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What do California Bighorn Sheep, the Western Screech-Owl, Nuttall's Cottontail, and rock climbers in Penticton have in common? They're all species-at-risk. At least, they were until January 2008. That's when a group headed by The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC) finalized the purchase of 304 ha of land next to Skaha Bluffs for more than $5 million. This important acquisition should help ease the pressure on numerous species of wildlife in this sensitive area of the Okanagan Valley.
Recreational activities are one of the main reasons why people travel to British Columbia. Our parks, mountains, ocean and lakes provide unlimited outdoor opportunities for locals and tourists to enjoy. The Okanagan Valley is one of BC's prime destinations. Its colourful vineyards, breath-taking vistas, crystal blue freshwater lakes, and unique rock formations draw crowds from all over the world.
One particular recreational hot spot is the Skaha Bluffs, located at the east end of Skaha Lake, south of Penticton. Every year thousands of people travel to "the Bluffs" to climb the rock faces, hike the desert-like grasslands, and admire the wildlife and scenery.
The Bluffs are believed to be among the oldest rocks in the province. Over centuries, they've been weathered and ground down, re-compressed and covered with solid ridges and deep ravines, forming a series of north-south canyons with cliffs of up to 80 metres on either side.
This is almost heaven for rock climbers. The climbing season at Skaha is long and warm. The vertical walls provide shade in the summer heat, and the edgy, featured nature of the rock gives almost unlimited potential for climbing routes at every level. Add some challenging routes and spectacular views, and you get the second most popular rock climbing area in BC, after Squamish.
The Bluffs has more than 650 routes on outstanding gneiss that attracts climbers, hikers and sightseers from all over the world. Areas like "The Belfry" and "The Doctor's Wall", have produced popular routes such as "A Fine Balance", "Naturopath" and "Bob's your apple". From March to October, lean, muscular sport climbers in technical tops, chalk-covered shorts and slipper-like rock shoes can be seen clambering the walls of Skaha.
The geology and the dry climate have made the Bluffs ideal habitat for other wildlife as well. California Bighorn Sheep, Western Screech-Owl, and Nuttall's Cottontail - all species-at-risk -call this area home. The South Okanagan-Similkameen area is one of Canada's three most endangered ecosystems. The Bluffs and surrounding grassland, forest and wetland are vital to wildlife diversity as a source of water, food, shelter, nesting habitat and as movement corridors.
In 2007, access to the Bluffs was threatened because the landowner, who ran the parking lot and provided an access route to the site through his property, wanted to sell. Uncertain about the future of the Bluffs, and concerned about the influx of development in the area, a local climbing group approached The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC) to help provide a long-term solution.
TLC is one of the leading conservation organizations in the province. It's also a fundholder with Vancouver Foundation. (TLC established an endowment fund in 2003, which has grown to more than $65,000. Bill Turner, Executive Director of TLC, also serves on the Foundation's advisory committee on the environment).
With TLC's connections, and strong background in protecting natural areas, cultural landmarks, vital agriculture lands, and recreational sites, the Skaha Bluffs project was a perfect fit.
TLC started a fundraising campaign to buy a 304-hectare property adjacent to the Bluffs. Once purchased, the site would be home to a proper road and parking lot, and guaranteed access. TLC contributed $1 million to the deal, and hoped to rally government, corporations, other environmental non-profits (ENGOs), climbing associations and the local community to raise the rest of the $5.25 million asking price.
For more than a year, TLC pounded the pavement and worked as a mediator to negotiate the deal. Staff hosted meetings with all levels of government, met with major outdoor retail stores, applied for grants, conducted media interviews, gave presentations, organized special events, collected donations via mail, online, phone and in-person, fielded calls from the public, and tracked down significant private donors to aid in the campaign.
Donations came from Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and England -- from climbers, outdoor enthusiasts, naturalists, and concerned citizens. One month into the campaign, Mountain Equipment Co-op gave a $250,000 grant to the project—the largest land acquisition grant in the outdoor retailer's history. And MEC launched a donation program among its members. The program saw the Co-op match its members' individual donations, dollar for dollar, up to $100,000. The Climbers Access Society of BC also stepped up with a contribution of $10,000.
In January 2008, the major partners (BC Ministry of Environment, the Government of Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and TLC) finally reached an agreement on financial contributions, and announced completion of the land acquisition. The newly-acquired land falls within the proposed Skaha Bluffs Provincial Park recommended in the Okanagan Shuswap Land and Resource Management Plan, and will be managed for its important conservation and recreation values as a Class A provincial park.
"The purchase of this property recognizes the importance of providing recreational access and, at the same time, protecting a vital area for the conservation of wildlife," says Bill Turner, TLC Executive Director. "The successful completion of the campaign could not have happened without support from the climbing community, and the many wildlife and conservation groups and individuals who are dedicated to B.C.'s wildlife."
TLC partners in fundraising included: Mountain Equipment Co-op, the Climbers Access Society, the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund; the BC Trust for Public Lands; the B.C. Ministry of Transportation's Environmental Enhancement Fund; the Nature Trust of British Columbia; and an eco-gift from the vendor under Environment Canada's Ecological Gifts Program.
The future of Skaha Bluffs is now secure. The recreation site will remain one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Okanagan Valley, and continue to boost economic growth in Penticton. The wildlife in the area too can breathe a little easier - whether its California Big Horn sheep, or a bunch of climbers from Kelowna.
Thanks to a lot of hard work and astute fund-raising, the climbing season at Skaha officially opened this year on March 15, and the Bluffs are once again ringing with the sounds of rock jocks at play. "Climb on."
If you want to donate to the endowment fund held by The Land Conservancy, go to www.vancouverfoundation.ca.
(Story written: 2008)