Tumbler Ridge:  Canada’s newest geopark?

Photo Credit: Amanda Follett

Tumbler Ridge:  Canada’s newest geopark?

👤Amanda Follett Hosgood 🕔May 30, 2014

Tumbler Ridge was founded over 30 years ago on a single resource: coal. Today, mining continues to support the local economy, but the community is investing in other valuable resources: thundering waterfalls, one-of-a-kind fossils, canyons, caves and incredible landscapes.

BC’s youngest town, which is located in the northern Rockies near the Alberta border, has applied to be a UNESCO Geopark. If successful, it would become the second in North America (after Stonehammer Geopark in New Brunswick.) Geopark status is the perfect fit for this mining community, as it mixes industry with tourism and sustainability.

“Everything is geology related, ultimately,” Charles Helm—arguably another of the town’s greatest resource—says about Tumbler Ridge. The local physician arrived from South Africa 22 years ago and, despite the community’s economic ups and downs, says he sees no reason to leave. He has become one of Tumbler Ridge’s greatest advocates.

The town began with a promising 5,000 residents in 1981. When one of its mines closed in 2000, it shrunk to about 1,500 people. In 2011, its population had rebounded to about 2,700 local residents, although the recent announcement that two mines in the area will suspend operations, costing 700 jobs, will undoubtedly impact the community.  

Going for geopark

The idea to apply for geopark status came from local paleontologist partners—in both career and life—Rich McCrea and Lisa Buckley, who were invited by UNESCO to help assess a World Heritage Site in Turkmenistan. They realized Tumbler Ridge had everything it needed for a geopark.

“We learned that we quite possibly had the ingredients here,” Helm says. “We said, gee, we already have a product and it seems to fit this Global Geopark designation.”

The Global Geoparks Network was established in 1998, with a geopark defined as an area with geological heritage of international significance. There are roughly 100 worldwide, mostly in Europe and Asia. Its purpose is to promote awareness around earth sciences, such as sustainability, climate change, natural disasters and other issues facing the planet.

To be included in the network, a community needs to have a geotourism-based management plan, methods for conserving and enhancing geological heritage and a joint proposal submitted by public authorities, local communities and private interests. And therein lies one of the most appealing aspects of geopark status: unlike a park or protected area, it allows for mixed-use, welcoming the industry that founded Tumbler Ridge.

“With a geopark, you celebrate the role of industry and the history of the role it’s played,” Helm says. “You celebrate what the rocks have done for us and what we have done to the rocks.”

Tumbler Ridge owes a great deal to its mining roots. Local industry works with the community to implement hiking trails and supports its growing paleontology tourism by reporting finds to local experts at the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre.

“We dispel lots of the myths that industry, recreation and environmental protection can co-exist,” Helm says. “We work really well with industry in terms of hiking destinations.”

He describes geoparks as “very much a bottom-up thing … as opposed to a government-run, top-down phenomenon.” Geoparks are typically a grassroots, community-driven designation and the Tumbler Ridge Aspiring Geopark Committee has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Peace River Regional District, District of Tumbler Ridge, Northern BC Tourism, Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society and Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation, among others.

From fossils to ’falls

The first dinosaur discovery—the one that propelled Tumbler Ridge into the paleontological spotlight—was made by Helm’s then eight-year-old son Daniel in 2001, during the town’s last economic downturn. Daniel and a friend were tubing on Flatbed Creek when they came across what appeared to be dinosaur tracks. He contacted Rich McCrea, then with the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, who confirmed them as prehistoric footprints.

The following summer, McCrea made a trip to Tumbler Ridge and today he and wife Lisa Buckley still live there. In 2003, the couple started the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre and later the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery, which sees several thousand visitors each year.

Tumbler Ridge is also famous for its towering waterfalls. The self-proclaimed Waterfall Capital of the North, Tumbler Ridge sits within hiking or driving distance of 36 waterfalls, with more being discovered all the time.

“Between the dinosaurs, the topography with all the waterfalls, it’s really an interesting place,” says Susan Clarke, regional media relations representative for the Northern BC Tourism Association. “(Geopark status) pulls all those interesting features of the area into one designation.”

The community has three hotels, a bed and breakfast and two campgrounds. In winter, there are ski trails, ice climbing and snowmobiling, although, Clarke adds, “For most people, spring, summer, fall is the best season.” With more than 100 kilometres of trails, some suitable for mountain biking, visitors could spend some time seeing all there is to see. Hiking trails lead to 43 geosites, including waterfalls, rock formations, alpine meadows, lakes, canyons, mountain summits and caves.

Also attracting visitors to the area is the annual Emperor’s Challenge, a half-marathon race with nearly 700 metres elevation gain on its route over Babcock Mountain. It saw 16 competitors when it began 15 years ago. This year’s race, which takes place Aug. 8, capped participation at 1,000—when registration opened in early April, it was full by the following afternoon.

Three years ago, Tumbler Ridge won the BC Walking Challenge—not just for its size category, but for the entire province. Its winnings, $60,000, went toward the creation of a boardwalk trail at a bird watching site. As well, the Tumbler Ridge Golf and Country Club’s recently renovated restaurant also offers gorgeous views of Mount Bergeron.

“It is such a beautiful place in the lower, more gentle Rocky Mountains,” Clarke adds.

Diversifying economy

The application for the 7,722-square-kilometre geopark surrounding Tumbler Ridge was pulled together within a few months last year and submitted, upon recommendation by a visiting Canadian National Committee for Geoparks, to the Global Geopark Network. The community recently received word that an international delegation with experts from Spain and China will visit Tumbler Ridge in early June, with a decision expected by September at the sixth International Conference on Global Geoparks in New Brunswick.

“We’ll be going there and we’ll be sending a delegation there and making a presentation on our product,” Helm says.

It’s hoped that any attention given to Tumbler Ridge’s tourism industry will ease the recent loss of jobs and help keep the community afloat during boom-and-bust cycles. Although therre is significantly less work in tourism than mining, wind energy projects promise an increase in jobs and the prospects of a geopark are encouraging, Helm says.

“Anywhere else in the world where geopark status has been granted, there has been an upswing in the numbers,” Helm says. “Something like our tourism product and the geopark, these things do help us weather the storm of the downturn.”

Tumbler Ridge’s geopark committee has produced a trilogy of coffee table books about the region’s scenery, fossils and human history, which can be purchased for $25 at the Tumbler Ridge Museum. 

NOTE: Since this article first appeared, Tumbler Ridge has received its Geopark designation. For more information on the Tumbler Ridge Aspiring Geopark, visit http://trgg.ca