Thirty Years of Being Aware

In the early 1990s, Whistler was in the throes of a development boom. “We talked about a ‘crane-o-metre’ at the time,” said then and current Whistler resident Ken Melamed, speaking about the formative years of the community’s then-fledgling environmental group, the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE). In fact, for a few years after its founding in 1989, “there was a time … that municipal staff was not allowed to have membership in AWARE,” Melamed said.

The sea-change happened in 1996, when Hugh O’Reilly was elected mayor and Melamed, who by then had served as AWARE’s president for six years, won a seat on the municipal council. From that point on, the community began to coalesce around the notion that Whistler can and should be an environmental leader. As Mitch Rhodes, the group’s president during the early 2000s, wrote in a statement that was read at a gathering marking AWARE’s 30th anniversary, “The strategy, the tactic, the dream was to position Whistler at the centre … bringing a message of sustainability to the world by being a living classroom.”

According to the Whistler Museum and Archives, AWARE started when local resident and humourist Michelle Bush found herself ankle-deep in junk mail at the post office. She put an ad in the newspaper and about 15 people showed up at Citta’ Bistro (now Beacon Pub & Eatery) to talk about starting a recycling program. The focus quickly shifted to conservation issues. In the mid-90s, after a seven-hour public hearing, the council voted (disappointingly, in Melamed’s view) 7-0 to approve what’s now Nicklaus North Golf Course, partly along the River of Golden Dreams. After the 1996 election, AWARE rallied support and the new council voted to preserve some 70 acres of riparian habitat along the river from development.

According to Claire Ruddy, AWARE’s current executive director, AWARE has never been anti-development. Rather, it has stood up for responsible development that enhances both the resort’s tourism offerings and the community’s reputation as an environmental leader. It has largely succeeded by taking a collaborative approach, involving both members and non-members in fulsome debates about the most sustainable approaches to social, economic and environmental challenges.

“That just reflects the fact that we’re all in this together. We all have a desire to see wildlife, and protect what’s around us,” Ruddy said. “You can have disagreements while coming from the same place, which is the place we share and are lucky enough to call home.”

Case in point: In the early 2000s, AWARE partnered with the municipality, Whistler Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler and others in adoption of The Natural Step, an ecosystem-based decision-making strategy posited by Swedish Dr. Karl Henrik Robert. That led to the adoption in 2005 — just before Melamed was elected to the first of two terms as mayor — of Whistler 2020, the community’s comprehensive sustainability plan, which guides on-the-ground decisions. AWARE faced a difficult decision after Vancouver and Whistler were awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics. Some members urged the group to oppose the Games on environmental grounds, but AWARE ultimately decided to neither support nor oppose — a move that gave it a place at the table in the Games’ planning and execution. After the bid was won in 2003, Vancouver 2010 CEO John Furlong told Pique Newsmagazine that Whistler “did this bid an extraordinary service by making us get involved” in its commitment to sustainability.

The organization faced an existential moment in 2011. After the Games, many of the stalwarts “had to take a step back and focus on their own businesses” and other commitments, Ruddy said. After stating that AWARE might have to fold, “we went out to the community and said, ‘Is there still a place for an organization like AWARE and if so, what does that look like?’ We had meetings with various stakeholders and had lots of discussion about how that should happen and what issues were key,” Ruddy said.

The re-energized group secured a small grant from the Community Foundation of Whistler for a part-time person to help secure further funding. From there, AWARE nailed down $60,000 in core funding in support of community programs and events.

AWARE now has four employees, supports 23 programs and helps both adults and youngsters appreciate nature and become better environmental stewards (for example, supporting Whistler’s “zero waste” target.) Fighting climate change will undoubtedly be front-and-centre going forward, Ruddy said. “It’s about building a conservation mindset around the need to conserve energy; and when planning, how do we work through a conservation lens. A lot of that comes down to changing behaviours, and that will take time.”

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