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Posted: July 14, 2018

Retallack proposal endangers South Purcells

“Perceptions,” by Gerry Warner

Op-Ed Commentary

Joni Mitchell said it best.

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” But here in the Kootenays we’re doing Joni one better and the results aren’t going to be pretty if they’re allowed to go ahead and will be a catastrophe for the Purcell Mountain Range.

Tucked between the Rockies and Selkirk Mountain Ranges lie the rugged South Purcells – a sea of jagged, granite peaks, deep, dank forests and shimmering, blue lakes bounded by the inland fiord of Kootenay Lake on the west and the Rocky Mountain Trench on the east.

Still largely pristine and well off the beaten track in busy B.C., the Purcells are our “piece of paradise” and that paradise is about to be marred on a grand scale by Retallack, a local, numbered company and adventure tourism operator based in Nelson in partnership with Yaqan nu?kiy, otherwise known as the Lower Kootenay Band near Creston.

The size of the tenure applied for is stunning – almost 700 square kilometres of wilderness including 161 km of helicopter accessed mountain bike trails. That’s right, mountain biking “adventure” now consists of helicopters loaded with mountain bikers and all their garb flying to the tops of the peaks, or as close as they can get, at which point the mechanized marvels and their testosterone-charged riders go careening down the mountainside in a cloud of dust to the valley below to be picked up by the chopper for a repeat performance of the destruction.

Can you imagine the sight? It’s almost like a war scene. Choppers hovering overhead, helmeted riders on their knobby-tired machines tearing down the slopes, chunks of earth flying in all directions along with alpine meadow flowers being torn out by the roots and animals – as well as hikers – fleeing for cover.

And all of this mayhem in a still almost pristine, roadless wilderness inhabited by furry marmots, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, endangered mountain caribou, wolverines and “Qat’muk,” the majestic grizzly bear sacred to the Ktunaxa people and revered by non-aboriginal people as well. Adventure tourism? It sounds more like a nightmare to this writer.

So far, the ambitious proposal has flown largely under the radar with Wildsight holding three public open houses and some scattered letters opposing the project in the local press. In a May 14 letter to the editor, Pamella Wik said Kootenay residents are fortunate to be living near to a relatively untouched mountain wilderness. “Yet in the South Purcell Mountains, all that we most value in nature is being threatened,” she said, adding the project would attract thousands to the area, panic the wildlife and push the few remaining caribou over the brink. “For that reason alone and with the supposed clout of the Species at Risk Act, this proposal should be dismissed out of hand.”

The RDEK voted against the 70,000-hectare project in its first meeting in July with board chair Rob Gay citing helicopter traffic, wildlife impacts and environmental impacts from the thousands of backcountry tourists it would attract.

The project, which also includes a lodge and a spa, contradicts the Cranbrook West Recreation Strategy, which was approved in 2005 after years of wrangling and severely limits helicopter use.

“The issue is they get in with helicopters and for many of the wildlife up in the St. Mary (valley) there’s just a conflict there,” said Gay in a July 9 newspaper story. Spokesmen for the St. Mary’s Rural Residents Association and the BC Backcountry Hunters and Anglers also opposed the mammoth project at the meeting.

“Our premise is that this will be a major disruption to wildlife and wild habitat . . .” said Backcountry spokesman Al Duffy.

Wildsight says the area is a “key for wildlife” and marks a “fundamental shift” in how wildlife is exploited in the Kootenays.

“The earth laughs in flowers,” said writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. I don’t think any flowers are laughing about the calamity that may befall the South Purcells, one of the last untrammeled wilderness areas in the Kootenays. Public comment to your MLA ends July 15, but I’m sure she or he will still listen after that.

Gerry Warner is a retired reporter, who has hiked in the Purcells since a teenager and treasures the area very much.

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