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COMMENT: B.C.’s shameful backcountry 'wreckreation'

As the Olympic spotlight begins to shine on British Columbia, citizens need to learn more about the shameful exponential increase of habitat destruction caused by off-road vehicle ‘wreckreation.’ Not only is the backcountry environment getting trashed, but non-motorized trails are being over-run by irresponsible ATV and motorbike riders, in some cases making these trails unusable for cycling and hiking.

While the problems are occurring throughout the province, particularly in alpine areas and wetlands; it is in the drier Okanagan, Thompson and Kootenay grasslands where off-road wreckreation is most problematic because these machines can go anywhere. Once areas have been damaged, the impacts can last for decades. Problems include; wildlife disturbance, irreparable changes to soil that make it difficult for plants to take root and grow, damage to wetlands that can alter water courses and kill wildlife, erosion of hillsides, plugged culverts from ditches that get filled with dirt and debris, introduction of noxious weeds and invasive plants, disruption of livestock grazing patterns, and destroyed plants and erosion in sensitive, slow growing alpine areas.

The escalating problems from off road vehicles is compounded by the lack of regulations, as this province is the only jurisdiction in North America that does not require licenses or training to operate these vehicles. Thanks to the Coalition for Licensing and Registration of Off-Road Vehicles that includes the ATV Association, the Outdoor Recreation Council and a number of stewardship groups including the Grasslands Conservation Council; the provincial government is now finally creating new regulations [] to better control off-road vehicle use.

The Coalition [] was set up in 2002 and released 47 recommendations in 2006 that included utilizing a portion of the money received from licensing and registration for education and safety programs, trail development including maintenance and enhancement, enforcement, and conservation and stewardship. While government develops the new rules over the next two years, thousands of riders from other provinces and the U.S. where rules exist will continue to travel here to tear up the hillsides.

“It is a total free-for-all out there,” explained Dave Quinn, program manager with Wildsight. “And it is not just summer use that is out of control, as snowmobilers flock here from Alberta every winter and shred up critical caribou habitat,” added Quinn. In 2007, 3,000 snowmobilers tore up Boulder Mountain near Revelstoke during their “Big Iron Shootout,” and consequently the local snowmobile club has been working with government to discourage future large events like this one that can damage plantations and leave mounds of litter.

The word is getting out internationally about B.C.’s appalling record of trail misuse, as Europeans who have come to cycle the province’s famed Kettle Valley Railway trails are returning home with the message that these trails are becoming unusable for cyclists due to the damage caused by ATVs and motorcycles. The sections experiencing the most severe damage are near Midway and Beaverdell.

The Trans-Canada trail has also been hit hard by off-road vehicles, especially in the Chilliwack River valley. Trails BC vice-president, Leon Lebrun reported that after a recent cycling event in the Myra Canyon area that attracted 600 participants and despite extra signage and communication, 80 percent of the group complained about the off-road vehicle use and the damaged trails. Lebrun has cycled in Quebec and PEI, where he observed the flip-side of backcountry recreation, as cycling trails there are strictly non-motorized and the ATVs and motorbikes have separate trails.

Like the rest of the province in recent years, negative impacts from off-road vehicles on Shuswap’s backcountry terrain have continued to increase despite improved educational efforts and enforcement measures. Hardest hit are the accessible alpine areas such as atop Crowfoot Mountain and on Hunter’s Range, but the problems are occurring wherever ATVs, motorcycles and 4x4s enter wetlands or make new trails on steep hillsides.

One of the most damaged areas has been Cummings Lake in the Hunter’s range where there is a recreation site for this popular fishing lake. Apparently, the wetland area at the end of the lake has now been chewed up by irresponsible quad riders. Complicating the situation is that these yahoos have been accessing trails cut for wintertime snowmobile use that were not meant for summer use.

Rather than waiting for provincial legislation, local off-road clubs have been working collaboratively with the Shuswap Trail Alliance to encourage responsible riding and discourage the “terrain terrorists.” In the Larch Hills, the local ATV club joined forces with the Larch Hills Nordic Society and other groups to help prevent more mud bogging with signage and gates and they have helped to voluntarily stop riding in the old growth forests where ATVs and motorcycles were damaging the trails.

Trail Alliance executive director Phil McIntyre-Paul recently explained how the Shuswap already has a “motorized dominant backcountry” and in order to establish non-motorized use in areas it was necessary for groups to work together to minimize conflicts. This collaboration has led to successful strategies that include joint stewardship initiatives and parallel trails that allow for both motorized and non-motorized use, such as the trail network that connects White Lake with Blind Bay.

The off-road vehicle clubs in the Shuswap have a key role in solving the problems caused by a small but growing group of irresponsible riders. Not only do these groups help to educate riders and encourage responsible use of trails, but they also serve a patrolling function by watching for the trouble makers and by reporting infractions.

The forest service’s compliance and enforcement officers also watch for problems and have been known to ticket offenders. Existing laws can result in fines up to $100,000 and up to one year in jail or both. Earlier this year on the May long weekend, Shuswap/Okanagan forest service staff checked over 500 riders and issued 48 tickets and warnings, made one arrest and seized one vehicle. Members of the public can also help report violations by phoning the RAPP line (1-877-952-7277) or by phoning their local forest service office.

In two years, British Columbia will finally be at par with the rest of North America that now has regulations governing backcountry recreation. Meanwhile, the situation is getting so bad, that the by the time the new rules will be in force it may be too late. Already sustainable, non-motorized tourism is being impacted by the ongoing, rampant motorized exploitation of the backcountry.

After decades of efforts by environmentalists, forest companies have improved their practices; but now some of the greatest environmental problems are being caused not by resource companies, but by out-of-control ‘terrain terrorists’ riding roughshod over sensitive grasslands, wetlands and alpine meadows across this province. Not only are the now planned regulations and enforcement actions sorely needed, but B.C. needs a new backcountry culture that would help discourage irresponsible off-road vehicle use.

Jim Cooperman is president of the Shuswap Environmental Action Society and writes a column for the Shuswap Market newspaper. This piece was first published in