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Trail usage spiked the Sea to Sky over the summer

Backcountry BC calls for end to daypass system and advocates for increased dispersal through new trails
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Of the trails monitored, the busiest included Whistler’s Brandywine Meadows, Watersprite Lake, Semaphore Lakes and Rohr Lake (near Pemberton), Al’s Habrich Trail, and the Slhanay approach trail. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Trail usage in the Sea to Sky corridor spiked this year, presumably because the pandemic made it one of the few safe ways to recreate safely.

A representative from the B.C. Mountaineering Club, or BCMC, which runs Backcountry BC, said that these results highlight a need to keep parks open, create more trails to disperse recreationalists, and improve management.

“Park closures are not the way to go. The provincial health officer continues to say the risk of transmission in the outdoors is infinitesimal,” wrote Paul Kubik, director of cabins and trails with the BCMC, in an email to The Squamish Chief.

Kubik said it would be best to ditch the day pass system that was piloted this summer, as it appears to be, in his mind, highly subjective.

“What we’ve got is the province being able to set limits based on a nebulous set of criteria such as ‘desired conditions’ and ‘unique attributes,’ again, with no attempt to define them,” he wrote. “It really amounts to the province setting limits based on whatever they decide suits the mood of the moment. Sometimes they say it’s about parking. At Stawamus Chief, there is virtually unlimited parking along Mamquam FSR and at Darrell Bay. It’s also a short walk from Squamish. Yet, they say parking availability is one of the criteria for establishing limits on visitation to the Chief.

“In [their] blog, they admit it’s subjective. What we’ve noticed is there is a conservation bias in the parks system to the detriment of recreation.”

Kubik said that there is an alternative way of solving overcrowding.

“The solution is dispersal through further trail construction,” he said.

One example of a way to increase trails was highlighted in Backcountry BC’s election wishlist, which called on politicians to invest in parks.

The organization called for the province to, among other things, adopt the Garibaldi Park Southwestern Amendment proposal, which would open up five new trailheads at Alice Lake, Brohm Ridge and Skookum, Swift and Conroy creeks. 

It’s just one way to alleviate crowding in the Sea to Sky, which occurs in several areas, according to the report.

Of the trails monitored, the busiest included Whistler’s Brandywine Meadows, Watersprite Lake, Semaphore Lakes  and Rohr Lake (near Pemberton), Al’s Habrich Trail, and the Slhanay approach trail.

They experienced differing levels of increased activity, depending on the month.

For example, compared with 2019, Brandywine Meadows jumped by 69% in July, 100% in August and 93% in September.

Trail use is highest during weekends for all trails.

For hiking trails, the study looked at usage for the Slhanay approach trail, Watersprite Lake,  Tricouni West, Sky Pilot Valley, Petgill Lake and Al’s Habrich trail, and near Pemberton, Semaphore Lakes, Brandywine Meadows, and Tenquille Lake. 

Of those, Slhanay had the biggest average percentage increase over the summer, at 142%. Its busiest day this year recorded 144 hikers, compared with 70 people last year.

Watersprite came second with an average of 126%. At its peak day, it recorded 263 people, while last year it peaked out at 165.

Coming in third was Semaphore Lakes, averaging a 101% uptick. There were 107 people during its peak day this year, compared with 71 last year.

There were also highlights for usage on mountain bike trails.

For the Legacy Climb trail in the Diamond Head area, the busiest months were April and May, garnering 6,143 and 6,944 rides, respectively.

Jack’s Trail in the Alice Lake area recorded 9,477 rides during July, which was its busiest month.

Half Nelson peaked out this year at 568 rides on March 16. This was the highest number between February and November.

For Pseudo-Tsuga, the busiest day between March and November was Nov. 1, with 469 rides.

The busiest among trails that were monitored in Pemberton is Happy Trail.

Kubik is calling on the province to increase access and stop park closures during the winter.

The Callaghan has no public access trail in the winter, he said, while Brandywine and Joffre are shut during the winter months.

“In that case, parking can be used to limit the visitation,” he said, regarding Joffre. “That’s reasonable. Why not put in parking meters to help pay for facilities and clearing the lot in winter?”

In other examples of closures or decreased access, Kubik said the province allowed Cypress to shut access to the backcountry access corridor before 9 a.m.; stayed silent during negotiations with Whistler Blackcomb to open up the Singing Pass; and denied access to Rubble Creek parking.

The Ministry of Environment responded to Kubik’s comments.

It said BC Parks will continue to work with Cypress Mountain Resorts to ensure that Backcountry Access Corridors are open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“Regarding winter access to the Singing Pass through the Whistler Blackcomb Controlled Recreation Area; BC Parks has worked in close collaboration with Mountain Resorts Branch, and engaged with Whistler Blackcomb and stakeholders on proposed winter access routes into Garibaldi Park,” the province said.

It also had a response for Rubble Creek.

“BC Parks is investigating options to re-open the winter parking and access at Rubble Creek as we understand this provides important access to winter ski touring routes,” reads the statement from the ministry.

“The majority of the parks in the Sea to Sky corridor are open to the public. Joffre Lakes Park remains closed at this time. Vehicle access may not be available to some provincial parks in winter due to public safety (e.g., winter wind storms and snow levels blocking access roads and trails) and park security.”

Since then, outdoor clubs have shared that BC Parks has committed to plowing the parking area for this winter only

The province also acknowledged that usage has increased greatly due to COVID-19 and that BC Parks is investing in “expanding trails and other recreational facilities and does this through a planned approach, considering the careful balance needed between providing public recreation and managing the environmental and cultural values in our protected area system.” 

Finally, Kubik noted that with COVID-19, many people may be hesitant to have the government start spending more money on recreation.

However, there are ways it can be beneficial to spend at this time, he said.

Money doesn’t just have to flow from the government, as corporate partners, charities and increased camping permits, among other things can become a revenue stream, he said.

“You say that people are worried about COVID-19 causing the government to overspend. I personally have the same concern. But governments are saying now is the time to go into debt because rates are cheap and people need to work,” said Kubik.

Park improvements — something as simple, for instance, as an outhouse project — can be a way to give people jobs in a trying time, while creating spinoff effects, he noted.

“It addresses the pillars of partnership, reconciliation, recreation and conservation—all provincial park policy objectives. It calls for employment of First Nations, equipment operators, an archeological assessment and a biological assessment. That’s putting local Squamish people to work and developing skills. I would foresee a future [First Nations] presence in the park as maintenance operators, rangers and custodians. It would be local people running the show instead of remote [officials] in Victoria.”