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Canada

Trail builders in Fraser Valley told to stop work by provincial government

A battle is brewing in the B.C. backcountry between trail builders and government officials tasked with preventing the construction of unauthorized trails.

Trail builders in the Fraser Valley claim the provincial government is “blockading” trail development by cracking down on trail building on Crown land, while being slow to respond to applications by groups seeking to go through the proper channels.

“If their object is to shut down all volunteer trail building in the B.C. backcountry, they’re on the right track,” said Sam Waddington, owner of Mt. Waddington’s Outdoors in Chilliwack and a former city councillor.

Waddington said he recently received a visit from officials with the ministry of forests telling him to “cease and desist” trail building on Chilliwack’s eastern hillside. He has heard from several others who have received a similar message, including some who were identified on hidden trail cameras.

A sign telling Fraser Valley trail builders to discontinue building unauthorized trails in the forest near Chilliwack. Submitted photo / PNG

Violating the Forest and Range Practices Act can net trail builders a $10,000 fine, a remediation order to return the area to its original condition, and a jail term of up to six months.

The forests ministry told Postmedia that officers have issued two violation tickets for unauthorized trail building in the past two years across the province. They only respond when a complaint is received.

An emailed statement said “more and more ‘volunteers’ are building trails without authorization,” which can negatively impact the environment, other land users, and put public safety at risk.

To support trail building, ministry staff “engage with recreation clubs directly to inform them of compliance requirements and to support their efforts to develop and maintain exceptional outdoor recreation opportunities.”

But some Fraser Valley trail builders say they have tried to engage the government — with limited success.

In 2016, the municipality of Hope received “rural dividend” funding from the provincial government, with more than $100,000 earmarked for destination trail building.

A steering committee was formed, including members of the local government, regional government, B.C. Parks, Fraser Health and local First Nations, as well as stakeholders such as Hope Pathway Partners, explained the volunteer group’s chair Stephanie Hooker.

For three years, the group tried to get the forests ministry to the table, she said. “They wouldn’t return messages, they wouldn’t attend meetings, they wouldn’t even give us the goalposts of a sanctioned trail development process.”

As a result, the steering committee was forced to divert the grant money to trail projects that weren’t on Crown land, and Hooker fears many of the trail builders that wanted to work with the government have been driven underground to build trails in secret.

“We want to work with the government. We want their input so we can develop a trail network that they will approve. But we’re guessing the whole time,” she said.

Before the grant ended in April, the group submitted one application for a trail on Crown land. The pre-work, including an archeological assessment, cost about $10,000. They have been given no timeline for when it might be approved or denied.

Hooker said she would like to see the government process improved, as trail development is a key driver of tourism and amenity migration, meaning it can help attract new residents to rural communities like Hope.

“They’ve put a huge expectation on volunteer groups — first to come up with the money and then to go through this long process. If land managers won’t meet with them … I don’t know who is going to do this work.”

The statement from the ministry of forests said, on average, it takes about a year for proposed trails to be approved, but the process can be delayed by the need to consult various stakeholders and an increase in the number of trail applications.

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