Anne Skipsey, a Qualicum participant, jots down ideas for improving backcountry access. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

Vancouver Island residents talk backcountry access

MLA Scott Fraser corrals possible remedies to restricted backcountry access

MIKE YOUDS

Special to the News

Mid Island-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser knew he’d hit a raw nerve when he held a press conference on the Hump — outside the gate at Cameron Main — to talk about backcountry access.

His intent was to address representatives of groups and rally widespread support for improved public access through privately held forest lands. Increasingly over the last few years, backcountry users have found themselves barred, locked out, from much of the wilderness on eastern Vancouver Island.

“I invited no more than 40 people and they were from all over the Island,” he said, recalling how word got out on social media. A snowstorm that day didn’t hold back a frustrated public: “There were 400 people there.”

Saturday, March 24 brought another juncture in the MLA’s singlehanded effort to bring stakeholders to the table and work on ways to unlock the gates.

“Being an independent citizen who has enjoyed all that is the Alberni Valley for 30 years, I find it demeaning they don’t allow access anymore,” said Glenn Purcell, one of the participants.

About 80 people, including hunters, hikers, trappers, RCMP, local government representatives and wilderness enthusiasts responded on the first Saturday of spring to Fraser’s invitation to come up with solutions, not complaints.

“It’s to access the B.C. that brought us here, that keeps us here,” Fraser told participants.

He held a similar gathering recently with forest industry stakeholders. Some of the suggestions that emerged include an access agreement of broader scope; a trail patrol program similar to a citizens’ patrol; improved education on safe access; registration of vehicles; disposal of all gates; and revisions to the Private Forest Management Land Act.

Fraser warned, however, against waging legal battles over the act and an agreement reached between the province and Weyerhaeuser Canada in 2004. The law is unclear on whether it still applies to Weyerhaeuser’s successor, Island Timberlands.

“I’m saying people could go to court and then be in court for decades,” Fraser said. “The entire murkiness goes back to the early land grants, and the rationale for that was to create rail links, which we don’t have.”

Participants heeded the call to work constructively, each table producing a list of prioritized solutions to the conflict. Some were willing to share their frustration, though.

“One of our solutions is to have the public sign waivers at the main gates,” said Darlene Clark, president of the Vancouver Island Trappers Association. “It makes the public more accountable.”

Mike Kleywegt felt solutions should focus on specific areas to be more effective. Forest companies have legitimate concerns about dumping, vandalism, fires and liability. “It can be a relationship that’s mutually beneficial,” he added.

Sandy McRuer, a retired professional forester, said forest companies should issue permits for a fee, an opportunity to vet applicants. As well, their liability for accidents involving the public could be removed, he proposed.

Another table suggested a technological solution, adopting Wi-Fi at gates to enable automated access for registered backcountry users.

Fraser promised, in closing, that they will try to have solutions compiled in a report within a month. The report will be submitted to Doug Donaldson, minister of forest, lands, natural resource operations and rural development.

“Let’s see if we can change policy; that’s something the minister can address right away,” the MLA said. “In the long run, I think we need to change the legislation.”

Barry Janyk, executive director of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C., said his group is working on a similar initiative called Right to Roam.

“It’s a perfect parallel with what we are doing,” Janyk said.

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