Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Bracing for the summer season in the Squamish Valley

From wildfires to waste, discover how Squamish Valley grapples with the challenges of conserving its natural beauty amid rising human disregard.

A red fire extinguisher sits riddled with bullet holes in the brush just metres from where a wildfire threatened the Squamish Valley last May. 

It is a perfect, twisted symbol of what can go terribly wrong in this spectacularly beautiful region. 

Roger Lewis points out other items of debris that are scattered around the site of the May 13 human-caused wildfire at about the 20-kilometre mark of the Squamish River Forest Service Road.

At its height, that blaze grew to 38 hectares in size. 

Some scattered items have been at the site a long time, but many others have been brought here for target shooting since that wildfire, metres from clear "No Shooting" signs. 

There's a large office chair, road hazard lights, numerous fast food cups and cans—and dozens upon dozens of used shotgun shells from the bullets that ripped into it all. 

"The raccoons, ravens and bears, they all get into it. They're probably getting sick eating whatever is in there," Lewis said.

Lewis rushed to the scene when the wildfire started last spring. 

He said it was eventually stopped from spreading in great part by the forestry cut block. 

"The cut block basically forced the fire last year up the mountain instead of carrying south, next to the road, which potentially could have burned all the way to Squamish," he said. "Having that break in fuel [the fire] had no choice but to try and run up a rock face where there's limited fuel, so it basically self-extinguished after a certain time.”

Target shooting isn’t the only issue of concern in the last few years—there’s also the general dumping of trash, poaching and reckless campfires.

Steward of the land

Lewis knows these twisting roads and the meandering river of the Squamish Valley like the back of his hand. 

He honks and waves, or stops to chat with people he knows and sees along the way. 

He grew up with the valley as his backyard and now he recreates and works along the Squamish River and throughout the forest. 

Lewis, a member of the Squamish Nation, spends countless hours patrolling the region and is worried about the approaching fair-weather season. 

Lewis was speaking to The Squamish Chief strictly in his role as a steward of the land. 

However, he also is the superintendent of special projects for Sqomish Forestry, part of Nch'kay Development Corporation, an economic arm of the Nation. 

Lewis is also president of his own forestry company, Saphira Contracting.

Thus, for him and hundreds of others, the region holds economic, environmental, social and intrinsic value. 

The Nation holds Tree Farm Licence 38, which includes the watersheds of the Ashlu and Elaho rivers as well as the mid and upper reaches of the Squamish River system.

Not all bad

Lewis stressed that not everyone who visits the region is behaving badly.

For example, while driving past rows of fishers along the Squamish River, he noted that they often help with enforcement, pack out what they bring and are the ears to the ground for those who patrol the valley. 

But while he welcomes others to visit the land, too many are abusing the privilege, treating it like Disneyland—where someone will pick up after them.

Combined with climate change, which is making things drier earlier and weather more volatile, it is a perfect storm of sorts.

Lewis took The Squamish Chief on a tour of just a few of the spots where he has recently seen the land and wildlife treated with disrespect.

Users tripled

"I would say that the amount of users has tripled in the last two to three years, basically, since the start of the pandemic. ... I think we counted 5,000 people in one weekend," Lewis said.

He said that since the pandemic, the valley has been busy year-round, not just during the heavy, fair-weather tourist season.

"Ten years ago, people wouldn't be up here during the winter. Now, it's all four seasons,” he said. 

And the dumping of garbage is now year-round, too. 

"[They bring] truckloads of garbage or they bring washing machines, TVs, propane cans, and they go up there and target shoot with them, " Lewis said. "And then everything's just left behind and a giant mess."

He said there have also been pool tables and beds that he and other foresters have hauled away.

He's also seen untold numbers of abandoned tents, rubber rafts and floaties in the valley. 

He suspects groups from more urban centres spend $400 on gear, which is less than the cost of staying at a local hotel or vacation rental, for the weekend, and then abandon it. 

"[They don't] have anywhere to bring it when they go home. So, then they just leave everything that they bought out here,” he said.
Poaching is another long-standing concern in the region, Lewis said. 

He also knows of poached black bears, grizzly bears and elk. In their rush to escape before getting caught, they'll only take the animal's hindquarters and leave everything else.

State of Emergency

Last August, while the B.C. government had declared a provincial state of emergency, Lewis encountered many people disobeying the law and endangering the environment, themselves and others, including wildlife.

"Pretty much every weekend, there'll be multiple fires, either in the same area or spread out through the valley," he said.

He saw "many" campfires in the area of the Innergex powerhouse station, north of the Ashlu Bridge.

One interaction Lewis had with an individual when he was patrolling for illegal fires during the ban stands out.

"I walked up to someone having a fire. It must have been one o'clock in the morning, and he was asleep next to the fire. The fire was just raging. The flames must have been eight feet high near the hemlock and cedar, and everything was extremely dry. And I was calling for the guy trying to wake him up," Lewis recalled. “And when I walked in closer, I noticed he had a 30-30 rifle next to his chair."

While that was a bit stressful, it is the groups that are more common and concerning, Lewis said.

"That's multiple people, and nobody's saying, 'Hey, it's a fire ban, let's not have a fire.' Everybody's just accepting it, and they're fine with it," he said.

The reality is, if there was enough law enforcement, each person at that one fire could face a $1,100 fine, he said.

Other times, there are illegal (without getting proper permits) "random raves with hundreds of people."

In late August last year, in response to folks not adhering to the ban, the provincial government and the Nation, in cooperation with other local and regional authorities, put closures in place for the Upper Elaho and Upper Squamish, meaning no one could go to those areas.

Biggest fear

Asked his biggest fear, Lewis took a minute to reflect before answering.

"That one of these groups of campers that are lighting up these fires are ... going to burn down a huge area of the [Nation's tree farm licence] TFL. And it could possibly carry on along the road all the way back into Squamish. And then the other thing is, the campers themselves, being trapped by these fires, because they spread so fast," he said.

He added that even when campfires are allowed, people underestimate what they need to do to put them out. What is left in the campfire needs to be cold to the touch, not just doused with water and left. 

"If it's not an actual fire pit, like a metal fire pit, the fire can actually burn underground and start burning into roots. And it could be multiple days, even weeks, where the fire will carry on and the root systems burn and then actually burn up into a tree and you won't even be able to see the smoke and the tree could be burning from the inside."


Lewis said the individuals from the various organizations who are involved in enforcement out in the valley are doing their best, but are outnumbered. 

These organizations don't have the personnel needed in great enough numbers to control what is happening in the valley.

He noted that what is seen in the valley is being repeated in other areas, such as up the Mamquam Forest Service Road and throughout the region. 

"We need more enforcement," he said.

Squamish Nation

Sxwixwtn, Wilson Williams, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) spokesperson and council member, said that the Squamish Valley is “culturally, spiritually, and ecologically significant to Squamish Nation, and we are 100% committed to protecting it.” 

“We are currently working collaboratively with the BC Wildfire Service and the Sea to Sky Natural Resource District to enact positive changes regarding outdoor recreational activities in the Squamish River Valley,” he said.

“The Nation is also continuing with our Land Guardian Program. Squamish Nation Land Guardians will be out this spring and summer—especially on high-traffic long weekends—to monitor, educate and report any illegal activities. The Land Guardians will also work with other enforcement agencies to ensure appropriate actions are taken if illegal activity is detected.”


Staff Sgt. Gareth Bradley of the Sea to Sky RCMP said the department does receive funds from the provincial government and the local provincial Natural Resource Office to have an enhanced policing program, but that money only goes so far.

“These funds are limited and we have to be strategic with our time. We will have a presence on the long weekends. At this time, we are unable to have a permanent staffing presence in the Squamish Valley alone,” he said, noting the Sea to Sky Squamish RCMP police from Lions Bay to Daisy Lake with all the mountain terrain and waterways in between.

“It is a huge area.” 

Bradley said the RCMP will respond and document the actions happening in the backcountry. 

“It is also important to work and share information with our partner agencies like the Natural Resource Office and the Conservation [Officer] Service,” he said.

Bradley said more provincial funding would be needed to “staff every weekend.”

“Then there would be an increased presence in the backcountry,” he said.

Bradley said the message he would like to get across to people coming up to recreate “is basic backcountry preparedness.” 

“Be prepared, be safe. Have a plan and tell someone where you're going. Pack out what you pack in, be responsible in the area, and respect the environment, respect any fire bans that are in place, protect yourself from wildlife conflicts and maintain a clean campsite.”

Provincial government’s response

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests said its top priority is always keeping people safe, "especially as we see longer wildfire seasons due to climate change causing drier and hotter summers."

The BC Wildfire Service, in partnership with the Squamish Nation and Sea to Sky Natural Resource District, will be "elevating its presence in the Upper Squamish Valley" this season.

"This includes public education through the wildfire prevention ambassador program and increased patrol through the fire wardens program," the spokesperson said.

Though a total figure for the number of Conservation Officer Service (COS) officers in the corridor wasn't supplied, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy noted that the COS has enhanced service level agreements with some municipalities and regional districts—including, Squamish and Whistler—whereby those local governments financially support more officers.

These agreements supply two wildlife safety response officers, who support conservation officers to reduce human-wildlife conflicts through public education and outreach.

Last year, Pique Newsmagazine reported there were five officers in the Sea to Sky Corridor, which means from North Van to Pemberton.

The ministry spokesperson noted that it is important that the public call and report illegal activity because that can help evaluate what resources are needed.

"Calling early and often allows officers to follow up, and the data helps the service allocate more resources to combat the problem."

The COS and the Natural Resource Office officers are aware of illegal dumping in this area, the spokesperson added.

"The Conservation Officer Service and Natural Resource officers proactively patrol the region as resources to help deter illegal activity such as illegal dumping."

Officers assess incidents on a case-by-case basis to prioritize illegal dumping "if it is creating a significant environmental or safety issue."

To report illegal dumping, members of the public are encouraged to contact the 24-hour Report All Poacher or Polluter (RAPP) hotline at 1-877-952-7277 (RAPP).

Don't Love It To Death

A spokesperson for Tourism Squamish said its Destination Steward program seasonally hires three to four full-time stewards, who visit various popular outdoor locations around the Squamish area throughout the summer “to connect with visitors and local recreationists to promote safe, responsible outdoor recreation, assist with visitor dispersion and questions and collect data to support destination planning and decision-making. In addition, the team supports clean-up efforts and various projects in partnership with other organizations.”

The spokesperson also highlighted the Sea-to-Sky Destination Management Council, which launched in 2022, that focuses on addressing issues including “illegal camping; the increased need for search and rescue due to poor planning; and the overuse of land, trails, recreation sites, and community assets in both urban and rural locations.”

This council is made up of various partner and stakeholder agencies. 

The spokesperson also pointed to the council’s “Don't Love It To Death” campaign, “that reminds outdoor enthusiasts and visitors to be mindful of the impact their behaviour and activities have on delicate ecosystems and communities.”

A robust online campaign and physical signage, for example at trailheads, are part of it. 

The spokesperson said a new social media campaign blitz, featuring comedian and filmmaker Katie Burrell, will begin before the May long weekend.

(Check out the “Don't Love It To Death” campaign, and many resources on its website.)

Further, Tourism Squamish has created resources to promote responsible travel in Squamish.

“To help support local conservation efforts, Tourism Squamish does not market or promote sensitive cultural sites or areas struggling with overcrowding. We also promote off-peak visitation, meaning we encourage visitors to travel midweek and during Squamish’s quieter spring, fall and winter seasons,” said Lesley Weeks, executive director of Tourism Squamish.