Friday, September 08, 2006

Bennett responds to Wildsight spokesman's criticisms

The Daily Bulletin (Kimberley)
Friday, September 8, 2006
Byline: Matt Coxford

East Kootenay MLA Bill Bennett says personal criticisms leveled at him by a Wildsight spokesman on the Jumbo debate are a smoke screen.

Bennett was responding to statements John Bergenske made in Tuesday's Townsman. The latter accused the MLA of undermining the regional government, and attempting an end run in getting the proposed year-round ski resort the go-ahead.

"Bergenske's comments are a smoke screen for what his real agenda is," says Bennett, who had plenty of challenges for Wildsight's executive director.

"The environmental lobby doesn't want any sort of development to take place, whether it's mining development, oil and gas, tourism, real estate, golf courses, forestry -- they just don't want anything to happen.

"They will argue that they would support a project that has gone through the appropriate process, and is shown to be environmentally responsible and so forth. I challenge anyone to point out one major economic project that the East Kootenay Environmental Society (Wildsight's previous name) and John Bergenske have ever supported."

In Tuesday's article, Bergenske also questioned the B.C. Environmental Assessment process -- which granted an environmental certificate to Jumbo's proponents -- saying that it has never rejected a project.

The MLA defends the process, saying it is one of the most respected and rigorous assessments of its kind in the world. He says it has attracted interest from observers and bureaucrats around the globe.

"The Environmental Assessment office will deal with dozens and dozens of projects in the course of a year. Probably more than half of those projects don't stay in the process long enough to be turned down because they realize, going through the process, that their project won't be accepted."

Others pull out because they can't meet the demand for information for baseline environmental studies, public consultations and other aspects of the process.

"I challenge (Bergenske) and anybody else to give me an example of any other project in the history of this province that has been subjected to the same level of scrutiny as the Jumbo project," he says, noting Jumbo's environmental certificate had more than 200 conditions.
Bennett says Bergenske should look in the mirror before he speaks of issues of democracy. Wildsight, he says, is "a small, un-elected group of elite environmentalists."

"After all the years of intimidation and anti-democratic activity that (Bergenske) has organized in the East Kootenay, and all the development and job creation that he has tried to stop, it is the pot calling the kettle black. I am duly elected. If he thinks his vision for the East Kootenay is superior to that of mine or the B.C. Liberal government, I invite him to run against me in the next election."

In March, the Regional District of East Kootenay Board of Directors voted overwhelmingly against allowing Victoria to decide whether a special municipality would be set up for the proposed ski hill. Many felt that if that motion had been successful, it would have amounted to a green light for the project.

Bennett says prior to the vote, a half dozen directors told him personally they wanted the province to take over the Jumbo matter, and intended to vote in favour of the motion.
"These people were being harassed in their homes late at night over the phone, harassed on the street, they were threatened," says Bennett.

"This was an organized lobby effort by groups like Wildsight -- it wasn't just Wildsight. It's fair to lobby your elected politicians. It's not part of the democratic process to intimidate."
The MLA also says that Bergenske's comments that Bennett is beholden to "political masters in Victoria" are unfounded.

"Anybody who knows me and has watched me over the past five years, since I've been the MLA, knows that I am one of the most independent thinking politicians around," he says.
"They know that I'm not somebody who will be told to do anything that I don't personally believe in. Frankly, my colleagues in Victoria would probably not deal with this project as readily as I would."

Bennett worries about the precedent that would be set by not approving the Jumbo Glacier resort, after what he calls "an exhaustive 16-year process."

"I think for us to not have the courage to proceed with the project now shows every investor in the world who's thinking of investing in British Columbia, that they can't trust our process, that we will allow our process to be subverted to the antidemocratic demagogues like John Bergenske."