Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to sit on the Tourism Master Plan committee with an impressive group of Fernie residents and leaders. This plan, supported by Tourism Fernie, the City of Fernie, the Regional District of the East Kootenays (RDEK), and the Columbia Basin Trust, is a framework to ensure the direction of tourism in the Fernie area reflects the needs and interests of residents, and also that tourism is sustainable in future.
Mike Sosnowski, as Area A representative for the RDEK was on this committee. Having grown up in Fernie and attended school with his son, I knew Mike (to me, Mr. Sosnowski) but never in this realm and it was interesting to get to learn more about him and his involvement in our community.
Recently, Mike has put together a team to determine the sustainability and impacts of tourism in the RDEK and to support the findings with funding. Areas they have recognized thus far are Heiko’s and Hartley Lake Road, Silver Springs, the Elk River and the Coal Creek Valley. To any avid recreationalist, the increase in the use of trails and the special places that surround us is evident and of increasing concern, so both the Tourism Master Plan and the Tourism Sustainability Committee are vital and relieving.
It’s obvious that Mike feels the same way. Born on Dicken Road in 1955, the change he has seen is miles above what many of us have experienced.
“I did K-12 at Fernie Secondary, where 901 is now. Every grade was there! It was great growing up here, you knew everybody and everybody looked after each other,” he tells me over coffee. “After graduating, I became a commercial pilot and tried that for a few years, but nobody would hire an 18 year old. It was just too hard to make it, so I ended up going back to work in the bush for my dad in the forest industry.”
Mike has worked in Forestry in multiple ways, including running his own company for twenty years in Alberta. When he sold his shares, he started a business in Fernie - Prestige Tours. “We did that for a dozen of years, and it was great! But we moved on as the business model stopped making sense so I started helping with my son’s business.”
While Mike moved into Fernie proper, he felt that there was a lack of support for the rural Elk Valley areas and it inspired him to get into politics.
“I ran for local government in 2006, and have been the Area A Rep the last 16 years! When I got elected, Area A was getting $16,000 in extraordinary taxes. After my second term, we cracked a million dollars,” Mike says. “I looked at government through my business lens. While you always have a guaranteed cash register in the tax payer, you never want to use it. You need to find different ways to raise money.”
Mike has also been heavily involved in snowmobiling, and was part of the group who started the Fernie Snowmobile Association in 1992 which was ‘front and centre’ when the Southern Rocky Mountain Management Plan was being created.
“Fernie is so lucky to have organizations like the Snowmobile club and the Trails Alliance, they’ve kept up with the tourism product better than any other. The Snowmobile Club is running four snowcats now! I bought one in 1995 because I hated riding the rough trails, and only Fernie and Revelstoke had cats back then. They’re doing a tremendous job now, and have a huge membership.”
But it’s also this growth in tourism that raised the concerns that led to the Sustainable Tourism Committee and the report currently being created.
“There are so many people in the backcountry and you can’t stop them. The worms are crawling out of the can. What I think about is, where are these people going to the bathroom or putting their garbage? Parking lots are where you see it most but also in areas like Heiko’s Trail. The City gets RMI funds, and they put it to great use. But electoral areas also need money because people are all recreating out there. We have to figure out how to manage the masses of people in the backcountry, and should have been doing it the last ten years.”
Mike says the report should be completed soon, and will be a helpful tool in creating awareness and hopefully attracting funds to support the needed steps recognized in the report to support areas being affected.
During our time together, Mike’s phone has rung a few times, texts have come through, and I can tell he has somewhere he needs to be after we’re done. I’m curious, what are his plans?
“Well, the election is next fall… and I don’t intend on running,” he says. While nobody has come forward to fill his shoes, Mike shares some wisdom. “They should have business experience, and a passion for making the best decisions you can for the constituents. It’s all about them.”
And what does the future hold for Mike? “I’m going to retire! I’m 65 and it’s time for me to enjoy travelling, and just doing retirement!” He is also invested in the sustainability plan, and hopes it evolves… “because we don’t have the answers. It is ever evolving to help make tourism sustainable. What does that mean? It means the experience is repeatable… year after year. And that’s hard.”
Thank you, Mike. For your commitment to our community and to the sustainability of these special places we all love to explore and want to protect.
1. When did you first arrive in the Valley and what brought you here? I was born in the Parkplace Pub, because that used to be the maternity ward of the old Fernie Hospital!
2. Who did you first meet? I grew up with the Mackenzies on Dicken Road and the Phillips.
3. Do you remember your first general impression of Fernie? Growing up in the rural area of Dicken Road (there were only four houses on the road at that time) and taking the school bus into the town of Fernie. It was the combination of these two places that shaped and inspired me.
4. What keeps you here? Love of the Elk Valley and family. My two sons and four grandsons all live in the valley.
5. Do you have a favourite Fernie pastime? It used to be snowmobiling… I miss it so much. I’m too old… I look at every mountain top and I’ve sat on most of them. So now, it’s looking at the mountains.
6. What time of the year do you love most in Fernie, and why? Spring time. It’s renewal.
7. Where do you see or hope to see Fernie in five years? Exactly like it is, because it will never be less. I don’t want to see a huge amount of growth.
8. How do you start your day or what is one of your daily rituals? Coffee and a one egg omelette that I usually make myself.
9. Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about you. Honestly I don’t know how to answer that. After being here for all of these years.
10. Quote to live by: Be honest and transparent.