A decades-long dispute over the development of a proposed ski resort in the mountains west of Invermere is over.
The Ktunaxa Nation Council has announced that the area around the Jumbo Valley — known as Qat’muk — will be protected under a conservation framework led and governed by Indigenous Peoples.
Glacier Resorts Ltd has been trying to develop a year-round ski resort in the Jumbo valley for the last 30 years but has faced significant opposition from local conservation groups and First Nations, including a number of legal challenges that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
However, development rights in the Jumbo Valley have been fully and permanently extinguished, due to a partnership between the Ktunaxa, the provincial and federal governments, and conservation groups, according to a media release.
With just over $21 million in public and private funding, all tenures and interests held by Glacier Resorts Ltd have been bought out following a pair of agreements between the provincial government, Glacier Resorts Ltd. and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
Kathryn Teneese, the chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council, characterized the announcement as the beginning of a new chapter.
“We’re turning the page and now we’re bringing forward an opportunity, not just for the Ktunaxa, but, I think, our neighbours and other like-minded people to have an opportunity to work with us, to create a legacy that will be available for everybody’s future generations,” Teneese said, in an interview.
“…It’s a way to get something positive out of our decades-long battle and I just think that there’s so many things that could come out of it in terms of a different way of being and a different way of seeing our place as human beings on this planet.”
The Ktunaxa is working towards the creation of an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA), which is overseen by Indigenous governments and focuses on Indigenous relationship to the land, preserving both cultural values and biological diversity.
The creation of the IPCA is expected to take years of collaboration between the Ktunaxa, federal and provincial governments, and other parties. It will cover 70,000 hectares north of the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy and encompass the Jumbo Valley and parts of the adjacent watersheds.
Teneese noted the province recently passed a bill to align legislation with principles outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which was adopted by the global body in 2007.
“Here we have a way, in one small piece, of bringing some of that to life and that we, from this area, would be the leaders in that regard,” Teneese said.
While the area around Qat’muk is valued for biodiversity, it also carries significant spiritual importance to the Ktunaxa, as it is considered home to the Grizzly Bear Spirit.
Moving forward, defining boundaries and setting stewardship objectives for a protected and conserved area will be the immediate goal, which will be developed through consultation with the Ktunaxa, the provincial government, local communities and stakeholders.
That process is hoped to be well underway by late this year.
Public access to the Qat’muk and the surrounding area will remain the status quo moving forward.
Nancy Newhouse, the B.C. Regional Vice President for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, celebrated the announcement.
“This marks a significant step towards conserving Qat’muk in perpetuity, which will help maintain crucial wildlife habitat connections while also safeguarding a living, cultural relationship with the land,” Newhouse said. “We are honoured to support the Ktunaxa in achieving their vision of an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area in the Central Purcell Mountains, and we welcome the opportunity for shared learning of Ktunaxa stewardship principles and natural law.”
Details of the opportunity to create an IPCA first arose last August, when then-Environment Minister Catherine McKenna announced a $16 million federal contribution to protect the Qat’muk and Jumbo area.
Representatives from the provincial and federal government praised the partnerships that led to the creation of the IPCA.
“It took foresight and leadership from local First Nations people and other communities to get to the point where we can now work toward conserving critical habitat for species at risk over this vast area, namely the Grizzly Bear, the Southern Mountain Caribou and the Whitebark Pine,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Michelle Mungall, MLA for neighbouring Nelson-Creston riding, hailed the creation of the IPCA as the right thing to do.
“Today reflects the strength, tenacity and courage of Kootenay people, especially the Ktunaxa Nation. To be able to say that Jumbo, Qat’muk, will remain wild is a long time coming,” said Mungall,the B.C. Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.
“That we are working towards an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area is reconciliation in action and it is the right thing to do. Keep Jumbo Wild is no longer a bumper sticker pleading for the very centre of our region.
“It is a reality.”
An additional $5 million in funding is also being utilized for the IPCA, coming from the Wyss Foundation, Wilburforce Foundation, Patagonia, the Columbia Basin Trust and Donner Canadian Foundation.
“Together with the Wyss Foundation, Wilburforce Foundation, Patagonia and the Donner Canadian Foundation, we are honoured to support the Ktunaxa Nation in their decades-long effort to protect and steward Qat’muk and its cultural and ecological treasures for current and future generations,” said Johnny Strilaeff, CEO of the Columbia Basin Trust, speaking on behalf of the non-government donor group.
The protection of the Qat’muk area has been an ongoing matter of contention since the 1990s, due to concerns over landscape and wildlife habitat impacts and spiritual implications to development of the land.
The Ktunaxa issued the Qat’muk Declaration ten years ago, affirming the area’s religious significance and establishing a set of stewardship principles.
When the province approved a master development plan for the proposed ski resort in 2012, the Ktunaxa challenged it in court, arguing the provincial government hadn’t provided adequate consultation and that the project would infringe upon religious freedoms.
That case wound through the provincial superior and appeal court before landing in the Supreme Court of Canada, with the majority opinion ruling against the Ktunaxa and concluding that the government’s approval of the development was reasonable and didn’t violate religious freedoms.
Glacier Resorts Ltd also filed a judicial review after a provincial government cabinet minister declared the project was not substantially started by an October 2014 deadline. While the judicial review ruled the minister’s decision was unreasonable, it was challenged by the province and overturned by the B.C. Court of Appeal last summer.
The appeal court’s ruling affirming the provincial government’s determination that the project was not substantially started essentially allowed an Environmental Assessment Certificate — a permit necessary for the resort’s development— to expire.
While the province mulled the substantial start determination, Glacier Resorts Ltd argued that the minister should have considered not just physical construction, but administrative work as well.
By October 2014, on-site construction included the concrete floor slab of a day lodge, a concrete floor slab of a service building, foundation for chair lift anchors and various bridge structures and road work necessary to access the site.
However, aspects of the project were considered in non-compliance under the terms identified in the Environmental Assessment Certificate.
A formal proposal to pursue the development of a ski resort was filed in 1991. An environmental assessment process began four years later and lasted nearly a decade, when an Environmental Assessment Certificate was issued in 2004. The certificate was extended for another five-year term in 2009 while the proponent drew up a master development plan.
Glacier Resorts Ltd. envisioned a development with a ski base covering 105 hectares and ski-able terrain covering 5,000 hectares with elevations up to 3,400 metres