The Renshaw snowmobile area. (McBride Big Country Snowmobile Association)

The Ministry of Forests has left the community of McBride in the dark about the future of the popular snowmobiling area.

By Andrea Arnold

In the middle of an already slow snowmobiling tourism season for the community of McBride, access to the Renshaw, one of the area’s most popular trails, was abruptly closed by the Province on Jan. 22, 2024 due to a structural issue with the middle pier support on the bridge at 2km. The Ministry of Forest and BC Recreation Site and Trails have no plans to make improvements to allow the route to reopen.

Following this closure, the Village of McBride has reported a 70 percent decrease in snowmobile activity across all three of the main trails in the McBride area. 

The problem began in August 2023, when an inspection found the Renshaw trail bridge was on the verge of complete structural failure, said Dave McLeod, president of the McBride Big Country Snowmobile Association.

“Nobody was notified at that time and no signs or notices were posted. Fast forward to January 22, 2024 we get notified by BC Rec Sites and Trails that we need to cease grooming operations on the Renshaw trail due to bridge issues.”

These issues are serious enough that the bridge was zero-rated by the Ministry of Forests meaning that no traffic over the bridge is allowed, barring not only vehicles and trail maintenance equipment, but also smaller motorized vehicles such as snowmobiles, or, in other months, all-terrain vehicles.

The British Columbia Snowmobile Federation posted on their website that the closure disrupts not only recreational activities but also poses a significant economic threat to McBride. With the primary snowmobile area now inaccessible, businesses reliant on snowmobiling tourism are anticipated to suffer, potentially resulting in job losses and decreased town revenue.

McLeod says the issue goes beyond the lack of access.

“Our biggest concern is the lack of communication and timing of all this as the club invested a significant amount of money in September/October doing maintenance on the trail in preparation for the sledding season,” said McLeod. “We had heavy equipment crossing this bridge, there was God knows how many hunters and other outdoor recreational recreationalists using the trail as well as our groomer and sledders.”

In solidarity with the McBride Big Country Snowmobile Association, the Snowmobile Federation sent a letter to the Minister of Forests urging immediate action.

The letter also calls for the development of a comprehensive plan for maintaining Forest Service Roads and critical bridges essential for public recreation access across the province.

Mayor Gene Runtz brought the issue to the attention of the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George. He said the Village is working to arrange a meeting with the Ministry of Forests to discuss how the Province expects to resolve the bridge’s structural issues so the snowmobiling area can re-open.

The Village of McBride submitted a letter to Aaron Murray, Recreations Officer, Recreation Sites and Trails BC on Feb. 14th expressing their concerns around the closure. 

On Feb. 26th, they received a letter back from Murray. The following recounts the concerns expressed by the Village of McBride followed by Murray’s responses.

Village: “We find it unacceptable that the Province has elected to effectively shut down

snowmobiling in McBride for the balance of the season without notice nor formal communication,” said the letter from McBride. “Additionally, the Province has not communicated their plans to resolve the issue. Closure of the Renshaw area is having a severe, negative impact on the local economy.”

The letter says although there are two other groomed areas for riders, many people visit the community for Renshaw. They will then spend some time while in the community exploring Lucille or Belle as well. 

The Village asked that all stakeholders receive a copy of the bridge inspection report as that had not been made available prior to this letter and asked why the bridge was not closed immediately if in fact it is a threat to public safety. 

“If the bridge is truly unsafe, then hundreds of people and millions of dollars worth of equipment and vehicles were put at risk over the past few months.”

They asked if it could be open for only snowmobile traffic as they are smaller and lighter than most of the other traffic that would use it.

Murray met with the Ministry of Forest Engineering staff on Jan. 22. 

“During this meeting, it was brought to my attention that the first crossing along the Mckale road (G3-119), had some major issues and would need to either be rebuilt or replaced before any more traffic could pass along it. The detailed inspection report showed some serious safety issues.”

Murray said the time between the initial inspection and the meeting is the Ministry’s process for crossing (bridge) inspections when a third-party consultant does the field assessment. 

“I extend my apologies for any inconvenience stemming from the delay in posting the closure notice,” said Murray.

The Village also brought up that the McBride club invested $40,000 to improve the Renshaw road in preparation for this season. Had they been made aware of the bridge issues in a timely manner, they could have worked alongside the Province to make repairs prior to the sledding season. 

They asked why it took so long to receive the report, and also, are there issues with other bridges that also need attention.

Murray’s letter stated that yes, the other bridges along the road all require repairs and are reaching the end of their life spans.

“The entirety of this road would need a complete overhaul to be a long-term viable route to the Renshaw Alpine,” he said. “Early cost estimates are over $1 million for the replacement of the five crossings without factoring in the long-term maintenance requirements.”

Murray explained that Recreation Sites and Trails BC took over the responsibility of the Renshaw Alpine access trail in the early 2010s to allow continued snowmobile accessibility to the alpine. With no licensees or other stakeholders stepping forward to cover maintenance expenses, their commitment was only to provide use of structures for their lifespan providing 14 years of access to the backcountry.

“Recreation Sites and Trails BC does not have the expertise nor the resources available to undertake road and bridge maintenance and has relied on MOF expertise,” he said.

Murray did state in his letter that they are exploring other route options into the Renshaw Alpine. The most promising possibility would be via the Holmes River Valley. 

“During a recent helicopter flight looking at access options, we observed a few snowmobilers using the Holmes River valley to access the Renshaw Alpine riding area,” he said. “This option remains in the scoping phase and will involve close collaboration between Rec Sites and Trails and McBride Community Snowmobile Association. The Ministry is hoping we can find a stable, durable, and cost-efficient alternative access route for the Renshaw Alpine area.”

In closing, the letter from McBride stated that in the three weeks following the closure, there had been no formal public communication from the Province, leaving businesses and McBride Snowmobile club stakeholders unable to effectively respond when asked about the closure.

In the final statements of his letter Murray replied that he would arrange a time to come to the Village of McBride offices with the reports to review with the council members.

McLeod will be meeting with Murray later this month to discuss the feasibility of the options for both short term (next season) and long term solutions.

It appears though that despite all efforts, the trail will stay closed for the remainder of the 2024 season.

“We were hoping for a short term temporary solution for this crossing so we could finish out the season but it appears that will not be happening,” said McLeod. “Needless to say we are extremely disappointed.”