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BC Parks day pass pilot will have domino-like damage on other trails, say critics

Last Updated Jul 23, 2020 at 7:26 am PDT

Joffre Lakes. (iStock Photo)

BC Parks day passes pilot program at six parks under fire for 'poor planning'

Critics say visitor caps are arbitrary and not based in data

Pass program will push more than a million people deep into backcountry, says advocate

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Backcountry advocates say a new pilot program requiring day passes is doomed to fail and will increase pressures on search and rescue teams.

The minister of environment says the day passes will help limit environmental damage associated with overcrowding but critics fear it will lead to major degradation of other trail networks.

Chris Ludwig, head of advocacy group Backcountry BC, is also a longtime member of the BC Mountaineering Club, which runs volunteer trail maintenance at areas like Watersprite Lake, near Squamish.

“We’re on the front lines, especially because we manage a number of Crown lands. We take care of, volunteer, maintain a number of Crown land trails,” says Ludwig.

Related article: Free day passes offered for trails in six B.C. parks to control overcrowding 

“So we have seen the pressure and demand that has been created by the closing of the parks all around the areas that we maintain. People have nowhere else to go. So they’ve all, in record numbers, descended upon areas that we as volunteers manage and take care of and that’s been very challenging for us. The lack of consistency between, say, COVID closures and policy on Crown land versus in parks has been problematic for us, certainly.”

Ludwig estimates about 60 tents were pitched at Watersprite Lake over the weekend. The site has only 10 tent pads available.

He says the ongoing closure of Garibaldi Park, which is set to reopen under the day pass system on July 27, is the cause and believes visitor caps associated with the day pass system are arbitrary.

“The problem I’m seeing with that is an inconsistency in how the term [carrying capacity] is applied. In other words, not seeing definitions of what is acceptable carrying capacity for a given trail. So you look at Elfin Lakes or Rubble Creek: what are the actual acceptable numbers backed by science, backed by impacts on wildlife and vegetation?” he says.

Advocate Steve Jones says the Ministry of Environment is essentially passing the buck to volunteers as people will just use spaces where day passes and visitor caps are not in place.

He says trails outside of parks are often more sensitive areas that are not as well maintained and have less infrastructure such as outhouses and parking.

“We’re limiting use on some areas that actually have a fair amount of capacity and those people are going to be pushed into areas where capacity doesn’t exist. So I think it’s really poorly executed,” he says, adding he worries about how BC Parks is going to pay for enforcement and management of the pilot.

Pack it in, pack it out

Jones and Ludwig say the wear and tear is already happening on Crown land, Metro Vancouver parks and other, less maintained, systems.

“We could be looking at displacing one to two million people, or let’s say one and a half million people, away from trails that have been well developed and are quite hardened into areas where they become very muddy,” he explains.

“What happens when a trail becomes muddy is some people will step to the side . . . Before you know it, you’ve taken this thin trail through a sensitive and very wet environment and turned it into kind of a 30-foot-wide highway,” he says, adding he’s already seen an increase in trail wear in locations on the Duffey Lake Road.

Jones and Ludwig say as more inexperienced trail users are pushed farther into the backcountry, it’s more important than ever to educate them about Leave No Trace Ethics.

“Right now our trails are, especially the Sea to Sky region, are just saturated. Chilliwack, too. They are beyond capacity,” says Ludwig.

“And we as volunteers maintaining these assets are really struggling to keep up with the explosion in demand. So what we need from the public is ‘pack-it-in, pack-it-out: responsible use on the trail.’ Tread lightly. Don’t be making a mess. Don’t be causing the fires in the alpine.”

Six BC Parks will require same-day passes

Starting July 27, Garibaldi, Stawamus Chief, Seymour, Cypress, Golden Ears and Mt. Robson will be accessible only with a same-day, 6:00 a.m. pass registration.

Joffre Lakes, which is the province’s most infamously overcrowded hiking destination, remains closed and is not included in the pilot project.

“People in B.C. love the outdoors, but some of our most popular parks are experiencing a high number of visitors, resulting in crowded facilities, packed parking lots and safety issues, such as parking along the highway,” says Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman.

“This pilot program acknowledges that frequent park users have an important role to play in protecting these important natural spaces and the species that depend upon them,” Heyman was quoted as saying in a press release.

“Although parks have wide open spaces, most visitors are often confined to trails that can become crowded in certain areas, like viewpoints. Overuse of trails leads to environmental impacts, such as trail widening, soil erosion, altered hydrology and damaged vegetation,” reads the government announcement..

Pressure on search and rescue

The Ministry of Environment has instituted a 6:00 a.m. registration start for same-day pass use, which has backcountry users confused as the message from organizations, such as the BC Search and Rescue Association and Adventure Smart BC, has been to plan far ahead, share your trip plan with others and leave as early as possible to prevent being stuck overnight.

“For so long, so many different groups and organizations have been encouraging people to stay safe in the backcountry, plan well ahead, take the time to watch the weather, take the time to study the maps, make sure everyone in the group knows what you’re going to do. And then the second thing is to start as early as you can,” explains Jones.

“If you start at daybreak, that gives you the largest window possible to get back to your vehicle safely at the end of the day. Every hour that you start that’s a little bit later you kind of have these compounding problems. It gets hotter in the afternoon, people have more problems with dehydration. If there is any issue that they have with getting out on time, there’s a higher chance search and rescue won’t be able to get to them before dark fall.”

On social media people are reacting to the same-day registration rule, saying it just won’t work.

“Only issuing from 6am (sic) of the day of is going to be a big issue. I’m sure if people are driving up to one of the parks near Whistler from Vancouver for a full day in summer, many are going to be leaving home long before 6am (sic),” says one person.

“I imagine that some sort of consultation with the public and/or the BCSARA would have resulted in a much different system with passes available several days prior,” says another.

Critics say releasing passes the night before a trip would help mitigate some of the safety concerns.