The shine of Super Natural British Columbia dims considerably when access is blocked to the super, natural wonders of the province. The government should enact legislation guaranteeing the right of reasonable access to public lands, while at the same time protecting the rights of landowners.
It’s not a new concept — jurisdictions nearby and around the world have achieved that balance. B.C. should catch up.
The Outdoor Recreational Council of B.C. is concerned about the growing number of fishing enthusiasts, hikers and others who find gates or other barriers that keep them away from their favourite spots. The problem arises when private land surrounds pockets of public land, and landowners refuse to let people cross their property.
“This is something that has been bugging us and our member organizations for many years,” said Jeremy McCall, executive director of the council, which works with its 40 member groups to protect outdoor recreation.
This isn’t just about a few anglers or mountain bikers — there’s something basically wrong (and so un-British Columbian) about the public being barred from lakes, rivers and public lands.
“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, which has produced a white paper on the topic for the recreational council.
In 1962, a B.C. legislative committee studied the issue of public access to private roads, and recommended consideration of a Public Access Act, according to the white paper, written by law students Graham Litman and Matt Hulse. The act would have allowed for regulations governing private easements and rights of way. The committee recommended setting criteria for expropriation of private roads for public interest, and suggested the government reserve the right to designate rights of way in future Crown grants.
But it didn’t seem like a major problem at the time — forestry companies freely granted access to land they owned or leased from the Crown — so the legislation was shelved.
“Unfortunately, over the intervening decades a number of companies have withdrawn access,” says the white paper. “Among other things, hundreds of kilometres of roads to access lakes stocked at public expense have now been gated off.
“A modern solution to the old problem clearly needs to be fashioned.”
Litman and Hulse offer several avenues to arriving at the solution, citing what works in other places.
Britain’s Countryside and Right of Way Act, implemented in 2000, ensured the “right to roam,” and opened all private land classified as “mountain, moor, heath or down” in England and Wales to the public for hiking and picnicking.
Scotland’s Land Reform Act of 2003 gives everyone the right to cross land for recreational, educational and certain commercial activities.
In Sweden, access to private land is considered a basic right. There, the public is allowed access to private land, providing it is done responsibly, within reasonable limits and without interfering with the landowner’s rights.
Nova Scotia law allows fishermen access to any river, stream or lake, again, within reasonable limits.
Washington’s Whatcom County provides tax breaks to landowners who open their property to the public for outdoor recreation.
The province should create easements that give access to lakes, streams and other public areas. Reasons for barring the public from entering private land include liability for injuries, vandalism, environmental damage and fires. B.C. already has legislation that protects landowners in those instances — it could be strengthened, if necessary.
B.C.’s greatest asset is its abundance of natural areas, which are basic to our quality of life. That some of these areas are inaccessible because they are surrounded by private land is a wrong that needs righting.