Still Unresolved, Saga of Jumbo Glacier Resort Heads Back to Canadian Court

Jumbo Glacier on Canada Day (Source: Lucas Jmieff/ Facebook Wildsight).

Ever since it was first proposed in 1991, the development of the Jumbo Glacier Resort in British Columbia, Canada, has drawn fierce opposition for its threat to the surrounding ecosystem and indigenous population. Now a recent move by developers in the glacier-rich region has added a new twist to the ongoing saga. Following a three-year hiatus, the developers have decided to take the case back to court to overturn the government’s 2015 decision not to renew their environmental assessment certificate, a decision that effectively put the project on ice.

The idea for a mega-resort at Jumbo Glacier was originally launched by Oberto Oberti, an Italian-born, Vancouver-based architect, and Grant Costello, a Canadian ski coach. Costello had long dreamed of opening a year-round, high-altitude ski training center in North America to rival those in Europe. The remote land along the east Kootenay Mountains in southeastern B.C. seems like a prime location, covered in 400 inches of cold snow every winter and boasting glaciers and spectacular landscapes. However, it also serves as a critical grizzly bear habitat and is considered sacred to the Ktunaxa First Nation.

The construction of the proposed resort includes a 3,419-meter high lift service, 6,000-bed lodge, and roads to make Jumbo Glacier accessible to tourists. The developers promised the mega-resort would serve as an economic source to the local communities, but the project has faced ongoing resistance from environmental groups like Wildsight concerned about the region’s wildlife habitat, as well as locals who feel there are already several ski hills in the area.

There has been an intense debate since 1991 within the provincial government on whether commercial activities should be allowed at Jumbo Glacier. By the end of 1994, the provincial government made a decision, designating the area as a special management area, a designation which generally would not allow commercial development such as a ski resort. However, the decision did in fact make a provision for the proposed resort subject to the provincial Environmental Assessment Act. The law meant any major project of large scale like the Jumbo Glacier Resort would need to pass an environmental impact assessment conducted by the provincial Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) in order to gain an Environmental Assessment Certificate (EAC) and conduct actual construction activities.

It took the EAO nine years to proceed with their assessment and exhaustive consultations. Withstanding environmental campaigns against the resort and protracted court battles between resort proponents and opponents, the EAO of the B.C. government finally granted a certificate in 2005 with 195 conditions to mitigate the negative impact of the project on the environment. However, by 2015, only two concrete pads had been built on the site. Thus, the B.C. government considered the project to have “not substantially started” and the certificate was set to expire.

“Jumbo Wild for our children and their children and their children!” (Source: Patty Kolesnichenko/Facebook Wildsight).

But the controversy is far from over. As Robyn Duncan, executive director of Wildsight and the lead of the two-decade environmental campaign against the resort, Jumbo Wild, wrote to GlacierHub, “The developers remain committed to trying to push forward this ill-proposed resort. Challenging the decision that canceled their environmental certificate was one of the only avenues to continue the fight.”

In the developers’ 2017 petition to overturn the government’s 2015 decision, they argue that the construction delays were derived from various factors outside of their control, such as blockades by environmentalists and political concerns from then provincial Environment Minister Mary Polak. The current minister, George Heyman, is expected to defend the government’s 2015 decision in court.

Wildsight and the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society were granted intervenor status in the case in May, which allows the organizations to join the ongoing litigation without permission from the original litigants. “If built, the Jumbo Glacier Resort would fragment a critical section of one of North America’s most important wildlife corridors. Grizzlies depend on this connected habitat to maintain healthy populations regionally and even continentally,” Duncan said.

The law firm that represents them, Ecojustice, said in an interview, “This assessment [2005] that it’s based on is now ten years out of date. Things have moved on, scientific understanding of the impacts that this project would have on grizzly bears, for example, has moved on. That’s why it’s really important that the courts uphold the law and prevent this project from going ahead based on outdated information.”

The case was heard during the last week of June by the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, but it could take months for the court to reach a decision. Several legal scholars in Canada told GlacierHub they prefer not to speak on the case until the matter has concluded in court.

In 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with developers on a separate but relevant case in which the Ktunaxa First Nation claimed a land use change would infringe on their right to freedom of religion. The ruling concluded that the Ktunaxa have a right to their belief that the Grizzly Bear Spirit inhabits Jumbo Glacier and that the spirit would be driven away in the event of permanent development, but that the government is “not required to protect the presence of Grizzly Bear Spirit itself in order to preserve the right to freedom of religion.” There were divided opinions among the judges in the case. Seven judges thought the Ktunaxa did not sufficiently establish that the area is a sacred site to them and that the land should be at the public disposal instead of indigenous territory. Two other justices found that constitutional religious rights could be reasonably infringed in the public interest and that the Ktunaxa should not be granted exclusive ownership over the land. The developers may use this recent court decision in their future legal arguments to justify the legality of the resort.

Meanwhile, Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality, an administrative jurisdiction established in 2012 for the planned resort, remains business as usual, releasing its annual report in late June. The municipality, with no development, population or tax revenues, has received a $855,299 grant from the B.C. government. The possible re-appointment of the municipality major, without a vote, has also gained harsh critics for being undemocratic.

Despite some negative signs in favor of the resort, Duncan told GlacierHub that she remains hopeful. “The Jumbo Wild campaign has been going strong for 26 years. There have been many ups and downs within those years, and I am confident that whatever comes our way, the people of the Kootenays will continue to rally against this ill-proposed resort that threatens grizzly bear habitat and the sacred territory of the Ktunaxa Nation,” she said.

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