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Trail usage spiked in Sea to Sky this summer

Backcountry BC calls for end to day-pass system and advocates for increased dispersal through new trails 
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Watersprite Lake was one of the Sea to Sky’s busiest trails this summer. 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 just-released study shows.

During this summer Rec Sites & Trails BC monitored visitor use on 38 trail locations in the Sea to Sky Natural Resource District using infrared trail counters (21 hiking, 17 mountain-bike primary). 

A representative from the B.C. Mountaineering Club (BCMC), which runs Backcountry BC, said these recent 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,” said Paul Kubik, director of cabins and trails with the BCMC, in an email.

“The provincial health officer continues to say the risk of transmission in the outdoors is infinitesimal.”

Kubik would also like to see the day-pass system that was piloted this summer by BC Parks removed, 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 said. “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 [BC Parks’] blog, [it] admits it’s subjective,” said Kubik. “What we’ve noticed is there is a conservation bias in the parks system to the detriment of recreation.”

Kubik believes 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 wish list, 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 survey 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 per cent in July, 100 per cent in August and 93 per cent 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, Semaphore Lakes, Brandywine Meadows, and Tenquille Lake.

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

Watersprite came second with an increase of 126 per cent. 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 per cent 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 monitored in Pemberton was 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 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. and has stayed silent during negotiations with Whistler Blackcomb to open up the Singing Pass.

In responding to Kubik’s comments the Ministry of Environment 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.

“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.” 

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 archaeological 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.” 

-This story originally appeared in the Squamish Chief on Dec. 3