Opinion » Editorial

Still grappling with growth in the backcountry

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Ah, spring. The days are longer, the air is warmer, and our thoughts are quickly turning from ski boots to hiking boots.

But there's another harbinger of the seasonal shift that seems to be just about everywhere at the moment: discussions on how to manage humans in the backcountry.

While backcountry skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling are certainly popular in the Sea to Sky during the winter months, adventures in the mountains skyrocket when summer hits.

The most famous example—which comes up so often most locals are tired of the topic—is Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. Once a treasured local gem, the park saw 170,000 visitors last year, even after the province put a dog ban into place, arguing it would curb visits.

Now, BC Parks is looking at instituting a day-use fee to potentially help pay for our underfunded park system and to cut down on visitors. As long as the fee remains reasonable—ensuring the park is accessible to people—it's a great idea.

Some park advocates argue that a fee will push hikers further into the backcountry to places without facilities, but that's unlikely. The reason Joffre is so popular is that visitors park their car at a paved parking lot then hike up a well-marked, non-technical trail with quick access to stunning alpine lakes. The average person will not dig up a guidebook and risk a flat tire driving up a bumpy forest service road out of cell-phone service.

Furthermore, funding is badly needed for our provincial parks. It's enraging to think that the provincial government has advertised images of our wilderness to various tourism markets (don't just blame Instagram users) and then, when their efforts were (a little too) successful, they still failed to provide proper funding to ensure those places remain intact.

But Joffre is just one example of a backcountry location that's become a victim of its own beauty. The Sproatt Alpine Trail Network—containing trails such as Lord of the Squirrels and Into the Mystic—saw an instant explosion the moment it was constructed. Between Aug. 4 and Oct. 12, 2017, for example, it hosted 6,200 visits.

Last year, Claire Ruddy, executive director of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), raised concerns about the lack of investment from the municipality in educating trail users on how to tread lightly on the sensitive alpine environment that the trail reaches.

Furthermore, AWARE had a long fight to be able to join the Trails Planning Working Group, a municipal committee, as a full voting member.

In the past, it might have been hard to predict how popular new backcountry amenities would be, but it's safe to assume now that the answer will be "very."

It's important that we consider the impact backcountry users—and the trails themselves—have on the environment and wildlife. Even self-propelled activities fracture habitat, disturb animals and introduce human waste and trash.

The vast majority of people who enjoy recreating deep in the mountains also care about the environment around them—and, sometimes, just taking in those surroundings can inspire new people to care more about the environment.

To that end, it's important to strike a balance between allowing access to everyone who wants to enjoy the wilderness in a responsible manner and protecting that wilderness to ensure it flourishes well into the future.

Last Wednesday, a Quest Lecture Series tackled the topic of "Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation," looking at human-wildlife conflicts and the impact of outdoor recreation on wildlife in the Sea to Sky corridor.

Anticipating the interest, organizers moved the lecture from its typical location at the library to the Maury Young Arts Centre to accommodate more people. Using information gathered from other communities as well as remote-camera sampling, Dr. Kim Dawes shared her insight into how we can strike a better balance.

It's worth being cautiously optimistic that a better, less chaotic future is ahead for our relationship with the backcountry. While visitor numbers have been on the uptick for some time, this busy-ness is still a relatively new phenomenon that we're grappling with.

As residents and backcountry users, the best we can do is speak up, tread lightly, and remain open to change.

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