The disturbing news of March 20 — in which six people were fined for snowmobiling in the non-motorized area of the Callaghan Conservancy, plus one man who was fined for cutting timber without a permit in a restricted area — is not the fact that any of the perpetrators were caught, but their failure to grasp that they were doing anything wrong.
Conservation officer Tim Schumacher, who is based in Whistler, said the six young snowmobilers — in their late twenties — were cooperative, but he doesn't think they fully understood the impact of their actions.
"It's the attitude that people have — the sense of entitlement. It's really frustrating as a law enforcement officer when you encounter people who just think they know better. They are local people and this wasn't their first venture into the backcountry. When you're riding your snowmobile next to a cross-country ski trail, (you know you're not) supposed to be in there."
The six men — five from Whistler and Squamish, and one from Penticton — were caught snowmobiling in the Callaghan Conservancy and fined $230 each. In a separate infraction, another man was charged for cutting Crown timber without authority while camping in Brandywine Meadows, a sensitive sub-alpine area in Whistler's backcountry. He was issued a trespassing notice and ordered to vacate the site.
"I'm having further conversations with the (snowmobilers)," said Schumacher. "I do have to talk to one of the individuals who seems to be the ringleader. I'll have to have a conversation with him about the impact."
The actions of the offenders and officials drew quick criticism — and support — on social media, with some observers praising the fines as others questioned a perceived inalienable right to camp and harvest firewood.
"Camping and harvesting firewood is our right as Canadians, don't we all do that?" wrote one observer on Facebook, while many others expressed support for officials, such as "Keep it up," and: "You should really up the fine."
And another: "Any sledder that follows the rules and respects the zoning should be PISSED at these other sledders who deserved to get busted and should be glad their sled(s) didn't get seized."
Schumacher said the Conservation Officer Service often receives complaints about snowmobilers tearing up restricted areas, but the disregard for the rules extends beyond the obvious to the environmental.
"Coastal grizzly bears emerge from their dens around March 15 every year — so they're affected negatively by human encroachment," he said, and further explained that a necessary environmental balance may be lost on those who treat the forest as a playground. For example, snowmobile tracks freeze, creating sort of wilderness pathways that can make it easier and faster for wolves to travel and prey on sensitive populations of ungulates, which disrupts natural predator-prey relationships. As well, mountain goats and moose are particularly sensitive in the Sea to Sky. In other areas of B.C., mountain caribou numbers have dwindled beyond recovery.
"Access to the backcountry is a privilege not a right," said Schumacher. "Too many people have the misconception that if it's Crown land, they can do whatever they want. That's not the case."
Nelson Bastien, president of the Powder Mountain Snowmobile and Outdoor Recreation Club, was quick to condemn the actions of the snowmobilers in non-motorized terrain.
"It's wrong that these people shouldn't pay attention to the law. I fully support what the conservation officers are doing," Bastien said. "That's the only way to get these guys to comply. It's time these guys were taught that whether or not they like it, it is the law."
But Bastien said it seems non-motorized users are getting the breaks.
"Backcountry skiers — there's nowhere that they can't go. They're allowed to go in the whole province, and we're kept in certain little areas, so it's pretty hard to swallow. And their numbers are so small compared to the number of snowmobilers."
Bryce Leigh, of Powderhounds, and the vice-president of the Alpine Club Whistler, said as the number of backcountry users increases, the clashes between motorized and non-motorized users are inevitable.
"For years we've been trying to get compliance by the snowmobilers in the non-motorized zones, it's been an ongoing battle," he said. "People are being fined occasionally, it doesn't seem like it's enough of a penalty or a deterrent."
It is the allure of untracked snow that appeals to both user groups. Leigh said it is the "excess" of Whistler that has users looking toward the backcountry.
"You can't go out and have a few quiet runs on the mountain. On some powder days, the Creekside lifts are so busy, you're not going to get any fresh snow, so everyone is being pushed further into ski touring," he said. "I think it's a good problem to have. But I think we need zones where you guys can go snowmobile and we can go elsewhere."
Bastien recalled the number of snowmobile club memberships even a few years ago was about 100. This year, they sold 325.
"(The sport) has grown exponentially, the machines are getting better — that's part of the problem. Thirty years ago when I started, you didn't go very far and you didn't climb very much. You couldn't get into trouble and you couldn't get yourself very far in the backcountry. But now you can virtually take them straight up over a mountain," he said.
And at the final destination, Bastien said it's a new world that's opened up for users who can go farther, faster and with greater rewards.
"When you're out there and you see the beauty... the views are spectacular. On a sunny day, you think you're in heaven."
For more info, check with local snowmobile clubs for snowmobile restricted areas.
Permits and more information at www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/industry/natural-resource-use/natural-resource-permits/firewood-permits.
Violators can be reported 24/7 to the Conservation Officer Service, at the Report All Poachers and Polluters hotline at 1 877-952-RAPP (7277).