The snow was fresh and the early March sun shone brightly as a four-by-four truck pulled to a stop in a parking lot atop Sumas Mountain.
The truck’s doors opened and out stepped the man who held the fate of this part of the mountain in his hands. He was joined by representatives of several local recreation groups, including Steve Bennett.
Six months prior, Bennett had veered away from the busiest part of the Sumas Mountain trail network and come across a sign touting an application for a mining permit to pull thousands of tonnes of gravel from the site.
For Bennett, a member of the Fraser Valley Mountain Bike Association, the idea of a quarry in the area was dismaying. And the more he learned about the proposal, the more unthinkable it became. The application was to extend an exploration lease, he learned, but the end goal of that exploration was to create a mine that would pull 4,000 truckloads of gravel annually from the site for up to 50 years.
While quarries already operate on Sumas Mountain, most are on its periphery. But this one was different: immediately adjacent to Sumas Mountain Inter-Regional Park and situated directly between Chadsey Lake and much of the hill’s prime trail terrain and the parking lot used by hikers and bikers.
The idea of a quarry at the site wasn’t new, and neither was local opposition. First proposed in 2011, the plans for the quarry had prompted concern from local governments and Sumas Mountain residents. In 2015, Coun. Ross Siemens said the proposal “seems absolutely ridiculous,” and the city wrote a letter to the Ministry of Energy and Mines stating its opposition. The Sumas First Nation had also consistently voiced its opposition.
But the exploration lease had nevertheless remained on the books, and last year the proponent applied for a Mines Act Permit to allow the proponent to ramp up work at the site.
• • • • •
Bennett and his family would once drive to Chilliwack to hike and bike. Then, they discovered Sumas Mountain and its array of trails.
“Abbotsford really started becoming an amazing place to live for us,” he said.
“The thought of the trails being gone was real tough to take and the thought that our kids wouldn’t be able to experience them in the same way as we have was real tough to take.”
Learning about the project spurred Bennett to action.
He took to social media, and organized the Save Sumas campaign, developing a hashtag, helping organize fundraisers, and bringing a range of groups together, including the Abbotsford Trail Running Club and Run For Water.
“A fire was lit under him,” Run For Water’s Paul Enns said of Bennett.
Within a month of Bennett spotting the sign, the group had got Abbotsford-Mission MLA Simon Gibson to send a letter to the provincial mines minister, confirmed the opposition of various government bodies, and collected thousands of names on a petition.
The activism culminated last month with the Chief Gold Commissioner accepting an invitation to see the area for himself before making a final decision.
Bennett, Enns and their fellow users drove the commissioner high up the mountain, then back down to the parking lot next to the site. They hiked for an hour through the snow to a viewpoint overlooking the Fraser River. The hikers spoke of the site, but also of their personal reasons for wanting the land protected.
For Enns, that meant speaking about his job as a mental health worker and the important part trail running played in his life.
“I trail run, and I was able to share with him how important it was to come out on Sumas and not just take care of my body, but take care of my mind,” he said.
“It was a great opportunity to share what our full concerns were, and just connect as people who love the outdoors.”
The group knew a single visit wouldn’t sway the result of the decision. But they hoped seeing the area for himself would give the commissioner a better understanding of the full stakes involved.
“They’re trying to make a decision on something that’s really hard to grasp if you’re not standing where the mine would happen,” Bennett said.
• • • • •
By the time they were notified this week of the gold commissioner’s decision, Bennett and Enns both say they had an inkling the project wouldn’t be proceeding; in February, the province had revealed that the proponent had extended his lease with an intention of trying to sell it.
Nevertheless, the confirmation of the victory – and its scale – was thrilling.
“I was super excited,” Bennett said. “We had kind of been expecting it, but when you see it in writing, it’s real cool.”
There was also jubilation that the province had indicated that it was ruling out any future mining claims in that area of Sumas Mountain.
Bennett and Enns both say they would like to think their trip up the mountain had some impact on the decision, but they also note a range of other factors were at play. In particular, Bennett cites the continued opposition by the Sumas First Nation, which considers the mountain sacred.
“The role of Sumas or Sema:th First Nation cannot be understated,” he wrote in an email. “They have been adamantly opposed to the quarry development from day one and fought just as hard as the recreation user groups to have the project stopped. Trail users are fortunate to be able to utilize their traditional territory for our recreation and we appreciate them standing with us to stop the quarry.”
In a statement on the sent to the Fraser Valley Regional District, a mines inspector said several factors, when considered together, led to the rejection of the application. That included the effect on users of the trails and nearby park, as well as the “serious impacts,” the project could have on the Sumas First Nation’s aboriginal title and rights.
The campaign to stop the quarry may be over, but there are hopes that the relationships built through six months of fighting for the mountain may help build something larger.
Last month, Run For Water and the Abbotsford Trail Running Club hosted their first Sumas Mountain Film Festival. Featuring a stirring introduction by Chris Silver of the Sumas First Nation, the event featured films about trail running.
The proceeds, though, were directed to the Fraser Valley Mountain Bike Association, a decision Enns said was made to recognize the work that group has done shaping the mountain’s trails.
Enns and Bennett both hope the lessons and relationships forged in the quarry fight can last for years to come.
While recreational groups in other areas occasionally spar about the use of trails, Enns says the local groups have been able to build a unique relationship with each other and with the Sumas First Nation.
And he hopes those bonds can do more to promote recreational uses of the mountain, and increase awareness of the reasons why its upper reaches should be protected in the years to come.
“The unification we’ve experienced as a group of varied trail groups … there’s a certain common desire to preserve this area for others like us,” Enns said.
“The beauty of Abbotsford is that we can have a playground that seems remote 15 minutes from most of our doors.”