land use plan, nothing, or something else, remains unclear.

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of revelstokemountaineer.com and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have aaron@revelstokemountaineer.com or call/text him at 250-814-8710.