Editorial: Unlock access to wilderness

Vancouver Islanders who like to hike, hunt and fish in remote areas say forestry companies are too often locking them out of their favourite wilderness spots.

While the companies have valid concerns, the government has to stand up for British Columbians who expect to be able to take advantage of the backcountry for which this province is famous.

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On Sunday, frustrated backcountry enthusiasts staged a protest near Port Alberni because Island Timberlands had blocked access to some areas. People trying to get into parks and recreation areas through private lands say they too often encounter locked gates.

Alberni-Pacific Rim NDP MLA Scott Fraser brought the issue to the legislature on Monday, presenting a petition with more than 6,000 signatures to back up his argument that British Columbians are angry about being locked out of the wilderness.

“The minister knows this,” Fraser said. “He’s done nothing for a year about this except spout a company line. He’s supposed to take care of the public interest, not some private interest.”

Public access to Crown land is important, said Forests Minister Steve Thomson said, but there are several reasons that forest companies can temporarily close roads to privately managed forest land. People roaming the roads can interfere with logging operations, present a safety risk, cause fires or vandalize equipment.

Island Timberlands said in a statement that access might be restricted “temporarily or permanently, to ensure the safety of the public and our employees and contractors, protection of the environment, and the security of assets.”

Anyone who wants current information on closures can check the company’s blog, it said.

Certainly, the forest companies have huge investments in the timber and equipment in those areas. They don’t want some drunken weekend warrior torching part of their livelihood.

However, in keeping out the louts, the companies are also keeping out the many responsible hikers and anglers who treat the wilderness with reverence.

The Vancouver Island Spine Trail is an ambitious project to link new and existing trails into a 700-kilometre path running the length of the Island. Like the famous Appalachian Trail, it would be a mecca for local and foreign hikers.

Unfortunately, there are three gaps, where timber companies have not agreed to permit trail access.

Fly-fishing aficionados are finding similar barriers reaching backcountry lakes and rivers through private land. Even some lakes that were stocked with fish at taxpayer expense are inaccessible.

The Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C. has stopped stocking about 30 lakes, most of them in central Vancouver Island, because anglers can’t reach them, according to a report by the Environment Law Centre at the University of Victoria.

The UVic report suggests three kinds of options that could help meet the needs of both recreational users and private landowners: legislation that would create rights of access with corresponding responsibilities on the part of recreational users; facilitating access by creating public paths and making it easier for people to find out where access exists; and a “carrot” approach of giving tax breaks to landowners who allow public access.

Variations of all these are used in jurisdictions around the world. Timber companies already have access agreements with some groups.

B.C.’s wild areas need champions. Those who get out into the backcountry are more likely to value it and be willing to protect it. That includes both forestry workers and recreational users.

Among the many examples from other countries, B.C. should be able to find a model that encourages people to get into the woods while respecting the concerns of landowners. The status quo isn’t working, so the government has to lead the search for a better way.

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