Jumbo Wild gets right to the point. The documentary film, released in October 2015, opens with piercing footage of British Columbia’s Jumbo Valley and the haunting image of a conductor standing over the Jumbo Glacier conducting an invisible orchestra. As the camera pans over the magnificent Purcell Mountains, an orchestra, accompanied by poignant audio clips, set up the debate at the heart of the movie: Keep the Jumbo Valley wild, or open it up to development?
The debate is a familiar one, and in this case, goes back about 25 years to the dreams of Italian-born developer Oberto Oberti, who envisions the Jumbo Valley as home to “the ultimate mountain resort access in North America,” including an intricate system of 22 ski lifts and gondolas carrying visitors more than 11,000 feet into the mountains. Opposing his efforts are several thousand local residents, environmentalists, members of the government, and a First Nation tribe that has lived on the land for nearly 10,000 years.
Director Nick Waggoner admits in the first few minutes of the film that it is easy to buy into a simple script of good versus evil, or as he puts it, “The evil developer coming to town to take a shit in the middle of the backyard, the woods, the wilderness.” He goes on, however, to suggest a deeper debate, one full of voices, “each with their own view of the world, speaking with great conviction about what should happen in that Jumbo Valley deep in the Canadian Mountains.”
This diversity of convictions gets at the essence of the film, which offers a deep examination of the broad interests at stake, including those of Oberti, who comes across as a rather likeable grandfather figure with a grand vision that he just can’t let go of. Essentially, he says he wants to open up the mountain experience to the broader public: “To me, creating a mountain resort and giving access to the mountain is like creating a cathedral,” he says. “It is a modern way to bring an uplifting experience.” His supporters insist that the project will also bring jobs to a region that has long relied on the boom and bust logging and mining industries.
The voices of the opposition are more diverse, however, and ultimately much more convincing. The Ktunaxa Nation has ties to the valley that date back 9,000 years, or 400 generations, and has vigorously challenged the project on several grounds, including the purported economic benefits. More fundamentally, the Ktunaxa have expounded on the sacredness of the land, which they feel compelled both to share with others and to look after. “It comes back down to that understanding of sacred, and sacred place,” says Joe Pierre, a Ktunaxa citizen and compelling advocate against the development. “If we say that a space is sacred or a place is sacred within the boundaries of our territory, then just accept that… We should be able to say no, and our no should be heard.”
Nolan Rad, a local resident and hunter-trapper by trade, seems to more or less share this sentiment. “My church is up there,” he says, pointing at the mountains. “When you get to the top, you can’t get any closer to God than there, can you?” Rad has his own conservation ethic, which is something along the lines of “If you really need it, take it. If you don’t really need it, it’s kind of nice to sit and watch it.” Locals like Rad have joined in the fight against the development, along with environmental groups. Researchers studying grizzly bear have added their two cents as well, emphasizing the importance of the region to grizzlies and the habitat fragmentation the development would cause.
Somewhat overemphasized among these compelling voices is that of the backcountry ski community, which enjoys the secluded and hard-to-reach runs offered in the Jumbo Valley, runs it seems they would like to keep remote and untamed. Even as an enthusiastic, if decidedly novice, backcountry skier myself, I could have done with fewer ski jumps and powder shots.
Excessive skiing footage notwithstanding, the many viewpoints offered in Jumbo Wild make for a thoughtful and provocative film. As Waggoner narrates at the end of the documentary: “It’s not a matter of ski resorts or no ski resorts. It’s a matter of where and how, for whose benefit and at what cost.” This rings true. In this case, the film makes a strong statement that British Columbia has enough ski resorts, and Jumbo Valley is best left wild.
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