Ecology is a growing focus in tourism these days, especially in British Columbia, Canada, a province known for its pristine beauty and year-round travel destinations. First Nations landmarks that date back thousands of years and an extraordinary sampling of terrain and micro-climates that range from arid desert to lush rain forest make B.C. a prime candidate for eco-tourism.
One area of recreational tourism that is receiving increasing scrutiny in B.C. is golf. Courses treated with environmentally friendly ingredients and biodegradable golf balls are the latest response to this concern, and are available at some of the more expensive golf destinations in the province. Other courses have used water conservation, environmental design and careful placement of their facilities to minimize the human footprint in ecologically sensitive areas.
St. Eugene Resort and Golf Course
A resort that has taken some more unusual steps to integrate ecological consciousness with its 18-hole course is St. Eugene Resort and Golf Course, in B.C.’s Rockies region. Tucked at the southern base of the Canadian Rockies just outside the city of Cranbrook and a stone’s throw from the U.S. border, St. Eugene boasts a history that is reflective of its ecological aspirations.
The resort is managed in partnership between the Ktunaxa (pronounced ktoonah-ha), Chippewa and Samson Cree First Nations (aboriginal peoples in Canada are for the most part referred to as the country’s First Nations). St. Eugene Resort is located on the former grounds of an aboriginal residential school for Ktunaxa children that operated until 1970. While the school represents a darker, sadder period in the First Nation’s cultural history, harmony with Nature and a respect for one’s surroundings is evident in many areas of the resort. Even the century-old building’s red brick walls have been lovingly preserved to reflect their early 20th century origins.
A Symbiotic Relationship with Nature
But it is the 120-acre golf course and the surrounding terrain that best illustrates the conservators’ regard for the environment. A member of Audubon International’s program and winner of the Aboriginal Tourism Association of B.C.’s 2009/2010 award for Tourism Conservation, the resort has not only worked to ensure minimal impact on the environment, but has strived to find ways to use its practices to teach others about ecology and ancestral heritage.
“We have created this symbiotic relationship with the wildlife,” said Golf/Hotel Facilities Manager Graeme Douglas, noting that the resort has worked hard to adjust to wildlife corridors that support a wide range of species, including the endangered great blue heron, western badger, and Townsend big eared bats.
A government grant allowed Douglas and Ktunaxa Nation member Terry White to study the wildlife habitat and come up with proposed policies. They then took their recommendations to the Ktunaxa elders. At the heart of the study was the question of how they would deal with the resident deer population that considers the greens and surrounding areas their habitat.
“If we harm the deer, where are we going to stop?” explained Douglas. So the resort came up with ways to design access ways to water, buffer zones and corridors for migration that still allowed its patrons to what they had come there for: to play golf.
Respect for the Ecosystem
To ensure that the delicate ecosystem of the adjacent St. Mary’s River would not be disturbed by human activity, the resort established an innovative policy for “foul” balls.
“We created a lateral hazard so (the golfers) don’t have to be penalized and can go back and drop the ball where they thought they originally were.”
The resort then erected a basket of free used golf balls so the players wouldn’t have to muck around in the river looking for their golf balls.
Douglas credits the Ktunaxa elders with much of the innovative thinking that has gone into solving such challenges.
Listening to the Local Community
“I learned from my travels to listen to the culture,” said Douglas. “(These approaches give) a bit more of a local flavour.”
That local perspective is evident on the course. The resort has named the tee box markers in the Ktunaxa language, with the phonetic pronunciation and meaning below. Each marker tells a little bit about the regional history and ecology from the First Nations perspective. This multicultural approach reflects the three important emblems of St. Eugene: its history, environment and First Nations culture.
Since the Ktunaxa written language is fairly new (like many other aboriginal languages in North America, the language was passed down verbally for thousands of years and did not possess a cursive system until recently), creating the tee boxes with took some undertaking. But Douglas says the idea fits with the Ktunaxa image.
“The Ktunaxa are known as a hospitable nation. They were the thinkers, the problem solvers.” Finding new ways to work with the environment, while teaching others about the ecology and their own culture complements the Ktunaxa goal of working in harmony with Nature.
Stewards of the Land
St. Eugene first opened its doors to golfers in 2000. In 2002 it opened its casino next door and in 2003 the resort opened, providing a full-service boutique hotel for business and vacation travelers. Its reputation has been growing steadily. However, St. Eugene’s Director of Marketing and Sales Wendy Van Puymbroeck said that at the present time most of their visitors still come from surrounding Canadian cities, such as Calgary, Alberta, on the east side of the Rockies. Establishing a name with U.S. travelers, however close, is difficult at the moment due to the less than stellar exchange on the dollar. Nevertheless, she, like others at this resort believe St. Eugene has something that other golf destinations don’t have.
“It is a case of building awareness,” said Van Puymbroeck. “If you travel into the Okanagan, they don’t have better prices, they have (brand) awareness.” The Okanagan Valley is considered British Columbia’s year-round playground and its golf courses are known for its arid climate and vacation atmosphere.
Just the same, St. Eugene has gained the reputation it has by patient work, cultivating its bond with the environment, and a willingness to share and teach others about its First Nations history.
“We are the original stewards of the land,” said Douglas. “Our development is about protecting what we have.”
Gratitude is extended to St. Eugene Resort for its time and hospitality while researching this article.