SMITHERS: A BACKCOUNTRY SUCCESS STORY
Last week the Telegraph featured a story on the latest in a string of efforts by the Friends of The Rossland Range to protect the backcountry around Rossland with some form of provincial designation. That effort, generations in the making, has yet to achieve a lasting result. As they begin again, this time seeking a designated recreation area, they may wish to look north to a similar project in Smithers which has successfully pulled off a designated recreation area in an effort that took less than a year from conception to completion.
Sitting next to the east slop of the Coast Mountains, Smithers, much like Rossland, is an outdoor recreation mecca. Mountains, glaciers and rivers in close proximity to the city have long lured seekers of dirt, trees, water and powder out of their homes and into the wild. The similarities extend further: both towns exist in relative isolation from major centres, both have ski resorts that aspire to grow, and, finally, both boast a hearty population of backcountry users keen on making the most of the nearby mountains and non-profit societies made up of folks dedicated to preserving and improving trails and access into the hills.
In Smithers, the Bulkley Valley Backpackers Association (BVPA), with upwards of 120 members, is that group. In early 2009, during the height of public stimulus spending Jay Gilden, vice president of the BVPA, wondered if his group might be able to make use of some of that money.
“I heard there were job opportunities grants available, and at the time it was money that had not been applied for and was looking for a place to be spent,” recalled Gilden. “ I went to a fellow in this area who is one of the most active backcountry skiers, and he had this idea about building a little backcountry area on what’s known as Hankin Mountain just northwest of town.”
That initial meeting kicked off a remarkably fast and efficient process to create what has become Canada’s first community backcountry ski area.
With some initial thoughts in hand, Gilden went to the Backpackers Association to see if they would be interested in supporting, sponsoring and ultimately managing such a ski area. The group worked on and agreed among themselves on a location, what such a backcountry ski/hiking area would look like, and how it would operate. Then they quickly put together a plan of action.
“The backpackers said they would be willing to sponsor it and we made an application to one of the local forestry consultant companies, and it got approved,” continued Gilden.
The area in question included Hankin Mountain, which was the first location to be worked on. In coming years, the project will be expanded to the Evelyn Elliot Mountains to the southeast of Smithers and closer to the city.
The idea of building some type of backcountry ski/recreation area had been around for a while, but the actual organized plans and push only began early in 2009.
“After 20 years of dreams, we found provincial funding to support the development of a backcountry ski and recreation area,” said project manager Brian Hall. “This area is set to be non-motorized so it’s a development-free zone. Bring your skis, bring your skins and bring your sense of adventure. There are no lifts, so it’s for the self-propelled only. The skiing is free, the views are spectacular and the sense of wilderness will surround you.”
The land in question was entirely crown land and in an area that was not used by snowmobilers. Hankin Mountain is also outside of the city’s municipal boundaries, so the city did not play a large role in the process. The province, on the other hand, was a major supporter of the effort.
“The Ministry of Culture Tourism and the Arts was very supportive and helped guide us through the whole process. Part of what we got from the province was an agreement where we would maintain it for a certain number of years. It’s a designated recreation area now. They drew up the boundaries and established it as non-motorized and gave us the responsibility and authority to maintain it, build it and manage it,” explained Gilden.
What made the project feasible was in large part the federal stimulus dollars. The group received $408,000 to cut runs and add signage as part of the Job Opportunities program, hiring out-of-work foresters. They also received another $400,000 from Western Economic Diversification to build a parking area, glade and cut more runs, renovate an existing cabin on the site, and link the trails together with up-tracks, hiking and cross country touring and snowshoe trails.
Less than nine months after the initial concept was put together, the area opened to the public in December, just in time for the 09-10 winter season. The area, which has remained free to use, now boasts thousands of acres of backcountry ski touring and summer hiking terrain. Eight cut runs have been established so far, linking the high alpine terrain to the parking lot below. The cut runs have established skiing zones linking up over 4o kilometres of touring and downhill trails, creating backcountry skiing opportunities for all abilities. A big gain in the project was the relatively safe avalanche terrain below the treeline that also allows great skiing on low visibility days and keeps the snow in better condition when the alpine is sun-affected or windblown.
In the future additional runs and over 80 total kilometres of backcountry trails will be completed. A new day use shelter is also in the works for the mountain to compliment the renovated existing cabin on the mountain. Moving forward in years to come, a similar project will be developed on Eveyln-Elliott Mountain.
The entire area is free to use for anyone and has seen lots of use through it’s first winter. This is largely possible thanks to generous support from local businesses who have donated funds to keep the 34km access road plowed through the winter.
Critical to the project were a series of consultations with the first nations groups in the area as well as public notices and meetings with stakeholders to gain local approval for the process. Throughout however the group was not met with any stiff opposition to the project.
While Smithers may have beat Rossland to the punch on establishing the first community owned and managed backcountry recreation area and done so in a relatively short time compared to efforts in Rossland the success of this project should bode well for FORR’s efforts along the way.
Where Rossland has failed in efforts for a Provincial Park and community tenure, Smithers has succeeded with a designated recreation area. FORR is now taking the tack of working towards a designated recreation area as well which now has a positive and successful precedent set with the provincial government to work.
Should a similar style recreation area be developed in the Rossland Range? If so how should it be done for the greatest benefits to all user groups? These questions and more will opened up to the public on May 20th as FORR kicks off it’s public consultation process.