Gates block ventures in the wild: Landowners cutting off paths to public land

One of Kym Hill’s favourite pastimes was waking up before dawn, driving up Boneyard Main logging road and casting a fly on a placid Jarvis Lake.

The small, elevated lake was stocked with rainbow trout and rarely busy.

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“It’s a place that’s just not duplicated anywhere else,” Hill said.

Now, a heavy red gate blocks entry to the logging road and the backcountry beyond it.

“There’s a whole big, beautiful wilderness behind here,” Hill said from the gate.

Public access to Jarvis Lake and other favoured destinations in the Leech River area, near Sooke, has been further complicated by the Capital Regional District’s purchase of the water supply area for future use, which prompted new restrictions.

But the gating of roads by logging companies is part of a larger trend, outdoor enthusiasts say: Private landowners are blocking entry, even when their property is the only way to get to public lands.

The problem is felt particularly keenly on Vancouver Island, where so much wilderness is privately owned.

“This is something that has been bugging us and our member organizations for many years,” said Jeremy McCall, executive director of the Outdoor Recreational Council, which represents 40 member organizations.

Everyone from mountain bikers to hikers have lost ground, McCall said.

 

Legal scholars say the issue of public access to private land is more than an inconvenience to a handful of fishermen. It’s linked to a larger, more fundamental question about our role in the natural world.

“The essential question is whether or not human beings have a right to roam in wild places,” said Calvin Sandborn, legal director for the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre.

The law centre produced a white paper on the topic at the request of the Outdoor Recreational Council.

But it isn’t a new question. And some governments have landed on the side of roaming.

As early as 1217, King Henry III sealed the Charter of the Forests as a supplement to the Magna Carta. It guaranteed commoners the right to access private royal forests to gather wood and honey.

The concept of “Allemansrätt,” translating to “all man’s right,” is a foundation of Swedish culture. It allows members of the public to use private land in a responsible and limited way — including walking and foraging, for example, but excluding driving and other damaging activities.

In Nova Scotia, the law allows people walk along any riverbanks, across uncultivated lands and Crown lands to fish, Sandborn said.

B.C. provides an interesting case, he said. The province considered legislating access to private lands in the 1960s, but stepped back when forest companies volunteered to grant broader access to the public.

Now, logging companies are taking back that right.

“Increasingly, forest companies are gating people out of their private forest land,” Sandborn said.

The problem is more acute for backcountry explorers on Vancouver Island because of the relative scarcity of Crown land, dating back to the controversial E&N land grants.

In the late 19th century, the province gave coal baron Robert Dunsmuir a series of land grants covering a quarter of the whole Island in exchange for completing the E&N railway. Since then, that property has been carved up by private owners, particularly logging companies such as TimberWest, Island Timberlands and Western Forest Products.

As a result, pockets of public wilderness have become inaccessible, Sandborn said.

“You’ve got about 30 lakes that are public on Vancouver Island. If you take a helicopter and drop your boat on the lake, you’re fine. But you can’t actually get there by land without crossing private private property.”

 

From the landowners’ perspective, there’s good reason to control public entry.

TimberWest has encountered trespassing, vandalism, dumping, shooting, the breaking of fire bans and inappropriate use of motorized vehicles on its lands. Safety is also a concern when the public has free access to areas with active logging, TimberWest spokeswoman Monica Bailey said.

“Our land is a working forest and, therefore, we want to ensure that access is safe for both our staff and contractors operating on the land, and the general population who wish to recreate,” Bailey said.

That doesn’t mean all access is denied. Organizations can submit access request forms online to TimberWest, which considers factors such as fire conditions and active harvesting locations in making a decision, she said.

The company has struck deals with B.C. Bike Race, B.C. Snow to Surf Race, the United Riders of Cumberland, the Victoria Fish and Game Club and others, she said. It also has some designated campsites.

“As good neighbours, we are open to reasonable public access, but it must be controlled,” Bailey said.

The Village of Cumberland has benefited from its agreement with TimberWest, Hancock Forest Management and the United Riders of Cumberland, said Kevin McPhedran, Cumberland’s parks and outdoor recreation co-ordinator. Without it, it would be harder to promote the village as a mountain biking destination.

“For the village, it’s become a very important component of our economy. We couldn’t really invite people to trespass before. Having an agreement allows us to share the trails with the region and beyond,” he said.

“For the first time, we have a sanctioned trail network.”

The United Riders of Cumberland, a non-profit group, has taken primary responsibility for trail management on the forestry lands, including maintenance, signage and mapping, he said.

The logging companies alert the municipality and non-profit to active harvests, so they can advertise trail closings.

McPhedran said other communities have looked to the model with interest.

“Since we came to a solution, I know other communities have looked at our example.”

 

Others aren’t so lucky. Twice in one summer, Victoria resident Sandy Briggs drove more than two hours from Victoria toward Mount Whymper for a hike, only to be stranded at a gate.

“We were able to drive past the main gate, which is close to the highway. But when we got 20 or more kilometres in, which is only halfway in, we ran into another gate that was locked. We ended up having to come up with something on the spur of the moment.”

Requiring advanced permits makes it hard to plan a trip from Victoria, he said. Most good hikes are about three hours away, and many hikers wait for a good weather forecast to nail down plans.

Near Merritt in the Interior, the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club has been involved in a legal dispute with the Douglas Lake Ranch. Members of the public had long fished in Minnie and Stoney lakes, publicly owned lakes within the ranch property. Club members believe it is still their right; the ranch is suing them for trespassing.

Destinations near Shawnigan Lake are accessible only between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., said Kyle Sawayama, past-president of the B.C. Federation of Fly Fishers. That means the best fishing times (dawn and dusk) are out, as are long-distance hikes and camping.

On Vancouver Island, a volunteer association hoping to build a 700-kilometre trail, is finding negotiations with private landowners difficult.

The Vancouver Island Spine Trail would rival the likes of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, becoming an international destination for long-distance hikers, association president Gil Parker said.

“We only have a few gaps,” Parker said.

The trail is about 44 per cent complete. Work on another 30 per cent is planned for the next two years. But progress on the remaining portion depends on co-operation from private landowners, including forestry companies.

One company suggested a 50-kilometre detour around its land, which Parker said was unsuitable.

“It’s made things difficult for us,” he said.

From Parker’s perspective, allowing hikers access to a working forest could be an opportunity for education, showing hikers how clear-cuts repair themselves over the years.

Negotiating directly with landowners isn’t something everyone is willing to count on.

The next steps for the Outdoor Recreation Council will be to review the environmental law centre’s recommendations for solutions. They include asking the government to legislate a right to access; asking the government to facilitate access through policy, mapping and other initiatives; or asking the government to provide incentives to landowners to allow public access.

Obviously, there’s a common thread.

“We’ll review the solutions set out in the UVic paper and try to select one or two that might work in B.C., then go to work getting someone to do something about it,” McCall said. “Which probably means talking to politicians.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

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