By Steve Hubrecht

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Residents of Athalmer and other parts of Invermere have started a petition against the District of Invermere’s plan to create a paved multi-use trail on the Athalmer dike.

Those questioning the trail have already gathered 26 signatures on the petition, which was presented to Invermere councillors during last week’s meeting. Four opponents of the dike trail delivered the petition and spoke before council.

Ray Vowels began by underscoring the importance of the Columbia River wetlands from an environmental perspective, noting their incredible biodiversity and their considerable habitat value. As compared with the majesty of soaring mountains and expansive lakes, wetlands may sometimes be taken for granted, but they are ecologically critical, he noted, adding the wetlands are recognized as internationally significant by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-affiliated Ramsar Convention treaty.

“People are really unhappy with the idea (of the trail),” said Vowels, explaining it didn’t take very long to gather the signatures on the petition, the overwhelming majority of which came from people living in Athalmer. Given the relatively small number of households in Athalmer, the names on the petition represent a significant proportion of the population there, he noted.

Athalmer is built on a flood plain and on filled-in sections of the Columbia River wetlands. The northern and easternmost edges of the neighbourhood border directly onto the wetlands. The dike (or berm) is made of dirt and was put in place several decades ago, following incidents of flooding and high water, to protect Althalmer homes. As part of its Athalmer Neighbourhood Plan, the district has proposed turning the dike into an official paved multi-use trail.

Vowels told council that the public consultation Athalmer residents have seen about the neighbourhood plan focused on walkways in general, not specifically about turning the dike into a paved walkway, which is why opposition to the plan is only being voiced relatively recently.

“It’s a little farther from the centre of town, and a little quieter in Athalmer. That’s what people want there — quiet. It’s a bad idea to direct people from James Chabot (Provincial Park) and the bridge to the berm and the wetlands,” said Vowels, adding the extra pedestrian traffic will be disruptive to wildlife as well as to local residents, and is bound to negatively impact the wetlands.

Vowels pointed out the funds for the trail could easily be redirected to creating badly needed sidewalks along Athalmer streets. Many Althalmer streets have no sidewalk at all and are consequently unsafe for pedestrians, he stated.

Vowels, Natalie Forrest and other opponents of the dike trail have spent time talking with biologists about the potential ecological effects of the trail. Forrest outlined for council the numerous endangered, at-risk or otherwise threatened species, both plant and animal, that make their home in the wetlands, including along the dike.

“What we see is that, when the wetlands are full of paddlers, all the birds come in, toward the town. They are essentially getting squeezed out by the people. Adding a walkway would further squeeze the birds and other wildlife,” said Forrest. “To say it’s just a walkway is really understating the impact it can have.”

At one point Forrest became impassioned to the point of tears, and pleaded with council, “if we (Invermere) are serious about conserving nature, we should do the really simple thing. The best thing. Which is to do nothing. Leave it.”

Rae McPherson explained the trail opponents felt compelled to appear before council, because “we have given feedback (about the trail) but we don’t see that feedback reflected in the plan.” McPherson also pointed out that, in terms of public access to nature, if people want to access the wetlands there are already many other places in the Columbia Valley where they can do so.

“We understand the passion,” said Invermere Mayor Al Miller, adding he personally hadn’t heard any negative feedback about the trail until he began talking with the four trail opponents presenting at the council meeting.

Councillor Gerry Taft followed up by saying, “I think, with trails, there is some value in bringing people close to nature . . . but this may not be the right spot. There’s tradeoff, and in this case I don’t know where the balance lies. I think what is clear is that we need to do more consultation with the (Athalmer) neighbourhood and also look at the pros and cons (of the trail) to the general public.”

Miller agreed “this will obviously take a whole lot more work and more consultation.”

Invermere chief administrative officer Andrew Young advised council to hold off on making any decisions about the proposed dike trail just yet.