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WORCA joins chorus calling for more funding at Rec Sites and Trails BC

With limited staff and budget, provincial agency has ‘fallen under the radar’ of government priorities, says Outdoor Recreation Council of BC
WORCA volunteers building a new trail in May 2021.

The Whistler Off Road Cycling Association (WORCA) has joined the chorus of trail-building organizations calling for more funding at Recreation Sites and Trails BC, the province’s main agency for approving trail infrastructure projects.

“We do agree that they are underfunded because at any given time, depending on the time of year and other priorities, they may have anywhere between zero and two technicians to review all of the applications coming in [throughout] the province,” said WORCA president Dale Mikkelsen.

It’s not unusual for trail applications to the province to take a year or more to process. As first reported in The Squamish Chief, the Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association’s (SORCA) as-yet unapproved application to expand the parking lot at the bottom of Pseudo Tsuga, in the Diamond Head area, was first submitted more than 18 months ago. Once factoring in the community feedback process and other site preparations, the entire process has taken nearly five years.

“It is just finally getting some traction now,” SORCA president Jeffrey Norman told The Chief.

“At this point, the official referrals to stakeholders have been sent out. The province will make their decision on approval based on the feedback they receive.”

The head of Squamish’s most prolific trail-building group also believes B.C. needs to improve its ability to process these applications because it’s “important to continue to inspire the volunteer community that is so important to our outdoor recreation culture in the Sea to Sky.”

Norman said the province depends on SORCA and other volunteers to build and maintain most of the outdoor recreation infrastructure in Squamish.

“This is a big ask,” wrote Norman in an email to The Chief. “For some projects, like trail building, there is a ton of enthusiasm for the community to help. However, without a clear path to an approval in a reasonable timeframe, many individuals simply ignore the process.”

Other infrastructure, such as parking lots, require considerable funding, yet it still often takes more than a year for the province to even open an application, he added.

While some trail associations have called for more transparency in the approval process, Mikkelsen said Rec Sites and Trails BC have always been forthcoming about the status of their applications.

“On a transparency perspective, the province has always made it clear to us that there is where you are in the queue but it’s not entirely first come, first served,” he said. “If a trail association all of a sudden throws in 30 new applications and they did it before anyone else, it doesn’t mean that they get 30 approvals before any other association does.”

The lack of staff and long processing times at Rec Sites BC has shifted how WORCA approaches its trail applications, Mikkelsen added. While some organizations might blanket the agency with numerous applications in the hopes of getting their projects into the queue, WORCA tries to narrow down its applications to just a handful a year.

“At WORCA, we think about what we can actually build, what we can actually get funding for and what’s the timeline we can deliver these trails on,” Mikkelsen noted. “Realistically, if we get two approvals this year, we can’t manage much more than that anyway.”

In 2021, the organization only submitted two new trail applications, anticipated for approval in time for this year’s building season: The still unnamed route linking Into the Mystic to Function Junction, and the D’Arcy Memorial Trail near Jane Lakes.

Helping WORCA’s cause further, in Mikkelsen’s mind, is that trail applications in Whistler typically only come from WORCA—even on projects they’ve partnered on, like the D’Arcy trail—while other communities might submit applications from trail associations as well as private and for-profit builders.

Mikkelsen said he also ensures WORCA’s applications have local government, First Nations and environmental sign-offs in place ahead of submitting to the province.

“We only do two applications [annually] and they are very easy for the province to approve. We try to make their job easier,” Mikkelsen said.

Meanwhile, province-wide, outdoor recreation advocates are calling out the B.C. government for failing to adequately fund an agency responsible for overseeing the upkeep of more than 1,000 recreation sites and 20,000 kilometres of trails across the province. 

With 50 staff and an $8-million operating budget, Recreation Sites and Trails BC has “fallen under the radar” of government priorities, according to Louise Pedersen, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC (ORCBC).

“It’s just not enough,” said Pedersen. “We wish they could speak up for themselves, but for some reason, they seem to have been forgotten for decades.” 

Pedersen added that funding shortfalls have prevented the agency’s staff from participating in land use and recreational planning that would help ensure B.C. has a “world-class network of recreation sites and trails.”

Rec Sites and Trails BC has a mandate to provide quality recreation experiences on Crown land outside of provincial parks, First Nation reserves and local municipalities.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, which oversees the agency, said it would be “premature to speak to plans on increasing funding,” citing the ongoing provincial budget process.

Indirectly, ORCBC said it represents more than 100,000 British Columbians who use the huge network of trails and recreation areas to hike, ride horseback, mountain bike, nordic ski and snowmobile, among other activities. 

Last year, the B.C. government allocated $83 million over three years to bolster infrastructure in BC Parks. But none of that money has filtered down to recreation areas outside of parks, where 85 per cent of the province’s land base is found. 

Pedersen said her group was among several outdoor recreation advocates that took part in the 2022 budget consultation process last September. 

When the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services came back with its recommendations in November, it said the government should provide increased funding, not just for parks, but for “recreation and trails to address gaps in maintenance and staff, including dedicated funding to community-based organizations for trail maintenance and development.” 

Pedersen said that longstanding capacity challenges mean many recreation groups are facing long delays in getting approval to rehabilitate trails. Hearing their recommendations echoed by the budget committee was “hugely reassuring,” she added. 

But as the 2022 budget negotiations continue, Pedersen said British Columbians that care about outdoor recreation need to remind their MLAs of their longstanding blind spots at a time when the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is driving more people outdoors than ever.

Pedersen said trail counters in the Sea to Sky region, for example, recorded a 150-per-cent increase in traffic in 2019 and 2020. Other regions across the province report similar increases over the past two years. 

- With files from Steven Chua of The Squamish Chief