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Backcountry operators clash in Soo Valley

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Conflict has erupted again between commercial recreation operators in the Sea to Sky Corridor, with Cougar Mountain Adventures clashing with sled rental company Outback Snowmobiles over access within the Soo Valley.

Whistler RCMP were called out to the valley Feb. 21 following complaints of snowmobiles illegally travelling along the Soo River Forest Service Road. Three snowmobile riders, including two customers of Outback Snowmobiles, were subsequently fined $58 each for sledding on the forestry road.

The rental company had been ordered to cease and desist operations by the British Columbia Assets and Lands Corporation (BCAL) in early February, for failing to apply for a commercial recreation tenure within a set deadline. The order meant that Outback Snowmobiles has been unable to continue transporting clients to Crown land and was instead dropping off clients on the private property of David Williams at the foot of the valley. Clients were then making their own way up the forestry road to reach the trail network on the Crown land.

Constable Phil Leu says under the Forest Practices Code Act, snowmobiles cannot be driven along a plowed forest service road. He says the police became involved at the request of conservation officer Chris Doyle who was unable to reach Soo Valley at the time. He says RCMP do not want to be involved in what is essentially a civil dispute between commercial operators.

"We hope they can sit down and sort it out themselves but if signs start being knocked over and property damaged then we will be forced to intervene," Leu said.

It appears the conflict has already reached that level. The owner of Outback Snowmobiles, Cory Donner, says he has taken down a fence blocking the entrance to the Soo River Forest Service Road. He claims Cougar Mountain Adventures erected the fence, as well as obstructed the road in several other areas using vehicles and a snowcat.

"Eric Sinclair (of Cougar Mountain Adventures) thinks he owns the land and has the right to block public access when he doesn’t," Donner said.

Donner claims Cougar Mountain Adventures staff have "thrown punches at my guests" and are generally hostile when the two groups met in the backcountry.

Cougar Mountain Adventures is the only company currently holding a commercial recreation tenure on Crown land in the Soo Valley. The company grooms trails there for its dog-sled and snowmobile tours. The groomed trails are also used by public riders and rental outfits, including Outback Snowmobiles.

Under the terms of the tenure issued by BCAL, there is no restriction on public access to Crown land unless safety is a concern. Sinclair has been unavailable for comment on the current blow-up with Outback Snowmobiles but his business partner John Spencer Nairn has recently expressed frustration with unlicensed commercial operators that run tours on Crown land.

"We have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in our tenure and pay daily use fees to the Crown, but what is it worth when untenured operators can run all over the trails we groom?"

Meanwhile Outback Snowmobiles says it plans to sue BCAL for the loss of business incurred since it was issued with a cease and desist order. Donner says BCAL has not shut down five other companies renting out snowmobiles in the Sea to Sky Corridor and claims these companies are still dropping off clients on Crown land. He lists the companies as No Limits in Squamish, Tracker in Pemberton, Cayoosh Helicopters, Squamish Snowmobile Rentals and Powder Mountain Snowcats.

"The reason I have been given by BCAL is that there has been no complaints about those other companies yet, but I feel I am being singled out."

Donner says he is in the process of organizsing his legal challenge and finding a new lawyer, since his former counsel Peter Shrimpton opted not to take on the case.

BCAL says it has received no formal notification of impeding legal action by Outback Snowmobiles and could not comment on specific tenure cases.

In the interim, Outback Snowmobiles clients are continuing to access the Soo Valley on a new ploughed track in the snowbank alongside Soo River Forest Valley Road. Donner says he created the track the same day that the riders were fined and he has permission from the Ministry of Forests to do so. He says Summit Power will also be using the new track to access its powerhouse and intake facilities in the Soo Valley via snowmobile.

Stu Croft, the vice president of Summit Power, confirms that the new track could be useful but is not vital for his maintenance operations.

"We run our snowmobiles just off the side of the logging road and if need be we can create routes elsewhere using our own ploughing equipment." Croft says Summit Power works well alongside other forestry road users and hopes the commercial operators will resolve their conflict soon.

The Ministry of Forests has launched an investigation into the current upheavel in the Soo Valley. MOF operations manager Frank Ullman says he cannot comment on allegations regarding blocking of the forestry service road but confirms it is illegal to do so. He adds: "I don’t believe permission has been given to put a track alongside the road but the whole issue is under investigation."

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Meanwhile the 53 applications for commercial recreation licences in the Sea to Sky Corridor currently before BCAL should be available for viewing by the public within the next two weeks.

BCAL spokesperson David Riley says four to six pages of advertisements outlining the applications will be circulated through newspapers in Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish by mid-March. However, he says only executive summaries of the applications will be posted on the Internet, rather than the full documents as originally anticipated.

"Relatively few of the 53 applications were submitted in an online form and the sheer logistics of transferring some of the applications, which can be some two inches thick of paper, make it impossible."

He says full text versions will be available at a variety of yet-to-be-named municipal halls and libraries throughout the corridor.

BCAL says it is also waiting for feedback on the applications from various local interest and environment groups, following a meeting with them in mid February.

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The Land Use Co-ordination Office is hosting series of open houses over the next week for the public to view its proposed Land Resource Management Plan (LRMP) for the Sea to Sky Corridor.

The first open house was held yesterday in Pemberton (March 1) and Whistler will hold its session tommorrow (March 3) at the convention centre between 3p.m and 8p.m. Subsequent 5pm to 9pm open house sessions will be held in Squamish at the Best Western Sea to Sky Hotel on Tuesday, March 6 and in North Vancouver on Thursday, March 8 at the Holiday Inn.

LUCO program manager Peter Jones says the process brings together logging, mining, recreational, tourism and environmental interests in the corridor. He says reaching consenus won’t be easy because of many conflicting land uses but he says the process is timely. The boom in recreation and tourism, high forest and wildlife values, rapid community growth and transportation bottlenecks have made land-use issues in the Sea-to-Sky area a priority.

Jones says plans to have a special LRMP Website up and running at this time are behind schedule, but a lot of information can be sought by clicking on the LRMP section of the LUCO site – www.luco.gov.bc.ca

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