“When we’re in the wild, we’re able to contemplate a world much greater than ourselves,” says Sweetgrass Productions filmmaker Nick Waggoner about his latest and most ambitious film, Jumbo Wild. In a format simlar to last year’s DamNation, also underwritten by Patagonia, which examined the role of non-productive, “deadbeat” dams in the U.S., Jumbo Wild explores the hotly contested Jumbo Glacier Resort, which, if built, would be North America’s largest all-season resort located in the iconic Jumbo Valley in British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains. With opposition from the First Nations, conservationists, and locals already well-served but the eight existing ski resorts in the area, the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort has been locked in debate for more than two decades. At stake is more than simply protecting a majestic region in the heart of grizzly habitat from real estate development. As the film points out, the greater issue is how our decisions today shape our relationship with wilderness as a whole and set our course for the future.
Here Waggoner, a previous Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year, answers questions about making the film.
Tell us about how you came to know the Jumbo area? What’s different about it and every other mountain region you love?
After filming Valhalla and spending so much time in the interior of British Columbia, I’d been hearing about the Jumbo issue for years. It’s an issue that the local community is really passionate about. And I’d spent a bit of time in the mountains on the periphery of Jumbo—truly spectacular places with rocky spires and ridges rising from raw and crumbling glaciers.
There’s a sense of mountain wild back there that doesn’t really exist in the continental U.S. The scale is so much bigger—it’s a couple steps closer to Alaska and the experience of being up there is equally powerful. You feel like you’re in the presence of great power and great consequence, which all make me reflect on the tenuousness of the human experience. You feel a deep sense of humility alongside the sheer joy of seeing mountains that incredible.
Does it feel sacred? What does “sacred” mean to you?
I’ve been to a lot of mountains in my almost 30 years on the planet, and, for me, there’s certainly a sense of sacredness to Jumbo. It feels like a great amphitheater of reverence and contemplation. During production, we had this “ah-ha” moment when we were struck by this idea of how all these different people, from the developer, to skiers, to First Nation, were all directing their energy at this one place, this one valley. And when I go to that valley, I feel all that energy. Like one of our characters Joe Pierre, from the Ktunaxa nation, says, “You can hear memory up there.” It’s this feeling that you sense the great many years that that place has held meaning for the Ktunaxa and so many others.
Your previous films have focused on epic skiing. What made you want to make a conservation documentary? What challenges did you face?
It’s definitely a new challenge, but the right challenge. I think we felt compelled to use our skills and talents for positive change. In the past we’ve put those toward inspiring people to see the wilderness with new eyes, or perhaps, inspire them to go out and find new wilderness. And with Jumbo Wild, it was a film where we could put our energy into creating positive change in a community that has come to mean so much to our films, and to us as humans. These are mountains we care deeply about. And, really, it’s a pretty natural extension of our work with Patagonia, of aligning our mutual interests and charters on a deeper level that hopefully extends well beyond the boundaries of British Columbia.
What did you learn about your protagonist/antagonist, developer Oberto Oberti? You got a lot of access to him. How about the First Nations and local communities of the Kootenay?
The whole process was an education in the complexity of an issue like Jumbo, and so many other cases of development. It’s far too easy to latch onto a black-and-white vision, and the deeper I got into the project, the more I saw the humanity of all the people involved. In the process, I developed empathy for all people involved. It was critical for us that the viewer could feel that empathy, too, and see the world through the lens of all the characters, including the developer Oberto Oberti, who’d typically been painted with a pretty evil brush. And the more time I spent with him, the more I liked him as a person, and the more I could understand his vision, regardless of whether I agreed with it or not.
In regard to the First Nations, it was also a critical education in the history of Canadian settlement. Like the U.S. and many other places around the world, the First Nations culture and language were systematically diminished by Residential Schools, and horrible atrocities were committed to many generations of First Nations who attended those institutions. That historical context is key to understanding an issue like Jumbo, and it comes at a timely moment where the government and the citizens of Canada are just beginning to understand the importance of allowing First Nations to govern land use decisions that occur on their ancestral territory. It’s also a small step in the move toward truth and reconciliation, and learning from the collective history in order to develop a future that takes First Nations claims seriously.
The section about the grizzlies is compelling. What happens to them if they lose the heart of their territory to this mega resort?
It’s a great question. The great element about Jumbo is how emblematic the story is of issues going on around the world. The grizzlies in Jumbo might as well be the vanishing siberian tiger in Asia and eastern Russia, and to paraphrase Meredith Hamstead from the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society, “The decisions that we make about Jumbo will determine how we manage all other wild places.” And I think we’ve all seen the outcome of our current paradigm, of non sustainable development, and it’s implications on grizzly bears in the Lower 48. There are hardly any left compared to 150 years ago. And this pocket of British Columbia, along with the Flathead and Yellowstone anchor populations, are really some of the last hopes that the grizzlies have left. If we lose these core anchor populations, then we not only lose the grizzly bear, but we lose all the species underneath them. The are an umbrella species that represent the health of an ecosystem, and if the bears are gone, then everything else goes with them.
What was it like to work with Wade Davis?
Wade has this incredible way of articulating the sublime and speaking to cultural, spiritual, and anthropological contexts. Every time he opens his mouth, we’re just kind of in awe of the brilliant way that he ties ideas together and grounds them in the larger context of the place, the people who live in that place, and the history of that place.
We all grew up learning to love skiing at ski resorts, yet you are advocating against a ski resort here. Has your relationship with ski resorts changed over the years?
I don’t think that myself or Patagonia are saying that ski resorts are bad, in fact, quite the opposite. They serve a purpose, and are the gateway for so many of us to engage natural places. It’s certainly how I got my start and began to explore the wilderness beyond. I still ski a bunch of days a year at Whitewater Ski Resort, and places like that are vital to our communities and to our ski culture. What we are saying is that there are places where this kind of development makes sense, and others where it’s not appropriate. In the case of Jumbo, a vast majority of the local community—as high as 90 percent in some cases, including grizzly bear biologists and First Nations—oppose Jumbo Glacier Resort. But a couple hundred miles up the road in Valemount, BC, there’s another Oberti resort in the works that the local community, economy, and First Nation all want. Near Jumbo, there are also eight ski resort within a five-hour drive, and none of those resorts are operating at capacity, and some are even these antiquated ghost towns where the ceiling tiles are falling out in the base lodge and the business is not exactly booming. The market, in short, is saturated, and there’s no data to support any claim that Jumbo Glacier Resort would be a viable business or a good investment of tax dollars for the government.
Ski resorts control risk for skiers lacking backcountry skills, certainly saving lives. Do you think ski education should focus more on backcountry skills?
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I’d certainly advocate for people combining formal avalanche education with an experienced mentor who can offer invaluable wisdom in the field, from travel techniques in big terrain to snow assessment and general risk management. Whether you spend five days in the mountains a year or 365, it’s a vital, and pretty cool, way to develop a relationship with those mountains. Which ties back into that idea of sacred—the way in which you approach mountains ultimately informs what you receive from those mountains.
What is the status of the Jumbo Glacier Resort now?
Right now the British Columbia government cancelled Jumbo Glacier Resort’s environmental certificate this past summer. They do not have the right to build, but they still have a tenure and right to develop that land. As a result, they are currently downsizing the resort plan from 6,500 beds to 2,000 beds, and trying to go ahead with that plan. This is still subject to government approval, and it’s critical time to put the nail in the coffin on Jumbo Glacier Resort so that we can begin saying “yes” to “Jumbo Wild” and permanent protection of that place. At tour stops around the world and on Patagonia.com/JumboWild, we’re asking people to sign a petition that we will send to the British Columbia Premier Christy Clark to make sure that we’re holding her and the government accountable for their decisions related to Jumbo.
Music is always important to you. Tell us about some of your selections.
Music is always so important to our productions. Early on myself, Laura Yale, Jordan Manley, and Zac Ramras were all really captivated by Requiem for a Glacier, a performance art and protest piece where almost a sizable orchestra marched up to the Farnham Glacier to perform a concert raising awareness of the dying glaciers and also protesting Jumbo Glacier Resort. And I think that orchestra really set the direction for the deeply cinematic tracks that the soundtrack has. Everyone from Ludovico Einaudi to our more familiar stable of Patrick Watson, Damien Jurado, and Lord Huron.
Why do we need wilderness and the wild to survive?
There are many people who articulate it much more eloquently than I do, beginning with Wade Davis. In my own words, when we’re in the wild, we’re able to contemplate a world much greater than ourselves. We’re gain humility, and connection to our animal selves, and it’s that connection to a place, to all the trees, flowers, and wild creatures that inhabit that environment, that ultimately lead us to want to protect it. Because if we lose that wilderness, we lose a piece of ourselves, and a connection to the millions of years that we have evolved in that wilderness.