Keep Jumbo Wild: The Fight to Protect Jumbo Glacier
By Mike Berard
For 24 years, residents of the Kootenays in British Columbia, Canada, have been largely opposed to a proposed year-round ski resort in the heart of the Central Purcell Mountains—a region that encompasses both cherished alpine backcountry and critical core grizzly bear habitat. At the time this story was going to print, the provincial government had just dealt would-be developers a significant blow by deeming the ski resort project not “substantially started”—a finding that would require developers to return to square one to reapply for an environmental assessment certificate in order to continue with their plan. As the developers contemplate their next move, local skiers, snowboarders, climbers, wildlife conservationists and First Nations peoples staunchly hold their line, hopeful that with this ruling, the quarter-century-long battle may be nearing an end. But whether the developers redouble their efforts or their opponents celebrate victory—what a long, strange trip it’s been.
Above: Jumbo Valley. Central Purcell Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Garrett Grove
The first time Leah Evans stood in southern British Columbia’s (B.C.) majestic Jumbo Valley, she remembers, “All the large trees were shining, reflecting in the lake. There were more glaciers than I have ever seen in one place. It has been etched in my mind ever since.” The Rossland, B.C.-raised skier had been brought to this rare, wild environment in the Purcell Mountains as a preteen outdoorswoman, by parents she refers to as “first-generation adventurers.” Together, her family had traveled via a ‘70s-era motor home to Alaska, the Yukon Territories and Bella Coola, but Evans immediately felt a unique, powerful connection to the Jumbo Valley.
As she stood there, her parents revealed a hard truth: The Jumbo Valley was in danger of being marked with a real-estate development and a year-round ski resort. Then they told her something even more shocking.
“You’ll have to save this place.”
So in seventh grade, in 2000, when Evans’s teacher asked her to write an essay about a controversial topic, this wild valley—threatened with one of B.C.’s most contentious developments—was her immediate choice. “I feel like people don’t know what is back there. It is so huge, and you’re so small. You have to go to understand the magnitude of what could be lost.” She’s been writing the Jumbo essay ever since.
At full build-out, the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort would offer 5,900 vertical feet of year-round skiing on a proposed 20–30 ski lifts over 5,925 hectares of terrain spanning four glaciers. The highest terrain would reach 11,217 feet—B.C.’s highest ski resort. Over the past 24 years, Italian-born, Vancouver-based architect Oberto Oberti has tried to get “Jumbo” (local shorthand for the proposed development) off the drafting table and into reality. Beyond the small, bizarre victory of having an imaginary town of Jumbo legitimized as a Mountain Resort Municipality (Jumbo the town has no residents, no infrastructure and no tax base, but has a mayor and town council), there has been very little movement. Spend time speaking to residents of the Kootenays—B.C.’s famous ski and snowboard mecca—and you start to understand why. Very few residents want this thing.
Ghost town. The Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality stands empty—a wilderness with no residents and no buildings—but still has a mayor and a town council. Photo: Garrett Grove
Bren Mackenzie and Brett Eyben, dwarfed by the Jumbo Valley. British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Steve Ogle
“I’ve watched it unfold my whole life,” the 26-year-old Evans says. “I’ve grown up with the issue, and the government hasn’t been listening. How can the plan still be alive when so many people have said ‘no’ for so long?”
Those who say “no” are myriad. Wildsight, a Kimberley, B.C.-based organization with a mission to “protect biodiversity and encourage sustainable communities,” has stood with locals in staunch opposition of Jumbo. “There are so many reasons to oppose the Jumbo Glacier Resort,” says Wildsight Executive Director Robyn Duncan: “the threat to grizzly bears, a glacial water supply, the fact that the area doesn’t need another ski hill, the desecration of sacred First Nations territory and the end run around the democratic process. We’re united in our deep sense of place and our commitment to keep Jumbo wild.”
Since 1946, local hunter, fisherman and trapper Nolan Rad has mined the Purcell Range’s deep, dark veins; logged their flanks; and pulled fish from the crisp streams that bisect the valleys. For the past 20 years, he has served on the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society. The Shuswap First Nations Band—the closest to Jumbo’s proposed site—agreed to the project, citing “practical and meaningful economic opportunities,” but the much larger Ktunaxa First Nation has opposed it, claiming the Jumbo Valley is within a spiritual area called Qat’muk, the home of their Grizzly Bear Spirit. “The Grizzly Bear Spirit is an important part of our spiritual beliefs,” says Ktunaxa spokesperson Kathryn Teneese. “It is our view that our beliefs should be acknowledged and recognized on the same basis of other belief systems in this world.”
Brodie Smith, 29, was born and raised in Invermere. He’s an Association of Canadian Mountain Guides ski guide, a professional member of the Canadian Avalanche Association and the newest director of the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society. Smith has been backcountry skiing in the Purcells for the past decade and guiding in this range for the last five years. He believes building a resort is shortsighted. “There’s a reason Europeans and other people from around the world flock here to experience the wilderness of North America: They have very little left. By creating ski resorts,” says Smith, “we don’t stand to gain more wilderness, only lose it.”
And then there is the collective community: For the past two decades a ubiquitous East Kootenay bumper sticker has proclaimed an almost universal desire to keep “Jumbo Wild.” The overwhelming sentiment seems to be that communities in the Kootenays don’t want this resort, don’t need it and consider themselves stronger without it.
The vast majority of skiers and snowboarders around the globe ride lifts and love them, even those who claim the backcountry as their chosen playground. So there’s an inherent tension in the fact that many might drool in anticipation of, and initially support, a new ski-area development like Jumbo Glacier Resort; with a promise of new, vast, lift-serviced terrain, one might understand why. But the ambitious Jumbo Glacier Resort build-out plan includes 5,500 hotel beds and 750 staff beds, while nearby, locally owned ski resorts like Panorama, Kicking Horse and Revelstoke struggle to stay viable in an industry that’s been on a steady decline for over a decade. What’s built is built, and the effects on environment and community of any ski resort are not small nor easily reversible. They’re also especially poignant when resorts operate well under capacity year after year, as many do. Any community or group of communities must closely and fearlessly evaluate the need for another resort. It must ask itself and its government: Do we need another ski area here when so much hangs in the balance?
Local skiers and snowboarders largely oppose the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort, preferring to ride lifts at existing local resorts or tour into the backcountry under their own power and experience. Photo: Garrett Grove
Alex Yoder, Jumbo Pass area. British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Steve Ogle
An immense, solitary creature, the grizzly bear is more fragile than we believe, each requiring up to 2,000 square kilometers as a home range. When the home ranges of many bears are fragmented—as the development of Jumbo Glacier Resort will most likely do—Ursus arctos horribilis will feel the effects. Fragmentation in the trans-border British Columbia-USA region puts the resulting smaller grizzly populations at higher risk. DNA surveys done over a decade ago across the central and south Purcell Mountains found that there were significantly fewer grizzly bears in the Purcell Mountains than the B.C. government estimated—in some cases, that number was not far from the threshold for being considered threatened by B.C. government standards. Dr. Michael Proctor—one of the world’s leading bear biologists—says this is disturbing, not only for Jumbo, but for all Purcell grizzly bears. “Keeping this core anchor subpopulation healthy, intact and unfragmented is likely essential to maintaining the long-term self-sustainability of the larger Canadian regional Purcell-Selkirk grizzly, as well as maintaining the international grizzly bear distribution extending directly south into the United States.”
In other words, if bears cannot live and thrive in the Jumbo Valley, they may have trouble regionally in the long run.
In 1974, activist John Bergenske helped establish the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy Park, the only intact ecosystem in southeastern B.C. After several days traversing the contested Jumbo region, Bergenske pauses for a moment in the Jumbo Hut. Photo: Garrett Grove
Despite the creation of a resort municipality of Jumbo and some hastily poured concrete foundations at the proposed resort site, Canadian Environment Minister Mary Polak still determined in late June of 2015 that progress was insufficient. She found that “the physical activities undertaken ... did not meet the threshold of a substantially started project” and that Glacier Resorts Ltd. would have to apply for a new environmental certificate to continue. Meanwhile, for locals, certain facts remain obvious: There is no town of Jumbo. No one lives there. Real towns spring up organically where like-minded people settle. They take time and shared effort to develop into authentic communities, and this corner of British Columbia is filled with great examples: Nelson, Golden, Revelstoke, Argenta, Rossland, Fernie, Invermere. You can see community on the bumper stickers, in the roadblock protests and during town council meetings. You can hear it in passionate, informed voices on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation morning talk shows. You can feel it in the sense of unity that rises around you when you mention the word Jumbo in any public venue. This is what community is—people finding a common voice in support of their needs. In the Kootenays, those needs are often wild, untamed places. A real-estate development and a government designation don’t make a community. People do, and the people who live here have never wanted Jumbo Glacier Resort.
“I was standing on a peak in Jumbo this winter,” says Evans. “I looked out at the glaciers and thought, ‘Who’s going to live here? Who wants to live here?’ People find a place that speaks to their heart and they settle. They did that in the Columbia Valley more than a century ago. No one has wanted to put down roots in the Jumbo Valley. Why would they? It’s so wild and raw. If there was supposed to be a community back there, there’d already be one.”
Oberto Oberti has maintained that his dream is to build a ski resort that would deliver deep, light Purcells powder year-round in a location similar to his native Europe’s alpine regions. Backcountry skiers and splitboarders already love the Jumbo area for its wide-open glacial turns, so why wouldn’t lift-access skiers? But the people who live in the communities most likely to be affected—skiers, snowboarders, hikers and climbers among them—have asked themselves the question and answered it. They don’t want a resort here. They can visit more than a dozen established ski resorts within a three-hour drive—including Invermere’s own Panorama Mountain Village—and can still ski, hike and climb Jumbo Pass via their own two feet and a heartbeat. They don’t need to impact raw lands that remain sacred to other humans and critical for wildlife survival. Given the complex and often bizarre interplay between the Jumbo developers, the British Columbia government and the opponents on the ground, the convoluted battle over the Jumbo Valley may well rage on, but the reasoning of the residents of the Kootenays has always come down to a starkly straightforward statement:
We have enough already.
Say NO to Jumbo Glacier Resort and YES to permanent protection for the Jumbo Valley. Visit our non-profit partners at Wildsight and sign the petition today.
WATCH THE FILM
Set against a backdrop of incredible backcountry ski and snowboard footage, the fight to protect Jumbo Valley can be seen in Jumbo Wild a gripping, hour-long documentary film by Sweetgrass Productions. Visit patagonia.com/jumbowild for film tour dates.
This story first appeared in the Patagonia Snow 2015 catalog.