Tag Archives: Emerald Forest

Creating Whistler’s Parks: Emerald Forest, the three-way

Nancy Wilhelm-Morden made many important decisions for the Whistler community during her time as councillor and mayor. However, the accomplishment she is most proud of from this time is the protection of the Emerald Forest.

Emerald Forest is the 56.3 hectare (139 acre) protected area between Whistler Cay and Alpine. It is a significant habitat corridor for many of Whistler’s furry and feathered friends and is enjoyed by hikers and bikers.

Before 1972 when the BC Highways Department extended Alta Lake Road connecting Rainbow Lodge (now Rainbow Park) to Alpine, there was limited access to the area now known as the Emerald Forest. The extension of Alta Lake Road, along with the construction of the first section of the Valley Trail between Whistler Cay and Alpine, meant that the Emerald Forest Lands became more readily accessible to recreationists.

When mountain biking took off in the 1980s the local trail builders started what are today Whistler’s world-renowned mountain bike trails. Many of the earliest trails were built through the Emerald Forest despite it being privately owned land.

Dan Swanstrom scanning one of his trails in 1994. Dan was responsible for building many of the popular trails through the Emerald Forest. Whistler Question Collection.

The lot had been bought by Decigon Corporation in the late 1970s. As the area became more popular with mountain bikes, ‘no trespassing’ signs started to appear. There were additional challenges as well when a mountain biker broke their back in the early 1990s and brought a lawsuit against the landowners.

Decigon made multiple unsuccessful attempts at getting the land rezoned throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then in 1996, the municipality increased the minimum parcel size of land with the Rural Resource 1 Zoning (RR1) from 20 acres to 100 acres. This meant that parcels zoned RR1 could be subdivided into 100 acres at minimum. Trying to maximise their return on investment, Decigon came forward with proposals to develop the land before this change came into effect.

Their preferred plan was for high-density development on a small section of the land. Forty single-family lots with a total of 240 bed units were proposed for 20 acres. Under this plan, the remaining undeveloped land would be protected as parkland, therefore retaining many of the bike trails. This would require rezoning of the land and the municipality was reluctant to approve the proposal because the number of bed units exceeded the development cap.

WORCA president Al Grey appeared in the Whistler Question in 1995, discussing etiquette and maintaining trail quality as more and more riders were getting into mountain biking. Whistler Question Collection.

Decigon’s alternative proposal involved subdividing the entire lot into 20 acre parcels for six single-family homes with 36 bed units. This fit within the RR1 zoning restrictions, however, would be a huge loss of established biking trails. Local community groups Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) and Whistler Off Road Cycling Association (WORCA) were also very active in campaigning for the protection of the forest for the environment and recreation.

Between 1996 and 1999, Decigon, led by the Houghton brothers, was constantly in the media trying to garner support from the Whistler community and council. However, they could not come to an acceptable agreement with the council and Decigon became more and more outraged as the years passed. Most meetings were held in-camera – closed to the public – and rumours were swirling about an impending lawsuit against the municipality.

Then, in August 1999 it was finally announced that a deal had been made for the Emerald Forest lands. Unbeknownst to the community, Intrawest had been brought in as a third party to finally make the deal happen. In the three-way deal, Intrawest purchased the Emerald Forest lands from Decigon for an undisclosed sum. The municipality then paid Intrawest $1 million and gave them approval for an additional 476 bed units so they could develop two further hotels in the Benchlands, in exchange for the Emerald Forest.

There was some disappointment toward this agreement because it meant that Whistler would far exceed the development cap outlined in the Official Community Plan. However, the unique agreement succeeded in ensuring the Emerald Forest was protected in perpetuity.

Creating Whistler’s Parks

Much of Whistler’s magic comes from the swathe of recreational green space that we enjoy within the municipal boundaries. For this we can thank the visionary thinking that started a Recreation Plan for Whistler, before Whistler Village even existed.

The value of recreational green space was not underestimated in Whistler even before the municipality was created. A community study by W.J. Blakely in 1973 stated, “The acquisition, either through direct purchase or as a condition of approval of development, of public open space and lake front land for community recreation should be undertaken as soon as possible on behalf of any new municipality incorporated.”

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) was incorporated in September 1975, and despite the many tasks facing them, a provisional Recreation Plan was written by 1976. ‘Recreation and Open Space Considerations for Community Planning’ was prepared for the RMOW by Norm Paterson representing the Whistler Developers Association, Paul Burrows representing Alta Lake Rate Payers Association, Paul Mathews from the Advisory Planning Commission and councillor Al Raine.

This report recognised that, “Recreation is the primary resource of the Whistler Community and this important asset must be protected and optimized for the benefit of the Whistler Community.” The report recognised that while the ski season was the prime driver of the economy in Whistler, the summer economy should not be overlooked.

Analysing recreational potential in Whistler, the report recommended investment into most recreational opportunities except for hunting, target shooting and ski jumping. Hunting and target shooting were recognised as too noisy and in conflict with Whistler’s other recreational opportunities, while ski jumping was not an economically viable investment for the RMOW, although private investment would be supported.

In the 1970s, Wayside Park on Alta Lake was one of the few designated parks in Whistler as it had previously been a provincial park. Apart from this, public access to Whistler’s lakes was limited. The report noted as priority, “The areas of active water related recreation should be developed as quickly as possible. The present priority would appear to be public beach access to Alta Lake and boat launching areas. The development of Lost Lake is also important.” In his copy of the planning document, Trevor Roote, who became the chair of the Advisory Parks and Recreation Commission (APRC), circled this paragraph and wrote ‘agreed’.

Wayside Park in July 1979. The park was the only public access to Alta Lake at this time. Whistler Question Collection.

Trev Roote, and the Advisory Parks and Recreation Commission (APRC) expanded on this preliminary planning document to create the original Recreation Master Plan. The plan was constructed largely by volunteers before there was a parks or recreation department in the municipality. It proposed locations for parks with a linear spine of trails to connect them. Doug Wiley, municipal engineer in the days when the parks person came under engineering, remembered volunteer Trev Roote standing by his desk for hours going over their proposal.

The plan was detailed and thorough. It is quite incredible comparing the highlighted and hand-drawn maps from over 40 years ago to the system of parks and trails we enjoy today. There are a few linkages still to be connected in valley trail system, notably between Alpha Lake Park and Function Junction, and from Mons to Whistler Cay. Other proposals that were not realised include the trail following the railway tracks on the west side of Alta Lake, south of Rainbow Park. On this section today pedestrians and cyclists are required to ride with vehicles often flying along Alta Lake Road. Apart from that, development has gone surprisingly close to plan.

Following the creation of the Master Plan, the land still needed to be acquired and the parks and trails developed. Whistler saw a period of rapid recreational development in the early 1980s. Lost Lake came first, followed by Meadow Park, Lakeside and Alpha Lake. This is not to mention many smaller local parks and facilities.

To turn the recreation plan into reality there are many interesting stories that the Whistler Museum will be exploring throughout spring, in the series Creating Whistler’s Parks. Keep an eye out for these to hear about the municipality’s longest lawsuit, and how the Emerald Forest is related to hotels in the Blackcomb Benchlands.

In 1984, Trev Roote, chairman of the Advisory Parks and Recreation Commission, became Whistler’s fifth Freeman in recognition of his five years as a volunteer at the helm of municipal parks development. Trev was a West Vancouver businessman, but spent considerable time in Whistler identifying recreational needs and gaining referendum approval of $2 million parks spending. Whistler Question Collection.

Bringing the environment into the mainstream: Ken Melamed, AWARE in the 1990s

Ken photo 1

Last week we wrote a post about the early history of local environmental group AWARE (Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment). We wrote the piece, in part, to promote this month’s Speaker Series featuring long-time environmentalist, former AWARE president, and former Whistler mayor Ken Melamed. Well, last Wednesday Ken delivered some great insights into the history of local environmental movements in the Whistler Valley, so we’ll follow up with some more AWARE history.

One of the great things about Ken’s talk was the broad perspective he brought and his insights into the political processes that informed the development of the Whistler Valley over the years. As a dedicated grassroots environmentalist and a successful politician, he was able to provide excellent context for why specific project and initiatives went forward while others were stopped.

First, lets’ go to Ken, and hear his explanation of one of the key turning points in our valley’s environmental history in the early 1990s:

One lesson he made very clear in the question and discussion session at the end of the night, was “It is always better to be at the table.” What he meant by this was, though it might entail challenging and discouraging compromise, you can always have more influence when you are involved in top-level discussions. Once Ken was elected to municipal council in 1996, he could be far more effective in trying to ensure environmental protection went hand-in-hand with the valley’s continued development.

One such victory was the protection of the Emerald Forest in 1997. Ken expressed disappointment with the compromise which led to some development of the sensitive wetlands, and feels that they could have gone into the development bargaining more aggressively than they did, he still is proud of the fact that only a few acres of the roughly 140-acre parcel were developed. If the original plan to develop the entire area had gone through, Ken asserted, “it would have been an environmental catastrophe.”

As Ken and council started to get serious about habitat conservation and putting intelligent controls on rampant development, AWARE became entangled in its most contentious campaign to date. The story is too long, twisted, and involving to fully recount here, but essentially, major protests sprung up in opposition to the logging of newly discovered old-growth stands in the upper Elaho Valley. Some of the Douglas Firs were estimated at 1300 years old! The activists (from both AWARE and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee) were dedicated to preserving these ancient stands, but some of the loggers were just as dedicated to doing their jobs. Things turned ugly, and violent clashes at logging road blockades actually led to jail time for some of the worst perpetrators. Despite the ugliness (perhaps, in part, because of it), today, the old-growth stands are protected, as well as recognized as a Squamish Nation Wild Spirit Place.

For a more detailed account of the story, read local biologist Bob Brett’s take on the Elaho Old Growth forests from June 2000.

At the same time, AWARE was becoming stretched too thin by the Elaho campaign, and numerous other interests that its membership was pursuing. It was time to take stock of the situation…