Fate of Eagle Pass lookout in hands of bureaucracy

Government investigation may continue into next year

At an elevation of approximately 7,700 feet, atop a rugged, rocky mountain peak, sits a solitary cabin.

Taped to its door is a stop work order, issued by the B.C. government.

The notice states it was issued on Sept. 5, 2017 by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, and applies to “all persons undertaking construction activities on this building.”

The “building” is a 14 by 14-foot engineered refurbishment of the original Eagle Pass Summit fire lookout, originally constructed in 1922. Carried out over the past two years by volunteers and donations, this reconstruction project is currently under investigation by the ministry.

Taped to the door on top of the stop work notice is a letter by Splatsin First Nation Title and Rights/Fisheries and Wildlife manager Stuart Lee.

In the letter, Lee states he has reviewed the “commendable efforts” of the volunteers, and he has found the engineered repair to exceed building codes for such a structure.

“The Splatsin approves of the “Civic Good” the Lookout will provide in its service to hikers and back-country users from the Splatsin and Canadians alike,” writes Lee.

Onside with the Splatsin are the District of Sicamous, the City of Enderby, Shuswap MLA Greg Kyllo and Sicamous and District Chamber of Commerce and other groups and individuals, who have asked the B.C. government to not destroy the reconstructed shelter – one possible outcome of the investigation, says the ministry.

The request was delivered in person to ministry representatives at the recent Union of B.C. Municipalities convention by Sicamous Coun. Gord Bushell and Columbia Shuswap Regional District Area E director Rhona Martin. The response they received wasn’t as encouraging as hoped for.

“We pleaded our case, showed them photos, gave them letters of support…They’re going to look into it,” said Bushell“But we didn’t get that feeling where they said, ‘whoa, we’ll stop everything until we get a handle on it.’ They can’t once the investigation has started.”

Kyllo applauds the effort and workmanship that went into the reconstruction. And while he wants people to follow the rules and make the appropriate permit applications, he said the volunteers were not made aware such approvals were required.

“Although I have not spoken directly with anybody in compliance and enforcement, my understanding is there was some comments made, I believe at a meeting last year, where a compliance and enforcement officer made some comments where if this had occurred in his area or jurisdiction, he’d burn it down,” said Kyllo. “That type of commentary certainly isn’t helpful. I think what really the focus of the communication now is, it’s unfortunate the appropriate permits weren’t applied for. It looks like a very well-built and sound structure, and tearing it down certainly would not prove to serve anybody other than maybe somebody’s ego.”

Caught in the middle of this bureaucratic brouhaha is Sicamous resident Rene St. Onge, the person who got the ball rolling to save the historic lookout. He said the effort actually began years back in a visit to forestry officials in Vernon.

“We talked to three or four officials there who said, ‘no, they couldn’t give approval for that, even though it was an existing cabin,’” said St. Onge. “They said FrontCounter BC could, so they called over and I went there with a friend and met the manager… We had a great talk, talked for about an hour, and he was totally excited about it.”

During this meeting, St. Onge asked about financial support, knowing the project would be a costly endeavour, but was told none was available. On the upside, St. Onge said he was told, ‘If you’re building a new cabin or road or trail, you need to do an application, but he said this is existing, if you want to clean it up and put the roof back on, awesome. He gives verbal approval.’”

St. Onge said he left it at that for a while and watched as the lookout continued to deteriorate.

“And then a young gentleman from Revelstoke passed away and I was like, that place needs to be cleaned up, it’s not safe and it’s such a beautiful spot with so much history,” said St. Onge. “We’ve got to bring it back to life.

St. Onge said he became good friends with a helicopter pilot who got an online fundraiser started.

“He raised about 10 grand – it was way under.”

As word continued to get out about the project, however, more people came onboard with donations of money, materials, labour and more.

Reconstruction work began in the summer of 2016. Since then, the rock wall and foundation was professionally rebuilt. Twelve-inch Douglas fir timbers were used in the rebuilding of the upper portion of the shelter – the roof rebuilt to carry up to 100,000 pounds. A proper lightning rod was installed. Approximately $4,000 worth of windows were donated. Another donation of $5,000 included a vintage wood cookstove.

“Probably about $45,000 into it, and we’ve lifted up about 25,000 pounds of materials to reconstruct it, and we’re building it stronger so it will hopefully 100 years,” said St. Onge.

Responding to accusations that all this work was done to benefit a few backcountry motorized vehicle users, St. Onge calls them 100 per cent wrong. He said access to the lookout is hike-in only, and stated emphatically that it’s door will never be locked.

“We’re building it for a legacy to the people that built the place, manned the place, worked there,” said St. Onge.

Asked about the investigation, St. Onge expects it will be dragged out into next year.

Not only will this hold up finishing touches planned for the lookout (provided it’s not torn down), St. Onge sees this bureaucratic impasse holding up an accommodation management system for the lookout which, as a positive outcome of this controversy, has garnered significant interest.

“The one weekend we were up there cleaning up materials and taking it back down, some ladders and stuff, there was 25 people in one day who came up there…,” said St. Onge. “It’s the same as the snowmobile chalets here – if some Albertans come here and want to use the chalet, they check with the chamber and say, ‘Hey, can we use the chalet?’ and they say yeah, you’ve got it. If anybody else calls, they can say there’s already somebody else in there. There’s no charge. It’s just good for tourism.”

Assuming cooler head prevail and the province agrees to leave the lookout alone, St. Onge hopes that long-term upkeep remains a volunteer effort, and not on the backs of taxpayers.

“We don’t want anybody to make money off of this – we want it to be a volunteer project and everything donated,” said St. Onge. “We have a brass plaque, it’s about a $2,000 plaque being made, and everybody who has helped out and volunteered is going on it

“It was built by really tough men who believed in it. We’re not tough, but we want to just do it without taxing the people.”

A petition calling on the ministry to leave the lookout as is had more than 7,000 signatures as of Monday, Oct. 9.


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A stop-work order is taped to the lookout door, with a letter from the Splatsin commending the volunteers who rebuilt the structure. Photo contributed

Photo contributed Work on the Eagle Pass Summit fire lookout, rebuilt to withstand the elements – and landing helicopters – has been put on hold while the B.C. government investigates the volunteer construction project.

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