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This article is from the In-Depth Report China, the Olympics, and the Environment

Highway of Good Intentions? Vancouver Olympic Plans Bulldoze Rare Forests

Despite a reputation for environmental friendliness—and official pledges—the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics are already taking an environmental toll



© Karoline Cullen

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HORSESHOE BAY, BRITISH COLUMBIA—Bruce McArthur, who headed up The Coalition to Save Eagleridge Bluffs, is taking me on a tour of what will be the 2010 Olympics legacy in his community of Horseshoe Bay. "It's been chopped in half and mowed down," McArthur says of the wilderness that lay right over and above his house. "That's a problem."

View Slide Show of Vancouver's Development

What he's showing me is the result of re-routing the Vancouver–Whistler Sea-to-Sky Highway that joins 2010 Olympic venues between the city and the ski-resort town. Officials want to shave a few minutes off that trip, and increase capacity on the road, but that's meant a shortcut through a rare forest ecosystem, fragmenting a section of it beyond repair.

That flies in the face of Vancouver's green and sustainable bid for the 2010 Olympics that won it the gig back in 2003. "That's one of the reasons Vancouver won [the Olympic bid] was because we pitched that we'd be the greenest Olympics ever," says Boyd Cohen, from Simon Fraser University's Center for Sustainable Community Development.

The 74 mile (120 kilometer) Sea-to-Sky Highway is beautiful but treacherous. The first half of the road snakes up Howe Sound, clinging to mountainsides that drop straight into the ocean below. The single lane highway is rife with blind curves and few chances to pass; it suffers three-times the province's average number of collisions per kilometer per year. The province decided to expand the existing highway in time for the Olympics in an effort to increase its capacity and safety, all except for a stretch of the highway in West Vancouver.

Here in Horseshoe Bay, they decided to build a new four-lane highway through Eagle ridge bluffs and the woods behind. It was this stretch of nearly two miles (three kilometers)—home to the vulnerable, blue-listed red-legged frog, the rare coastal bluffs arbutus ecosystem, a mature Douglas fir stand, and flanks the Larsen creek wetlands—that attracted community and environmental opposition, led by McArthur, a retired project manager for non-road work.

Opponents of the highway re-route wanted to bore a tunnel under the mountain and leave the area intact. Despite a three-year campaign to save the bluffs, which saw about two dozen protesters arrested, the highway re-route went ahead—which is why McArthur and I are now looking upon a fractured landscape, instead of a continuation of the lush forests that blanket much of Vancouver's North Shore Mountains.

The multilane highway disrupts important dispersal processes for wildlife populations, says Diane Srivastava, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia. "So there will probably be a long but inevitable walk to local extinction for those species."

"We know the strongest predictor of species loss is habitat loss," says Arne Mooers, a biodiversity biologist at Simon Fraser University. "The whole place has been ecologically damaged beyond repair."

The province's very own first environmental assessments of the area recognize the area's unique ecological qualities. Excerpts from the "Sea-to-Sky Highway Improvement Project Application" from June 30, 2003 state that "the most significant area for plant diversity" along the entire Sea-to-Sky Highway was Eagleridge Bluffs, where biologists identified 22 "regionally rare or significant plants."

The report, which was compiled by the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation as part of its application process for environmental assessment, continues, "the proposed tunnel option for part of the Horseshoe Bay alignment area is the preferred alternative from a wildlife and vegetation perspective, based on the high concentration of highly sensitive and good quality habitats along the at grade alternative."

Even so, a press release from the British Columbia government dated three years later, said that a two-lane tunnel would have twice as many crashes than the overland four-lane highway and cost $70 million more. "The overland route was selected back in 2004 because it was the best option by far for safety, reliability and value," wrote Jeff Knight, from the Public Affairs Bureau at the Ministry of Transportation in an email. "The studies found that the overland route would have fewer and less severe crashes than the tunnel option that was also considered, and that it would cost about $40 million less to build."

Nonsense, said The Coalition to Save Eagleridge Bluffs, based on their own calculations: Since the tunnel would have been almost half the length of the overland route it would have been safer and that it could have been built within budget with less long-term costs.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games doesn't have anything to do with the highway upgrade and other infrastructure projects, says Linda Coady, VANOC's vice president of sustainability. "We don't contribute money to, and we aren't managing, those projects," says Coady. "They're being built for a lot more than the 17 days of the Olympic games anyhow."

Knight agrees: the highway improvements will meet projected travel demands from population growth until around 2020, with additional improvements being undertaken as needed after that.

Despite all these sustainable initiatives for 2010, if you were to ask the 600 people that signed petitions and the 300 that submitted letters to save the Eagleridge Bluffs what color they associate with the Vancouver Olympics, green probably won't come first. As one of Bruce McArthur's neighbors in Horseshoe Bay said: "They've changed the color of the mountain from green to brown!"

View Slide Show of Vancouver's Development

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