10 years after report, B.C.’s back roads still at risk

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By: Korie Marshall

In 2005, the Forest Practices Board released a special report on the state of BC’s forestry and resource roads. It concluded there was no comprehensive inventory, very limited opportunities for public involvement in planning, and a confusing patchwork of administrative responsibilities and legal requirements for road construction, use, maintenance and deactivation.

Ten years later, it’s not much better.

Resource roads in BC provide natural resource industries with access to the places they work. They are not managed by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. Yet they benefit the public, First Nations and some other commercial interests like ranching and adventure tourism by providing access to BC’s back country. They represent a multi-billion dollar asset to the province. But they can have negative effects on the environment, as well as causing angst between users, especially when it is unclear who is responsible for maintenance, and who has the right to deactivate a road others may be using. The Forest Practice Board says that managing access is fundamental to maximizing the positive effects and minimizing the negative effects of resource roads.

The Forest Practices Board is an independent watchdog for sound forest practices in BC. In 2005, it recommended that government address the issues it identified quickly because of the anticipated growth in the resource road network from salvaging mountain pine beetle-killed timber and increasing activity in the oil and gas and mining sectors. The Board says the government responded in December 2007 with the assurance that the Resource Roads Act would be proclaimed in the fall of 2008. But Bill 30-2008, Resource Road Act, still sits at first reading, and the Board says the bill likely wouldn’t have addressed the access management issues it has identified. Don Graham, a resident of Vancouver Island who opposed the legislation told the Goat back in 2011 that the biggest problem with it was that it required someone – some user group or individual company – to be a “designated maintainer”. Graham argued the designated maintainer would have incentive to deactivate the roads in order to limit their liability, as well as maintenance costs.

The report says the government’s map of resource roads is only current to the mid-1990’s for most of the province and the Board used data from 11 separate databases to “cobble together” a picture of roads in the province. It says there are over 600,000 kilometers of resource roads in BC – enough to drive from Vancouver to Halifax and back 50 times – and on the order of 10,000 kilometers are being added every year. Seventy five percent were built by the forest industry, with the rest by oil and gas and other industries like mining. Over half of the roads are not being maintained, and though much of that unmaintained road has been deactivated, there is still potential to cause environmental damage and provide unintended access.

With continuing and emerging issues with resource roads across the province, the Board decided it was time to update the 2005 report to see what has happened in 10 years, and to summarize the current situation. It released the update in April, and concludes the government’s information about resource roads is still poor; there are no tools to strategically plan and manage resource roads; and there is confusion and inconsistency in legal requirements that cause operational problems. But the board is encouraged by some improvements related to the safe use of resource roads since 2005, like the development of the Off-Road Vehicle Framework, the appointment of a Forest Safety Ombudsman and the implementation of simplified, provincially consistent radio communication protocols and channels for resource roads. The new radio protocols and channels are being introduced in the Robson Valley on June 1st. (See story in our April 29th issue.)

The province says it is working on the Natural Resource Roads Act and an information system for resource roads. A government website admits resource roads are currently administered through a dozen acts and regulations, and the goal of the proposed Natural Resource Road Act is to create a single, streamlined and modern approach to management and administration of resource roads. But the Board says that system won’t be implemented for several years. The government’s last update to the sparse information on the website was January 2014.

The province released a 10-year transportation plan earlier this year, but the plan makes no commitments except to “explore opportunities to maintain public access to resource and back-country roads.”

In its updated report, the Board makes six main recommendations: that the government create a collaborative editing website (a wiki) that will allow government staff and the public to provide current information about road locations and status; that the government bring into force two existing sections of the Land Act that would allow a discussion of access objectives that applies to everyone including industries and the public; that the government require a notification period for non-industrial users about pending changes to road status (like building new roads, maintenance or deactivation); that the government implement the recommendation of the new BC Forest Safety Ombudsman to establish a highway designation for resource roads that serve as the primary or secondary access roads for communities; that government address current operational issues with minor regulatory changes and support the work of local road management committees until comprehensive legislation is passed; and that the government complete an inventory of these roads, including rating the risk of negative effects.

Greig Bethel, spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, says GeoBC is currently working on a database that will include information on all resource roads by July 2016. In the meantime, road users and the traveling public can get information from the Backroads Maps series as well as local natural resource district offices, says Bethel.

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