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Vancouver 2010: Whistler Nordic Centre Environmental Assessment Review
By:  Tom McCarthy   (2004/11/21)


In August, the Vancouver Olympic Committee posted its application for a certificate of environmental approval to begin construction of the Whistler Nordic Centre. The province of BC mandates that every development project undergo this environmental review process. The WNC is located in the Callaghan Valley, a wilderness recreation area slightly southwest of Whistler.

The following article discusses some highlights of the environmental assessment information; the amount of information is overwhelming, and I haven't had a time to go over all the data, so I'm sure I have missed some key aspects. Also, I don't have access to all the information, and I haven't read all the information that is available - although I wish I had the time to.

Development Plans

One of the most interesting aspects of the EA review information is the amount of firm information about the actual development. Bid Book plans are often subject to change, while information provided to support an EA approval is usually more final. The following is a summary of the major types of facilities that are due to be constructed, for use during and after the Olympics:

  • A K65, K90 and a K120 ski jump facility with stadium;
  • A biathlon facility with stadium, shooting range and 5 km of trails;
  • A cross-country facility with stadium and 15 km of competition trails;
  • Permanent parking lot facilities and internal on-site roads;
  • Infrastructures and services for the project including power, water, sewer, waste management, communications and fire protection;
  • Day lodge, maintenance and security buildings (including potential multipurpose meeting space with café or cafeteria, limited retail, rental and repair space for skis and bicycles);
  • Summer and winter recreational amenities to complement the high performance sport facilities, possibly including:
    • 50 to 70 km of cross-country ski/snowshoe trails;
    • a snow play area including Nordic terrain park, tube park with lift and outdoor skating rink;
    • summer mountain biking on the cross-country ski trail system;
    • 5 km of paved summer training trails for roller skiing, walking and running trails;
    • an outdoor climbing wall (possible);
    • hut to hut ski touring and hiking system (utilizing relocated waxing huts);
    • winter sleigh and summer trail rides;
    • staging area for motorized recreation utilizing converted parking lot(s), with RV center and camping facilities (80-100 sites);
    • temporary construction roads, parking structures and staging areas, to be removed, reclaimed and revegetated where appropriate;
    • access road upgrade from Highway #99.

Alternative Site Assessments

In an article almost a year ago, 'An Olympic-sized gamble: Take the safe bet and move the nordic events to Cypress Bowl', I questioned the Vancouver Organizing Committee's choice of venue location, based mainly on legacy, sustainability and environmental concerns. One of the research reports prepared for the EA submission, called "Assessment of Alternative Means of Carrying Out the Project" reveals the different options examined prior to the choice of Callaghan Valley. The following are the different options examined, as well as the assessment matrix that was used to make the decision.

First, some quick comments with respect to the selection process:

  • First, the report offers no evidence (although it may exist) that legacy considerations were taken into account in considering location choice. The main locational criteria was that the site be less than 45 minutes travel from athlete village to venue site. (page 4)
  • Second, three of the seven environmental criteria used to judge the alternative sites appear to have been based on comparisons to the Callaghan Valley sites- for example, a site described as having a fog/rain issue meant that it had a "A considerably higher risk (as compared to Callaghan) of getting fog and or rain during the Olympic weeks (February)." (page 6). There are a couple of problems with an analysis of this type. First, it is highly unusual for any kind of open-ended analysis to use one alternative as the 'benchmark' standard; usually, indicators by which to judge the merits of each alternative are decided upon before proceeding with analysis of alternatives. Second, this measurement is not scaled against anything but the Callaghan site; so Callaghan might have a 60% chance of fog/rain, while a site with a 70% chance of fog/rain would be 'considerably higher'; the same would be true if Callaghan had a 10% chance of fog/rain and an alternative had a 20% chance of fog/rain. This type of comparison does not allow objective measurements, as we know only the relative values of the alternatives, not the absolute values.
  • Third, much of the analysis appears to less than scientific; portions of the data were "obtained through consultations with ski hill owners/operators and long-time local skiers." (Page 5).

The following are the sites examined, and a summary of the analysis:

Potential Venue
Site Options
Cross Country SkiBiathlonSki JumpsBob / Luge / NaturalLuge / Skeleton
Callaghan- Alexander Falls2 Very good2 Very good1 Very good1 OK
Callaghan Lake / Park1 Excellent1 Excellent 2 FairD Terrain not suitable
Whistler - SouthD Terrain notsuitableWind exposureD Terrain notsuitableWind exposureD Wind issue1 Very good
Mt. SeymourD Usable area too smallD Usable area too smallD Wind/visibility IssueD Ice problems
Hemlock MountainD Snow qualityissueFog/rain issueD Snow qualityissueFog/rain issueD Wind/visibilityissueD Ice problems
Grouse MountainD Terrain notsuitableD Terrain notsuitableD Wind/visibilityissueD Ice problems
Hollyburn (Cypress) Snow qualityissueFog/rain issueD Snow qualityissueFog/rain issueD Wind/visibilityissueD Ice problems
Coquitlam MountainD Snow qualityissueFog/rain issueD Snow qualityissueFog/rain issueD Wind/visibilityissueD Ice problems
Squamish (below BrohmRidge)D Terrain notsuitableD Terrain notsuitableD Wind/visibilityissueD Terrain not suitableIce problems
Whistler (above ChateauWhistler Golf Course)D Usable area toosmallD Usable area toosmallNot EvaluatedNot Evaluated
Squamish (Mamquam Valley)D Usable area too smallNot EvaluatedNot EvaluatedD Terrain not suitable

Of the two Callaghan Valley sites, the Alexander Falls one was eventually chosen because it required less road access, was slightly lower in elevation, and was more suitable for the ski jumps and bobsled/luge/skeleton track.

Following the choice of the Callaghan location, a vast amount of effort went into consultations with stakeholders, community groups, and sport federations. This resulted in some changes to the plan to ensure that it met everyone's interests.

First Nations Impacts

The studies involved in the EA process identified several impacts to First Nations. There are two First Nation bands, Lil'wat (also known as the Mount Currie FN) and Squamish FN, who claim the Callaghan Valley as a part of their traditional-use territory. Traditional-use territory refers to the lands the First Nation group has used continuously for activities to support their lifestyle and values; this might refer to religious/cultural activities or sustenance activities; it does not necessarily mean habitation.

The negative impacts of the development are the lost use of the land for traditional/cultural and sustenance purposes. The Lil'wat had listed at least one spiritual site very near to development plans. Gathering of plants and hunting will be affected. There are several archeological sites that may be affected.

The positive impacts of the development are commitments by the VANOC to engage the FNs in the planning and development of the project, and potential employment and training opportunities (construction and operations). The province of BC has engaged in significant funding ventures with FN's in an effort to gain Olympic approval. Although I did not find evidence of this, there may also be revenue opportunities for the FN's with respect to the post-Olympics operation of the facilities.

Both First Nations have been consulted at all phases of the planned development, and changes to the site plan have been made following consultation. It is important to note, however, that support for the Olympics and the Callaghan Valley development is far from universal among Lil'wat and Squamish members.

Environmental Impacts

The environmental impacts that were considered in the environmental assessment application are very thorough. This article does not have nearly enough time to consider all of these impacts. However, the general conclusions seem pretty clear. While the Nordic Centre will have some environmental impacts, and will result in the loss of animal habitat, damage to fish habitat, etc., the mitigation measures will reduce the impacts of the construction significantly. There appears to be an emphasis on environmental sustainability in the planning of the Nordic Centre and in the subsequent mitigation activities and modifications to the existing plan.

So while the 'anthropocentric' (ie nature valued as something for humans to use) damage to the Callaghan may be significant - the loss of a mostly wilderness recreation area, and construction in a beautiful environment - the 'bio-centric' damage to the Callaghan seems to have been very well planned for and minimized during the design phase.

Legacy Plans

The legacy plans for the Whistler Nordic Centre are, at least in my mind, the key determinant of the value of the development. One of the documents associated with the environmental approval process, the Callaghan Valley Master Plan, (http://www.eao.gov.bc.ca/epic/output/html/deploy/epic_document_234_19155.html) discusses the legacy options at some length. It begins the Legacy section by providing some useful information on commercial large-scale Nordic events in North America. It notes the problems that Salt Lake City, Lake Placid, and Calgary all have with on-going funding and maintenance issues.

The plan then sets out an assumption of 60,000 skier visits to the area within three years of 2010, and 75,000 within five years. Although the demographics and recreation potential may be different, Salt Lake City planned for only 20,000 skier visits after the Olympics.

The 60,000 visits are to come from the following areas:

Greater Vancouver25,000
Other BC5,000
Destination Skiers15,000
Competitive Skiers in training5,000

These numbers depend on a set of assumptions. Whistler, according to the Master Plan, currently sees 20,000 skier visits per year; so this assumes that 50% of those will instead move to Callaghan. It should be noted that Nordic skiing at Whistler is not a destination activity; most of the 20,000 visits are likely local, and the move to Callaghan would require a drive of between 20 and 30 minutes. The Greater Vancouver number assumes that almost 25% of the 103,000 who currently frequent either Cypress Bowl or Manning Park will change their behaviour. Since 90,000 of those visits are to Cypress Bowl, the assumption in the Master Plan is that 25% of skiers in the Lower Mainland would prefer an incremental drive of between 1 and 1.5 hours, each way (2 to 3 hours both ways) to ski at Callaghan Valley rather than to ski at Cypress Bowl. I doubt those numbers.

The destination skier numbers, and the competitive skiers in training, are likely partially based on accommodations being on-site or close to the site. As far as I know, there are very minimal permanent planned on-site accommodations. The athlete's village will be in Whistler, at Function Junction, which is approximately 25 km from the Callaghan facility.

Regardless of the annual site visits, revenues will be a problem. The Master Plan notes that the annual operations costs of the jumps, biathlon, and cross-country ski facilities will be between $300,000 and $500,000 annually, NOT including depreciation costs. It recommends a legacy fund of between $45 million and $55 million, just for the Whistler Nordic Centre to ensure the sustainability of the site. If this funding does not come through, there could be an annual deficit. The Master Plan notes that "Most operations run in deficit, rely on annual funding from sources other than operations to maintain themselves, and look to new events or governments for capital injections when it is time to redevelop aging facilities. Major maintenance and capital replacement costs are often deferred at other facilities." (page 135) The Plan goes on to discuss the revenue generating opportunities available to the WNC, both summer and winter. They include mountain biking and the development of a golf course.

The management is to be handled by a non-profit Whistler Legacy Society. This group will be composed of the key stakeholders (COC, CPC, the FN's, the Regional District, etc) and will be expected to maintain high-performance sport training as their primary focus, but with commercial activity as their key objective.

Interesting Reading. . .
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