Whistler’s Wetlands are Under Threat
The most significant wetland area under threat in Whistler currently is the Alpha/Millar Creek Wetlands which represent the largest remaining intact upland/wetland ecosystem in the valley. For decades this area has been recognized as being one of the most important ecological and habitat sites in the Whistler Valley, a stance of increasing gravitas with the continued loss of wetlands throughout those decades. The symbiotic relationship between the wetlands and the uplands that sustain them has also been continually recognized, with an understanding that development of the uplands would heavily impact the wetlands below.
However, a proposal to develop a Whistler International Learning Campus (WIC) on the upland areas is being submitted by the Zen family who own the site. The proposal suggests the phased development of nearly a milliion square feet of built infrastructure, with buildings of up to six storeys. Associated roads and landscaping increase the development footprint to 30% of the 77 acre site, with the entire development concentrated on the uplands.
AWARE has continually maintained its stance: that the wetlands and upland areas should remain undeveloped (inclusive of the uplands now proposed for WIC). External to AWARE the community has repeatedly recognized the importance of this site throughout the OCP and W2020 processes, with clear understanding that the uplands and wetlands are symbiotic. The OCP is explicit in the commitment to limit development to the least environmentally sensitive lands within Whistler.
The independent Protected Areas Network (PAN) process and municipal Terrestrial Ecosystem Mapping both recognize the importance of the site as the only intact wetland / upland ecosystem of its magnitude remaining in the Whistler valley. Areas of the Zen owned land are one of only two sites allocated PAN1 zoning through the Protected Areas Networks research and resulting strategy. A designation only assigned to the areas of highest habitat and biodiversity value.
The Importance of Wetlands
Wetland ecosystems have incredible importance as areas of high biodiversity and immense habitat value. In Whistler over 70% of Whistler’s wetlands have been lost. The map below shows the extent of that loss (please note the map does not recognise the significant loss of wetland to development of the BC Transit Depot at Nesters as the mapping pre-dates that development).
Wetlands currently cover between 5 to 10% of the Earth’s land area (Mitsch, 2007). It is estimated that more than half of the world’s original wetlands have disappeared, and they are being lost and degraded more quickly than any other ecosystem type (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).
In Whistler over 70%* of the wetlands that originally covered Whistler’s valley bottom have been lost. The most significant losses have been to developments such as the Nicklaus North Golf Course and subdivision, the Whistler Golf Course, BC Transit Depot at Nester’s, as well as residential areas of White Gold, Spruce Grove, Millar’s Creek and Tapley’s.
It is not just the loss of these areas that raises concerns but for those wetlands that remain many have been reduced in size or hemmed in by development around them. This compromises the ability of these incredibly diverse ecosystems to function, with a natural flow of water and nutrients entering moving through the wetlands. As incredible habitats development around wetlands also reduces their connectivity and the ability of wildlife to move between sites safely.
*If you would like to learn more about the reduction of Whistler’s Wetlands over time, Simon Fraser University student Lindsay McBlane completed a ‘Connectivity Assessment of Changes In Wetland Ecosystems From 1946 to 2003 in the Resort Municipality of Whistler’. It is worth that completion of this study in 2004 predated the loss of red-listed wetlands for the Transit Yard at Nesters prior to the Olympics.
Mitsch, W.J. and Gosselink, J.G. 2007. Wetlands. Edition 4. John Wiley and Sons Inc. New Jersey, NY.