As traffic on the In-SHUCK-ch Forest Service Road continued to increase before COVID-19, some residents once again spoke out about its condition.
Diane Zaste, who has lived in Lillooet Lake Estates for two decades, said the road was in the worst shape she had ever seen this past winter.
"This road turns into a skating rink, but the potholes, there was no avoiding them this winter," she said. "They were deep. When you get ice and snow building up around them, they get deeper. Then you have people driving on the opposite side of the road trying to avoid them."
While the road serves many residents in the area, including Lillooet Lake Estates and the Samahquam, Skatin, and Xa'xtsa First Nations, it has also seen a spike in visitors in recent years.
Pre-pandemic, an average of 400 people drove the road every day, making it one of the busiest forest service roads in the Sea to Sky Natural Resources District, according to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRO). That adds up to 146,000 daily users annually, a 45-per-cent increase from 101,000 in 2016.
The road accesses two hot springs, several recreation campsites, and the popular Strawberry Point campground, which was upgraded last year with 25 vehicle-accessible camping sites and more parking facilities.
FLNRO would not provide a spokesperson to talk over the phone, but in an email said over the past 15 years, it has spent roughly $800,000 annually on the road for major infrastructure improvements such as flood damage repair, replacing bridge structures, and road realignments.
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) contributes about $20,000 a year to the road, it added.
Currently, Lizzie Bay Logging has the one-year contract for maintenance on the 140-kilometre road.
"The challenge is keeping it to a standard where a school bus would be safe on the road," said Norm Le Blanc, president of Lizzie Bay Logging. "We try to maintain it to a higher standard than what a rural resource road or FSR would require."
One of the challenges is increased traffic, he said. Busier roads mean potholes get worse. "Our company is required to maintain the road, but the forest industry is a minority of the traffic and the majority comes from people that live in the communities. There are other industries that work along that road that don't contribute to the overall maintenance—they aren't required to by [FLNRO]."
While Zaste said she knew what she was signing up for when she moved to the remote area, times are changing and the road needs to be maintained at a higher standard. There is no gravel left on the road to grade; Zaste also said there was a three-week stretch this winter where it wasn't cleared once after a large snowfall; and, at one point, vehicles driving in deep snow created a single-track path where only one vehicle would fit at a time—an issue if two vehicles met head-to-head.
"We all knew we were moving out to the wilderness," she said. "The climate has changed, the mountains have changed, the traffic has changed. When we go somewhere else in the province and see [forest services roads] that are like a highway, [it's frustrating]."
Kerrie Palmer, who also lives off the road, agrees that its state has declined in recent years. "The road is progressively getting worse—and not just in the winter," she said. "It's progressively getting worse when we have a huge rain in the fall and spring. The potholes get worse and worse."
However, she noted, there were improvements this past March. Usually the road falls back into disrepair by November.
Le Blanc said it comes down to funding. "At minimum, it should be four or five times what it is now," he said. "That's in addition to what industry contributes."
For example, if the road were to have gravel added to its entire length, Le Blanc said it would solve most of the problems. That, however, would cost millions of dollars.
"I know the local FLNRO managers try as hard as they can to secure the budget required, but appreciate the challenges they have. There is very little," he said, in regards to gravel. "Any investment in grading really is very short term because there's no real surface material to work with. If that was to be put in place, the grading would last a lot longer."
For Sheldon Dowswell, chief administrative officer for the Lower St'atl'imx Tribal Council, which represents the First Nations communities living down the road, it's a complicated issue. "We're looking to push road safety in a positive direction," he said. "We would affirm we're supporting anything that makes the road safer, beyond telling FLNRO or MOTI what that looks like. We never seem to be able to nail everyone down in one room to determine what the best solution is."
While the Douglas (Xa'xtsa) First Nation has advocated in the past to change the road from its current status as a rural resource road—which means its primary purpose is to develop, protect and access B.C.'s natural resources, and is therefore required to be maintained to that standard—to a public road, not all the First Nations agree on that, Dowswell explained.
"Some people seemed more interested in having a paved highway; other people didn't like the idea of increased presence in the territory," he said. "They were happy leaving it as a forestry road. Everyone wants a safe road. The majority of people just want to feel safe."
A public road does not necessarily mean a paved road. It can still be gravel, but it must be brought up to different maintenance standards and responsibility would then be transferred to MOTI.
"At this time, there are no plans to make In-SHUCK-ch a public road," FLNRO wrote in the email.
MOTI, also in an email, said that the decision to transfer a FSR to a public road "is a complicated one and involves many different aspects, issues, and involvement of various organizations depending on the location.
"Each case is treated uniquely; there is not a generalized approach, process or traffic volume threshold," it read. "The provincial government, along with other organizations, needs to be sensitive to environmental sensitivities, the use of the road, and the needs of the travellers, local communities and First Nations, among other factors."
Last year, FLNRO began upgrading the first two kilometres of the road, work that is still underway.
Meanwhile, West Vancouver-Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy, who lives not far from the road's Highway 99 turn-off, went for a drive in the area earlier this year after fielding complaints about it this winter.
"Every year around this time [in February], it is problematic because we get a lot of precipitation and the frost gets on the road and the potholes are merging and there's not a lot of material on the road to clean it up," he said.
"Grading [the road] when it's full of potholes and water, you end up making soup—and making it worse rather than better."
He said that during this political term, he had hoped to address this issue and "consolidate the various pieces of legislation and corresponding regulations around rural resource roads," but his Liberal Party did not end up forming government.
Sturdy's vision was to consolidate the Natural Resource Road Act to include other stakeholders like recreation and tourism. Currently, those sectors "don't have an ability to participate other than by acting like resource sector tenure holders."
Where a forestry company that has tenure of a road might be in a position to hold 100 per cent of the liability if, say, a bridge went out, the same wouldn't be true for a rafting company, he said as an example.
The answer to making the road safer to travel seems unclear, but Sturdy said under the current rural-resource-road designation, Lizzie Bay Logging couldn't be held responsible for circumstances like the road getting busier.
"Recreation traffic continues to grow," he said. "It's unrealistic to expect the tenure holder to maintain that road at their expense to a standard they don't need ... Lizzie Bay has tried to do the best they can with the resources they have, but as there's more traffic, it will require more maintenance—be it grading, addition of aggregate, and dust control in the summertime."