Your Right to Snowmobile on Public Land in BC Isn’t Protected
Snowmobilers were once explorers, and between every two trees there was a doorway to a new adventure. Now, the gates seem to be closing and our perceived right to roam taken away.
But was the right even ours to lose in the first place?
A closer look at the how recreation is valued by the legal framework that governs public land use in British Columbia suggests that no, it wasn’t.
Public Land Use for Snowmobiling in BC
Over 94% of British Columbia is Crown, or public, land. It supports a diverse range of species and ecosystems, provides world-class recreational opportunities, and is the foundation of our provincial economy.
The Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) has an expansive responsibility to ensure activity on Crown land (be that resource extraction, commercial operations, or recreation) is done in a sustainable manner and maximizes public benefit.
Meaningful access to the outdoors is integral to the way of life of British Columbians. It creates jobs, promotes physical and mental health, and makes our province a desirable place to live and visit. Yet it seems chronic underfunding and outdated government policy are placing this in jeopardy.
The Value of Recreation in the Forest and Range Practices Act
The legislated framework outlining resource-based activities is called the Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA). Unfortunately, snowmobiling has a precarious perch in this system—here’s why.
Within FRPA, eleven high-level land Values are identified. Examples of these are timber, water quality, and wildlife. Another is recreation. For each of these Values, the act prescribes legally binding Objectives (strategies) that stakeholders must incorporate into their Forest Stewardship Plans to protect each Value. However, recreation is the only FRPA Value for which our government has declined to define Objectives. Additionally, FRPA broadly states ‘no other Value shall unduly affect the timber supply in BC’. This clause neatly summarizes the troubling and outdated paradigm that leaves forestry operators dominating the conversation.
The result is that forest license holders (i.e. logging companies) have no enforceable requirement to consider or consult with recreation stakeholders operating in adjacent terrain. Snowmobilers most often experience the effects of this disparity when sled trails are plowed out for timber hauling, effectively locking the public out of key arteries into riding zones.
Forest and Range Practices Act ‘Values’
- Cultural Heritage
- Forage & Associated Plant Communities
- Resource Features
- Visual Quality
- Water Quality
Decommissioning of Roads Negatively Impacts Snowmobile Access
A vast 620,000 km network of resource roads span the province with an additional 10,000 km added each year. Constructed primarily to support the resource extraction industry, forestry roads are now also the backbone for access to remote communities and recreation experiences outside of the traditional BC Parks system, including snowmobiling.
The upkeep of these resource roads comes at a hefty cost to industry and the Ministry, who absorb long-term responsibility for their maintenance and liability. In some areas, cumulative effects from years of human activity, road density and natural processes have resulted in habitat fragmentation with negative impacts on critical species that we can all agree must be addressed. When industrial work is completed, if there is a risk to the environment, or road infrastructure is deemed too costly to maintain, it is decommissioned with efforts made to return the land to its natural state.
The Ministry currently recognizes 181 individual snowmobile sites and trails utilizing resource roads through the Recreation Sites and Trails BC (RSTBC) partnership program. Many more areas remain stuck in a backlog of authorization applications in an overburdened system. Still, snowmobile clubs are the largest manager of designated public recreation sites in the province outside of BC Parks.
These agreements authorize clubs to provide services on behalf of the government on a cost recovery basis for infrastructure such as grooming, signage, cabins and parking lots via the pay-to-play day use fee system.
Sadly, even with agreements in place, a lack of legal FRPA Objectives results in little enforcement action against industry when snowmobile access is impacted. All too often, snowmobile areas are not spoken for early enough in the process to be saved.
It’s no secret that the forest industry in British Columbia has been in steady decline since the late 1990s due to factors such as wildfire, beetle infestations and trade disputes with the United States. Meanwhile, winter tourism and recreation are skyrocketing. In 2019, tourism contributed more to the GDP than any other primary resource industry.
British Columbia Gross Domestic Product, in Billions of Dollars (2019)
Oil and Gas $4.9
Agriculture and Fishing $3.3
Forestry and Logging $1.6
Economic Impacts of Snowmobiling in British Columbia
$299.2 million dollars in economic output each year to BC
Annual Economic Output Generated by Snowmobiling in Local Communities
Valemount $5.7 million
Sicamous $9.1 million
Fernie $11.6 million
Revelstoke $31.2 million
So while logging, energy and mining remain important employers for many rural communities in British Columbia, the adverse impacts of these activities on recreation can be devastating for the many who now rely on tourism dollars to feed their families.
The good news is the Ministry has indicated the Forest and Range Practices Act is under review. In the meantime, areas like the South Peace, Fernie, Sicamous, Trout Lake and many more like them face a real and immediate threat.
Speaking Up For Sledders
For those who love sledding, it is important to preserve that opportunity for not just today, but for future generations. Snowmobiling is no longer just a couple of good ol’ boys out there burning gas. It is an important economic driver for rural communities and a vibrant recreational resource worthy of the right to participate in a transparent planning and stakeholder consultation process.
In response to the threat of trail closures, the British Columbia Snowmobile Federation (BCSF) has launched a mapping program cataloging every snowmobile trail in the province to help the government and industry identify and plan for recreation resources.
In another recent effort, the District of Sicamous unanimously supported a motion prepared by the BCSF to be forwarded to the Union of BC Municipalities requesting legislation that timber harvesting be done in a manner that works alongside recreation. In theory, the resolution will give power back to communities to decide how land is used in their own backyards.
What Can You Do?
One of the most powerful ways that individual riders can impact the future of sledding in this province is by joining a snowmobile club. A large, active and engaged membership provides the best chance at preserving British Columbia’s riding areas. A portion of each and every membership sold funds the BCSF to help keep us informed; hire lawyers, researchers and scientists; prepare strategy; and petition on our behalf in the face of some fierce competition for land use.
Today, BC residents in many communities understand that there is as much value in forests standing up, as cut down. Not only do sledders have the right, but we also have the responsibility to ensure the future of public land is made for you and me.