10/07/2014 04:00 EDT | Updated 12/07/2014 05:59 EST

Time Running Out For Jumbo Glacier Ski Resort As Construction Deadline Approaches

After 24 years of controversy, a vital deadline is looming for Glacier Resorts Ltd., which by next month has to prove to B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office that significant progress has been made on the billion-dollar plan to build a 6,300-bed resort on Crown land in the glacial wilderness, 55 kilometres west of Invermere.

Stuck in the ground, halfway down the valley trail leading into the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort, is a stick, leaning crookedly against a small tree, inscribed with the word "Lift."

About one kilometre away, at the bottom of a recently bulldozed track into soggy underbrush, is another marker with the words "Proposed Corner of Lodge."

The two markers, reams of flagging tape, several parked backhoes and a drill, where two employees are watching a small stream of water run into the ditch, are the only apparent signs of construction at the site in the remote heart of the Purcell Mountains.

A vital deadline is looming for Glacier Resorts Ltd., which by next month has to prove to B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office that significant progress has been made on the billion-dollar plan to build a 6,300-bed resort on Crown land in the glacial wilderness, 55 kilometres west of Invermere.

If the company fails to convince the Environmental Assessment Office's enforcement officers and, subsequently, Environment Minister Mary Polak, that construction is well underway, it risks losing the environmental assessment certificate granted by the province in 2004. The certificate, which expires Oct. 12, was renewed in 2009 and, under legislation cannot be renewed a second time. The company must prove that construction has "substantially started" for the certificate to become permanent.

After 24 years of controversy over plans to build an all-season ski resort to rival top resorts in Europe, with a village of condos, chalets, shops and hotels and more than 20 ski lifts carrying visitors to 3,400-metre high glaciers, the ball is being tossed back to the province.

The question for proponents and the many Kootenay residents who fiercely oppose the project is what constitutes substantial construction.

The term is not defined in the Environmental Assessment Act and each situation is considered on a case-by-case basis, said an environment ministry spokesman.

Giving hope to opponents is a July B.C. Supreme Court ruling, which followed a legal challenge from the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, that the government erred in confirming an Environmental Assessment Certificate for the Tulsequah Chief mine. A major issue was that the company claimed the project was "substantially started" when, in fact, there was little physical progress.

Jumbo Resort must meet 12 pre-construction conditions

A second element is that Glacier Resorts has agreed to 195 legally binding conditions, most dealing with environmental and social issues, of which about 12 must be met before construction starts.

They include submission of grizzly bear and avalanche management plans and detailed groundwater investigation programs.

Tommaso Oberti, vice-president of Pheidias Project Management Corp., the group behind the Jumbo vision, said avalanche and grizzly bear studies are included in the resort master plan, approved by the province in 2012, and other conditions are being met.

"The project underwent the most comprehensive and exhaustive government and public review processes for a ski resort in the history of North America," Oberti said in an e-mailed response.

However, retired mountain guide Arnor Larson believes few conditions have been met.

"Look at that," he said, pointing scornfully at the trickle of water coming from the drill site.

"There are supposed to be smaller test wells placed in different areas over different seasons."

Those wells are then supposed to be monitored year-round to assess the effect on nearby creeks, said Larson, wondering how investors or government could support resort plans without proof of sufficient water.

"What happens when 6,000 people flush their toilets?" Larson asked.

Kathryn Teneese, Ktunaxa Nation Council chair, also doubts whether pre-conditions are being met.

"And many of the commitments were put in place to address Ktunaxa concerns about the development including water quality, fisheries and wildlife," she said.

Letters questioning the status of pre-conditions have been sent to the Environmental Assessment Office by the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society, the Ktunaxa Nation and Wildsight -- the group that has led much of the opposition.

An administrative review is underway, with a further field inspection scheduled, according to the ministry.

However, according to Jumbo Glacier Resort Municipality Mayor Greg Deck, everything is on track and construction is underway.

"I don't know the definition of substantial, but certainly the beginning of the lodge and the towers for the lift strike me as substantial," he said.

Deck, who in 2012 was appointed by the province as mayor of a municipality with no residents or buildings, said early stages of a development are always deceiving, with preparation work not apparent to onlookers.

For now, the only concrete sign of construction is a new bridge on the road leading to the site. The bridge is funded by the municipality, not the company, but it will enable construction to start in earnest as it will allow Glacier Resorts to bring in heavy equipment, Deck said.

"Things are progressing as fast as they can."

Project faces 2 court cases

Even if the province gives the go-ahead, the company has other hurdles to clear, including two pending court cases.

The Ktunaxa Nation is appealing an April B.C. Supreme Court decision that found there had been reasonable consultation and the resort would not substantially interfere with Ktunaxa spiritual beliefs and practices.

The area, known to the Ktunaxa as Qat'muk, is a spiritual centre, known as the birthplace of the grizzly bear spirit.

Meanwhile, the West Kootenay Eco Society is waiting for a judicial review date.

The application argues that the appointment of municipal councillors without electors violates the constitution.

Proponents are unwilling to speculate what might happen if the province pulls the environmental assessment certificate, but a hint is contained in a February letter from Oberto Oberti, Glacier Resorts president, to Mayor Deck.

"If everything else failed (which I really think is an impossible case), Glacier would simply re-apply for the EA Certificate," says the letter.

By Judith Lavoie, DeSmog Canada