There are only two significant gaps and a handful of access agreements standing in the way of the Vancouver Island Spine Trail Association (VISTA) completing a 750-kilometre public trail system spanning the entire length of Vancouver Island.
Those gaps lie between the Alberni Valley and Cumberland, and from the North boundary of Strathcona Park to the Gold River Highway.
“Both of those pieces are mainly across private lands. [In the Beaufort Range] there’s a bit of crown land but it’s land locked crown land surrounded by private,” said Terry Lewis, VISTA director of operations. “Those are the two main gaps that we’ve got and in order to get those gaps built, those pieces finished, we are working on land use agreements with the land owners and regional districts.”
The Spine Trail, designed for non-motorized uses only, will link up primarily existing Island trails like The Great Trail (former Trans Canada Trail) from Victoria to Lake Cowichan, The Alberni Inlet Trail, Strathcona Park trails and the North Coast Trail.
But until access agreements to bridge the remaining gaps across private forest lands are negotiated, the trail will remain only 80 per cent complete.
The Spine Trail provides a prime illustration of both the incredible opportunities for back country recreation on Vancouver Island, and the roadblocks created by private land.
Access restrictions from private land owners span the Island, leaving copious amounts of recreational groups and outdoor enthusiasts feeling the pinch of not being able to access desired areas for various outdoor activities.
For Kim Reeves, president of the Outdoor Recreation Council of British Columbia, it’s the loss of access to forest service roads that has affected him and his group the most when wanting to access backcountry areas for recreation.
“Almost every recreation uses those roads to access the areas of their particular recreation,” Reeves said. “An example would be anyone that hikes or cycles, accessing their trail head would usually be through the resource roads. With losing access to use those traditional corridors, it puts you a lot further away from your desired recreation.”
Reeves said as a “four-wheel-drive recreationalist,” access restrictions have really limited him from enjoying back country trails like Lake Cowichan to Port Renfrew.
“[Access restrictions] really change the style of back country trip that you can take on the Island,” he said.
Reeves said he’s seen a growing trend in restricting access, particularly over the past 20 years after MacMillan Bloedel lands were sold to other companies.
In response to those frustrations, landowners say that when they start locking gates, they are behaving no differently than any other property owner trying to protect their assets.
Forest companies and private land owners restrict access to back country areas for many reasons, like fire risk in wildfire season, vandalism, illegal dumping, property theft and active logging operations.
Megan Hanacek, CEO of the Private Forest Landowners Association (PFLA) said the primary reason for access restrictions is safety.
“There’s liability issues associated with private land,” Hanacek said. “We also protect wildlife trees and nesting sites and other values that are associated with private land.”
According to the article, Enhancing Public Access to Privately Owned Wild Lands, written in 2016 by University of Victoria law student Graham Litman, a BC Special Committee on Public Access to Private Roads considered this issue in 1962, and recommended consideration of a Public Access Act.
“The envisioned Act would have been administered by the Department of Commercial Transport and allowed for the making of regulations governing the use of private easements, right of ways etc,” Litman writes. “The Legislative Committee also recommended the creation of criteria for the expropriation of private roads in the general public interest — and that government consider reserving the right to designate a right-of-way over land in all future Crown grants.”
The committee’s work was shelved, however, when forest companies freely granted recreational access to their Crown and privately-held properties.
“Unfortunately, over the intervening decades a number of companies have withdrawn access,” wrote Litman.
There are ways around access restrictions, typically through an access agreement with the land owner. But they don’t come cheap, typically costing upwards of several hundred dollars. Lewis with VISTA said his group will have to apply for eight agreements in hopes to complete the Spine Trail.
To obtain an access agreement, typically you need to be a part of an organized outdoor club or group.
Monica Bailey, director of communications at TimberWest, said the company is committed to working with responsible individuals and groups to facilitate access to their private lands.
“Any membership‐based organization can apply to conclude an access agreement with TimberWest. Our access agreements are arranged with groups because this reaches a wider range of individuals, permits for liability insurance, and strengthens long-term relationships with trusting organizations.”
TimberWest has 325,400 hectares of private forest land on Vancouver Island. The company also owns renewable Crown harvest rights to 700,000m3 per year.
Bailey said TimberWest currently has a variety of agreements with membership-based recreational groups around the Island.
“We also have agreements with many First Nations to provide access for cultural purposes,” she said.
She added that TimberWest has experienced many challenges with unauthorized access including wildfires, illegal dumping and unauthorized logging. Last year, wildfires cost several thousand dollars to extinguish and had the potential to create untold damage to the forest and adjacent properties.
“We also spent several thousand dollars on environmental remediation to clean‐up illegal dump sites, and there were a number of instances of illegal harvesting with the potential to impact sensitive ecosystems,” Bailey said. “We remain committed to responsible access to our private lands through access agreements as this helps to minimize the risk to human safety and to preserve the long‐term health of the forest.”
Current BC Law, under the Trespass Act and the common law, states that owners of forests and wild lands in B.C. have a relatively unconstrained right to exclude recreationalists from crossing their lands.
Scott Fraser, MLA for Mid Island-Pacific Rim and advocate for back country access, has been working with private land owners and government representatives to come up with solutions.
Some ideas include replacing access agreements with user groups with deals with the local regional district, council or the provincial government. Another proposed solution is implementing a trail patrol program similar to citizens on patrol. These patrols would help monitor and manage the back country. The patrols would also assist with clean up and enforcement of safety measures.
In addition, education about safe access, disposing of all gates and dealing with vandalism and theft as they arise and a registry program for members of the public were also proposed.
“All over the Island people are really worried as what’s seen as continued loss of access, increasing loss of access to the back country,” Fraser said. “The reason that most of us are here on Vancouver Island is because of what we have. The natural resources that we have. The reason that most of us live here on Vancouver Island is because of those wonders we have access to.”
Fraser acknowledged that forestry companies have legitimate concerns too.
“At the same time we’ve heard from the companies of an increased (amount) of garbage being dumped, the clean-up cost associated with that, wildfire concerns during the season and having people on their lands and also safety issues when they’re doing active logging,” Fraser said.
Moving forward, Fraser said he will present Doug Donaldson, minister of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development, with proposed solutions.
The ministry said there are legitimate concerns on both sides.
“Private forest land owners TimberWest and Island Timberlands will temporarily lock gates to restrict access in the interest of public safety, as well as to protect the environment. If there is a gate located and restricting access on private lands it is recommended for members of the public to contact the private land owner to secure an access agreement,” the ministry said.
Losing access has undoubtedly upset many outdoor enthusiasts on Vancouver Island, but restrictions can also cause a disconnect between human and nature.
“The further we’re separated from our natural element, the less we consider the need and the benefit of healthy living and getting out in the back country,” Reeves said.
In his article, Litman agrees that free public access to wild areas supports social engagement with the environment.
“Loss of public access to the wild may have important long-term consequences for environmental protection—because people who know nature will defend it, and those who do not know nature may not care,” he writes.