The Province of B.C. has over 55,000 kilometres of designated Forest Service Roads, which is the equivalent of driving from Vancouver to St. John's Newfoundland and back again seven and a half times. And that doesn't include the thousands of kilometres of roads used by mining and petroleum industries, recreation, agriculture and ranching, BC Hydro, the rail companies and others.
To simplify road planning, maintenance and decomissioning, the provincial government is ressurrecting a new "resource road" designation that covers all industries and user groups. It also mandates standards of construction and maintenance across the board, and guarantees access for the public on Crown lands. If resource work is complete and there is nobody to maintain a road, it also creates a framework for decommissioning roads, returning them back to nature.
The new rules will be of interest to resort towns like Whistler, where resource roads are also used by tour companies and the public to access recreational areas and activities such as mountain biking, backcountry skiing and snowmobiling. As well, many mountain bike trails in town still follow decommissioned logging roads.
Tom Cole, the forester for Richmond Plywood and the Whistler Community Forest, believes the rule changes will have impacts in the area — most of them positive.
"We've tried to take a long-term focus on road management with the community forest, because unfortunately most of the previous players only had one use for a road — it was get in and get out, which wasn't serving anyone very well. A lot of roads and bridges were looked on as a short-term solution for getting logs out, rather than serving the public or commercial recreation in the area."
Because the activities of the Community Forest are public and watched by stakeholders, Cole doesn't believe there are any risks that roads used by others will be decommissioned — although it is possible.
"Previously, we've seen (forest and mining companies) go overboard, and as soon as they'd finish work they'd dig up the road. That wasn't serving any of us around here," he said. "Commercial operators would say 'we'd like to use this road,' and the public would say 'yes, we need the road to get to this place,' but there was no coordination on it. The good thing is that road management is more coordinated through the community forest, we have a trails committee and the Forest and Wildlands Committee is working on a an access plan."
There is a possibility that roads to some recreational areas could be closed if the groups using those areas can't afford to take on the responsibility of maintenance. For example, if logging ceased in the Rutherford area then the cost of maintaining the road — one of the best ways to access the Pemberton Ice Cap — could fall on the snowmobile groups that use the road. That includes the cost of inspections, maintaining culverts and bridges and grading the road, and possibly insurance as well.
However, under the current system, Cole said a company could choose to decommission a road at any time without any feedback from users — and without giving those users a chance to assume the responsibility. He points to the poor condition of the road in the Soo Valley to the Ancient Cedars.
"It puts the onus on us to come up with some new plans," said Cole.
"Some assume that there's free access, but it's not really free — someone is looking after that road. And some roads are atrocious."
Cole believes the legislation will be beneficial in the long run, even if some roads are decommissioned — or reclassified as recreation trails.
But the plan does have opponents, like Access British Columbia and the Vancouver Island Exploration Direct Action Committee. They believe the new legislation will encourage companies to decommission roads to reduce liability, and will limit access.
The province first brought up the Resource Road concept back in 2008 and gave the plan first reading, but it fell on the backburner until recently. The province is now collecting feedback on the proposed legislation at www.for.gov.bc.ca/mofnrra/.