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Trail strategies keep bike clubs on their toes

Provincial, forest district recreation studies underway

The future of recreational trails falling on Crown land is up for discussion at several levels of government, but the bottom line is that the current situation – unofficial trails, no trail standards, and growing concerns about liability – is no longer acceptable.

At the highest level, the newly established Ministry of Tourism, Sport and the Arts (MTSA) has created a working group that will develop a policy for recreational mountain biking on provincial land. The working group has already met twice, and will meet at least two more times.

Bryan Raiser, the organizer of the annual Beyond the Valleycliffe of the Dolls ride, is representing the Squamish Off Road Cycling Association on the working group.

So far he says the process has been positive.

"I’m pretty excited actually because it was the first meeting I’ve been to with people like that," he said. "You usually spend those meetings convincing people that mountain biking is good, but in (the working group) they all knew that, everyone looks at mountain biking is a legitimate activity."

Trail standards are just one aspect, which Raiser says is driven by the issue of liability. All of the members agree that trails on public land should conform to some standards of construction, whether they are beginner or expert level trails. If trails meet proper standards, the MTSA wants to streamline the process where trails are officially recognized by the province.

That’s not to say the MTSA will take responsibility for maintaining and policing those trails. Most like the MTSA will work with community groups like SORCA and WORCA and the Pemberton Valley Trails Association to identify, standardize and maintain trails and trail networks.

"I think it’s accepted that the level of riding around here is stepped up, but nobody wants trails where the features fall apart or erode because they weren’t well built or designed," said Raiser.

In addition to safety and liability, the working group is also discussing user conflicts and environmental impacts.

The MTSA is not the only organization paying more attention to the status of trails in the province. The Squamish Forest District recently kicked off a process to create a trails strategy for the corridor, which would revert back to the MTSA once it’s completed.

According to Neil Edwards, operations manager for the Squamish Forest District, there are over 2,000 km of unapproved trails on Crown land in the district which have no protection. As a result they can be impacted by activities like logging and development without warning or consideration.

"Our reason for facilitating these discussions is to develop a well coordinated network of trails throughout the district that is available to all user activities and user skill levels," said Edward.

Edwards expects to complete the bulk off that strategy by the end of March, at which point it will become a MTSA project. Previously, trails and recreation fell under the Ministry of Forests, and most recently under the Forest and Range Practices Act.

One goal of the strategy, says Edwards, is to catalogue existing trails and user groups, to determine what trails are best suited to various activities (including the original intent of the trail), and to achieve a consensus for trail design and construction standards. The strategy will also put a conflict resolution process into place so user groups can more effectively solve trail use disputes.

Under the strategy, various clubs and community groups would be able to take responsibility for maintaining trails, providing they meet provincial standards.

"One historic problem (for trails) has always been volunteer groups taking over responsibilities for trails because they couldn’t or had a hard time finding affordable insurance," he said. "They would reach a management agreement with the province, which would also afford them some protection.

"If they maintain (the trail) to those standards, the groups would not be found liable."

If properly executed, Edwards says the strategy will encourage trail use and enhance recreation and tourism in the province, which is one of the purposes behind the MTSA.

"Tourism and recreation are very strong components of the local economy, with Whistler being the centre of that," said Edwards. "What we also have in the landscape between Squamish and D’Arcy is numerous trails, anywhere from 2,000 kilometres of trails that have never been approved," he said.

"At the same time we have user conflicts, the Sea to Sky Land and Resource Management Plan, a new ministry that is going to be taking over, and the fact that some trails are dangerous or just not environmentally sound – and add to that the question of Olympic legacies – we thought some kind of coordinated, district-wide strategy was necessary to begin to properly administer the various trails we have."

The MTSA is hoping to apply the district strategy to other regions of the province, based on the fact that the corridor is one of the most intensively used recreation areas in the province – whatever works here will likely work in other districts.