Snowmobilers disturbing backcountry watershed 

Rainbow Lake/21-Mile Creek was set aside for non-motorized access

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A Whistler backcountry advocate wants to stop use by snowmobilers of a pristine area set aside for non-motorized access that is also a source of drinking water for the resort.

Bryce Leigh, the access and environment director of the Alpine Club of Canada Whistler Section, said he has evidence of dozens of snowmobiles at the Rainbow Lake/21-Mile Creek area between Whistler Olympic Park and Soo Valley.

In one instance, he counted 70 trucks parked on the Callaghan Forestry Service Road near the site, on Dec. 31, 2011, many of the vehicles capable of carrying more than one sled.

While not all may have entered the restricted area, he said it was his experience that the parking spot was a normal access point.

After years of negotiation through the Sea to Sky Land Resources Management Plan (LRMP) process, backcountry stakeholders including snowmobilers, heli-skiers, and walk-in snowshoers and skiers agreed to create zones for the entire Sea to Sky area. There are a multitude of zones allowing a great variety of uses and limiting or prohibiting some uses in certain areas.

The Rainbow Lake/21-Mile Creek area covers approximately 70-square kilometres and became a non-motorized area zoned RA 1 designated in a March 2009 letter from Gary Townsend, the assistant deputy minister of B.C.'s Integrated Land Management Bureau.

Several factors influenced this decision, said Leigh, not least the fact that Rainbow Lake is a major source for Whistler's drinking water. There is a winter mountain goat range in the area, as well, and the area provides easily accessible high-quality backcountry skiing terrain in close proximity to Whistler.

According to a spokesman for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, legislation had not been passed to make fines possible; at the moment only verbal warnings can be given to transgressors because compliance to the restrictions for snowmobiles and other machines is voluntary. The spokesman added they had only received a small number of complaints.

The Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C. created an online survey of users this winter season and gathered photo evidence for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations. Leigh, who is on the federation's conservation committee, will hand it to the recreation officer for the Sea to Sky region in the next few days.

"We put up posters all over the entrances to the backcountry for skiers and snowshoers about the survey, and asked people to let us know when they saw snowmobilers. Overwhelmingly, those who responded said they had seen them or their tracks," Leigh said.

Fifty backcountry users took the survey, with 61 per cent reporting they observed snowmobiles inside the 21 Mile Creek non-motorized zone, and 67 per cent stating they observed machine tracks inside the 21 Mile Creek non-motorized zone.

"What the non-motorized users would like to see happen is either much better enforcement or a complete closure of the snowmobiling access points on the Callaghan FSR," Leigh said.

"The latter would be our first choice as the snowmobiling community has not demonstrated a willingness to voluntarily comply with the non-motorized zoning."

Representatives of local snowmobile clubs could not be reached for comment. There is a different attitude with snowmobile tour companies, Leigh added. While nearby areas are designated for commercial snowmobile companies, those companies are careful not to go into the Rainbow Lake/21-Mile Creek area.

"If people reported a commercial company in a non-motorized area they could actually lose their tenure, whereas the public don't have to worry about this."

And there are no natural restrictions like a canyon to limit access.

"They don't see any restrictions on their actions. The Ministry of Forests put up signs at either end of the Callaghan Road in the fall of 2010, and within three weeks one was knocked over and broken."

Other signs disappeared. The depth of snow within Rainbow Lake/21-Mile Creek area means signs can't be placed there because they become buried in snow.

"Ignorance is bliss," he said in frustration. "The last time I was there was in February, and we saw only two snowmobiles there, but the entire area had snowmobile tracks all over it. Even though there were only two snowmobiles, the evidence of the previous ones there were all over."

Leigh said it has proved almost impossible to identify the Rainbow Lake snowmobilers from photographs taken by backcountry skiers because faces are covered by helmets.

Only one group of snowmobilers has been successfully prosecuted after a series of incidents near Smithers in central B.C.

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