By Laura Keil
They are loggers, hunters and sledders. They all make use of the spidery network of B.C.’s backroads, officially known as “resource roads,” which cut into remote regions of B.C. wilderness.
But there is growing conflict over who pays to maintain them and whether they remain open to public use in light of the associated liability and their impact on wildlife.
Curtis Pawliuk, GM of the Valemount Area Recreation Development Association, says snowmobilers rely on many of these roads to access the backcountry to sled, ski, hunt or fish.
“All the roads are high-value recreation roads,” he says. “We’ve grown up in B.C. using these roads for hunting and fishing and camping and hiking and skiing. The fact that they’re starting to disappear – and they could disappear very quickly, many of them at a time – it’s scary.”
The answer is anything but simple. Half a dozen ministries oversee the roads. Currently, resource road tenure and management falls under a complex array of legislation administered by separate government organizations including the Ministry of Forests and Range, Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, Oil & Gas Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands.
Each organization applies different tenures, levels of enforcement, approval processes and standards for construction, maintenance and deactivation.
Many roads are being deactivated because there is no one willing to maintain them, according to a government report. If logging or mining work is completed, the company has no reason to continue to maintain the roads leaving them to deteriorate or barring access to motorized vehicles. But small-scale users, such as tourists, take advantage of these segues into the heart of B.C.’s forests.
“British Columbians have grown up using these resource roads and now they’re being taken from us without really any consultation,” says Pawliuk.
In November, Pawliuk discovered a bridge had been removed 18 km up the Chapel Creek snowmobile trail south of Valemount.
“I came around the corner and saw there was no bridge,” Pawliuk says. “My heart jumped in my throat.”
“It was a big surprise to us, especially on an important trail.”
The matter has since been resolved, and there is now several culverts bridging the creek. Sledders had to be careful about crossing unless there was sufficient snow.
“We’re going to test out this year and see if it works.”
Pawliuk says nobody did anything wrong – but it highlights the complicated nature of ensuring the roads are available to the public for as long as possible.
Two years ago, the government tried to introduce Bill 30, legislation that would have consolidated the management of resource roads under one resource road authority. The bill met vehement resistance from groups that argued the new system would lead to massive road closures, since it required a “designated maintainer” to take care of roads. If no such maintainer could be found, then the road would presumably be deactivated. Maintainers would also have the incentive to deactivate roads in order to limit their liability, says Don Graham, who created a website devoted to opposing the legislation.
Graham is a prospector on Vancouver Island who relies on resource roads for his work. He says part of the problem would be getting anyone to step up to the responsibility of taking care of the roads.
“We seem to be in an increasingly litigious society and there are obviously a certain amount of damage claims that are made by people who are using the roads. My neighbour is involved in forest industry. Someone was driving irresponsibly, drove off the road and got injured. Now he’s fighting a legal battle.”
A better solution would be to let the users maintain the roads informally, he says.
“I don’t know if it’s possible if the government can declare that if you’re using these roads, you’re using them entirely at your own risk and try to put a damper on these litigations.”
He says they have mineral properties, for instance, where they rely on old mining and logging roads, and if it needs a fix-up, they they fix it up. He says it would be difficult, if not impossible to get somebody to step forward to be the designated maintainer of the roads.
Bill 30 never went through. It was dropped amidst the outcry. But no system is proposed to replace it. And the confusion over who is responsible, and what consultations must occur, remains boggy.
“It’s too easy to call to the government to maintain this standard and do this and do that,” Graham says. “It would be a heck of an expense. From a practical point of view, I think the best case is this informal maintenance. If you’re using the road, you have a little wash-out, the users repair them.”
Jacques Houle, a physical engineer with Mineral Exploration Consulting based in Nanaimo, B.C. says resource roads should be regarded by everyone as an asset and not a liability. They have been paid for by taxpayers through stumpage fee deductions to road builders such as loggers.
“It is wrong and wasteful for taxpayers to pay again to have them decommissioned, particularly if they are still useful for any other bona fide users,” he writes in an email. “The safety arguement used by government to decommission roads is incorrect, and misleading. I have seen many instances of inappropriate decommissioning of roads that provided access to mineral occurrences (minerals are owned by the province) which served to devalue those occurrences for potential explorers and developers.”