Local snowmobile club has
By Andrew Mitchell
If you're a sled head, things have never been better. With a thousand major innovations and speedometers that go as high as 200 km/h, today's advanced snowmobiles can go faster, higher and deeper into Whistler's backcountry then ever before.
But unless Whistler's snowmobile enthusiasts start taking an active interest in the issues, warns Brian Engen, President of the Power Mountain Snowmobile Club, they could wind up as the sled heads with really speedy machines that go nowhere fast.
The provincial government — which is coming under intense pressure from an increasing number of groups with their own opinions on how B.C.'s backcountry should be used and managed — is stepping back to give interested parties a chance to work out a backcountry plan amongst themselves. If an agreement cannot be reached between recreational users, clubs and commercial interests, the backcountry could be closed to some users.
"If we can't get some co-operation going, somebody's going to go to the government," says Engen. "And when the government steps in it's going to be a whole different shooting match. We could be cut out of certain areas, or cut out entirely. It's happened already in the province, in places like Valemount. And I know of about three other places where this has occurred."
In Valemount, a conflict between local snowmobilers and Mike Wiegele’s heli-ski operation resulted in the ban of snowmobiles and other forms of mechanized transport from the Blue River area. Large areas outside of the heli-ski operator's tenure were also included in the ban because they could potentially provide access to the tenured area, and there was nothing local sledders could do about it. The decision whether to declare an area off limits to motorized transport is at the discretion of the forest district manager.
Engen and the snowmobile club have already been in negotiations with Whistler Heli-skiing and local mountaineering groups, and a tentative map has been drawn up that divides the backcountry into "play areas." Club members are educated as to where they can and cannot go, snowmobile tour operators were co-operating, and all parties involved were resolving their issues in good faith — in other words, says Engen, it was working.
The only problem is, the majority of Whistler's snowmobilers do not belong to the club. Engen estimates that there are more than 200 recreational snowmobilers living in Whistler, and hundreds more living in the Lower Mainland who come up to Whistler on a regular basis. At last count, the Powder Mountain Snowmobile Club, which is a member organization of the B.C. Snowmobile Federation (BCSF), had 36 members going into the annual general meeting on Dec. 1.
"We'd like to see more local involvement, much more," says Engen. "We want the people to come in and give their input on a lot of issues that are very important. If we can prove that we can make this work, we'll be given our say on how the land should be used."
Local snowmobilers who are not club members have been "mostly good" at observing the boundaries that were agreed upon by local organizations, says Engen, but there have been instances of heli-ski companies finding their terrain shredded by snowmobilers. "All it will take is one formal complaint by a tour operator, and suddenly the government will be in the middle of everything."
"Our concern is that a lot of sledders out there aren't getting the message. If we don't start to govern our own actions, somebody else will govern them for us," says Engen.
There is a small membership fee to join the club, the bulk of which goes to the BCSF. The federation, which has 20,000 members across B.C., uses the money to build and maintain trails, provide members with insurance and to support a fledgling Trail Pass system, which Engen says will eventually become law
Putting a Trail Pass decal on your snowmobile shows that you are paying your share of the expenses involved in developing and maintaining snowmobile trails, according to the BCSF.
"The program is the first step in the introduction of a user-pay system for snowmobiling in B.C. that will be controlled by snowmobilers. The program is voluntary because there is no legislation in B.C. which allows for a compulsory user-pay system. If we do not develop our own system, you can be sure that our cash-strapped government will develop a user pay system for us and the money we are charged for trail use will disappear into general revenue and our permit money will never get to the trails."
Engen blames the low Whistler membership on the transient nature of the town, and on the fact that most local sledders aren't aware of the issues that the club is trying to resolve, such as protecting access, building parking lots at the trail entrances and installing emergency shelters and first aid stations in the backcountry.
He encourages all snowmobile enthusiasts who want to protect their access to the Brandywine, Rutherford and Callaghan trails to join the club. Meetings are held on the first Wednesday of every month in the Racquet Bistro at the Whistler Racquet and Golf Resort.