By Keith McNeill
A simmering controversy between the snowmobile and heli-ski industry in the Blue River area boiled over a few weeks ago with threats on social media of violence and vandalism.
That immediate situation appears to have cooled off somewhat since then.
However, the back-story behind conflict began about two decades ago, according to Albert Venor, president of the Blue River Powder Packers snowmobile club.
That was when improvements in snowmobile design allowed more and more riders to get into terrain they could not access before.
“All of a sudden the heli-ski industry had people showing up in their backyards. It changed how they did business going forward,” he said.
“That’s not going to change. The technology of snowmobiles keeps getting better and better.”
As a result of those early conflicts, heli-ski operators such as Canadian Mountain Holidays in Valemount and Mike Wiegele in Blue River pushed to get areas set aside for their use, he said.
Some of these closures were under the Wildlife Act to protect caribou, which allow heli-skiing with restrictions (basically, if they see caribou they must stop using an area until the animals leave) but prohibit snowmobiling.
This is based on what Venor believes is faulty science that finds heli-skiing is less of a danger to caribou than snowmobiling.
“For example, they say snowmobiles leave tracks that allow wolves to get to alpine, but I’ve never seen a wolf in our snowmobiling areas,” he said.
Other closures were under Section 58 of the Forest Act, which permit certain types of recreation (heli-skiing) and not others (snowmobiling) in certain areas.
Both types of closures can result in fines to violators and are policed by conservation officers.
The snowmobile club president said he believes the Section 58 closures were put in place to protect the heli-ski industry but points out that industry does not pay the cost of policing those closures.
“The area from Blue River to Valemount has more caribou and Section 58 closures than the rest of the province put together,” Venor said. “Things have to change. Snowmobiling is now a big part of our economy. It needs to be given an equal footing.”
He admitted that some bad actors had said and done some things that did not reflect well on the snowmobiling community, but they are just a small minority, he felt.
For example, some recent online comments from snowmobilers were “terrible,” he felt.
“People can get very passionate about their hobbies and sometimes they make bad decisions,” he added. “There has been bad acting on both sides. That has to change.”
The caribou and Section 58 closures were put together about 13 to 15 years ago in a sustainable resource management plan (SRMP) for the area.
That SRMP is overdue for a review, he felt.
One problem has been that the snowmobilers in the Blue River area have not been well organized.
During the past few years several new people have moved into the area that see the snowmobile industry as part of their futures, including him.
“I would like to see more families living here so we could have more permanent businesses and more kids in the school. What we really want to do is build a community,” he said.
“If we can create a new industry, it’s going to have a snowball effect.”
He pointed out that it appeared the provincial government was prepared to expand the Mike Wiegele heli-ski tenure (by allowing it to lease land under its Eight Peaks proposal) but not prepared to help the snowmobile industry by letting the club expand the Finn Creek parking area.
“We didn’t ask them to pay for it. The snowmobilers had the money,” he said. “It’s really frustrating that they are not taking us seriously.”
When asked if he wanted to comment on the ongoing situation, Mike Wiegele said his company is working on a media update to be released soon.