Cheam First Nation frustrated by gondola project approval delays

The Cheam First Nation, a proponent and founding partner in the proposed Cascade Skyline Gondola Project, says the years-long delay in getting approval from the province is putting the project, expected to cost more than $70 million, at risk.

Cheam Chief Darwin Douglas says the project has already cost millions of dollars, with environmental, socio-economic, traditional use and geotechnical studies having been completed.

The nation and neighbouring First Nations are investors in the six-year-old proposed sightseeing gondola, which would have its base just off Highway 1 near Bridal Falls, about 95 kilometres east of Vancouver.

"Every day we don't get clarity presents a huge risk to the project," said Douglas, as he called on the province to hasten approval or present a clear process for approval.

"It has been very, very frustrating for us."

According to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport, the gondola project remains under review.

Douglas said the proposal is for cultural and eco-tourism on unceded Cheam First Nation territory. It would include a gondola ride up to a ridge about six kilometres west of Mount Cheam.

A man is seen sitting on a rock in the area where the Cascade Skyline Gondola Project would be built above the Fraser Valley in this promotional image from the project's website.
A man is seen sitting on a rock in the area where the Cascade Skyline Gondola Project would be built above the Fraser Valley in this promotional image from the project's website. (Cascade Skyline Gondola Project )

At the base would be a restaurant, gift shop, Stó:lō cultural interpretive centre, and, potentially, a health and wellness spa, and at the top, 900 metres above, another restaurant, conference building, walking trails and access to the backcountry.

"The view there is amazing," said Douglas. "The view at the top is a spectacular view of the Coastal Mountains, the Fraser Valley, and on a clear day, you can probably see out to the ocean and Vancouver Island — so it's an amazing spot."

Multiple hurdles

There have been various challenges to the project, including a large spotted owl protection area, a potentially competing proposal for a ski resort adjacent to the proposed gondola and opposition from ATV and off-road community members concerned about losing access to the area.

Douglas said the proposed footprint has recently been reduced to address some of the issues.

Prior to the change, he said the area overlapped, perhaps by as much as 100 metres, with the spotted owl protection area. He said there was also a slight overlap with the proposed ski resort that has been removed.

Last year, four motorized recreation groups wrote an open letter to voice their concerns. They said the project threatens to limit up to 80 per cent of motorized trail access on "high-value public recreation opportunities" in the area.

At the time, the group said Chipmunk Forest Service Road, a key access road, was listed to be blocked by the proponent.

On Wednesday, Kristin Parsons, executive director of ATV B.C. Quad Riders Association of B.C, told CBC News that she had recently communicated with one of the gondola project proponents, Jayson Faulkner, and believes modifications to the proposal may have addressed the concerns.

"It seems like they've made some positive changes, but we'll have to wait to see," said Parsons, adding that the details will be shared by Faulkner in a meeting with her group's members in the coming weeks.

According to the Cascade Skyline Gondola Project's website, the project would impact the Bridal Falls Forest Service Road with restricted access.

Province considering 2 projects

In a written statement from the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport, an explanation of the lengthy delay for approval wasn't provided, but the recent changes in the proposed footprint were noted, as was the separate proposal, the Bridal Veil Mountain Resort ski and recreation project.

"The two projects are within the same overall geographic area and are both proposing community tourism and recreation infrastructure, and therefore are linked in the consideration of Indigenous, environmental, public recreation and natural resource interests in the area," said the statement.

Douglas is asking the province to work more closely with Cheam First Nation and the gondola project's other proponents.

"They have an opportunity here to really follow through with their commitments to UNDRIP and reconciliation, and they're letting that opportunity slide," he said.

"If it continues to get delayed another year, another two years, there's only so long you can continue to fund something like this. There is a risk there, but we're very intent on making it happen."