Wilderness Lockdown 

Can B.C.’s tour operators survive another province-wide backcountry ban?

When forest fires shut down all of Southern B.C.’s backcountry last summer, it was a clear signal that we should all mothball our hiking boots, relax into our lawn chairs and take it easy for a while.

But for wilderness tourism operators across the province, the lockdown meant losing their only source of income. Clients were sent home, staff lost their paycheques and owners prayed for rain while they watched their profits disappear. With this summer’s fire season well ahead of last year’s scorching pace (as of July 19, there had been 1,285 forest fires in British Columbia this year, compared to 764 by the same time last year) another province-wide ban seems like a strong possibility. The question is, can the backcountry tourism industry survive it?

Graeme White is the Director of Outward Bound’s Western Canada School in Pemberton. The school is a non-profit organization that attracts students from all over the country, running wilderness courses anywhere from five days to four weeks in length. Their entire program takes place in the backcountry, with courses located in the most remote regions of the Chilcotins, the Coast Range, the Rockies and Vancouver Island. At any one time during the summer, they may have as many as 70 students and 15 instructors out in the wilderness. And if the backcountry shuts down, they have nowhere else to go.

"If a shut-down were to go into effect now and last through to the end of August," says White, "financially that would hurt big time – the kind of loss that would take years to come back from."

Last year, when the province enacted a blanket backcountry ban from August 29 to September 12, Outward Bound came very close to having to cancel its programs. As luck would have it, however, the northern half of Vancouver Island remained open during the closure, and the school moved its entire operation to Strathcona Park. It’s an adventure that cost the school $7,000 in added expenses, as well as untold headaches, and it’s a scenario White doesn’t want to repeat.

At the same time, he acknowledges that things could have been much worse. Had the closure come a few weeks earlier – during Outward Bound’s peak season and also at a time when Strathcona Park sees a lot of public use – there’s no way the school could have relocated, and they would have had to start cancelling courses. It would have been devastating for a school that already operates perilously close to its bottom line.

Asked to comment on the possibility of another province-wide backcountry closure this summer, Tara Wilson, spokesperson for the BC Forest Service, says it’s impossible to know what lies ahead. She stresses that enacting such a ban is an extremely rare occurrence, but also acknowledges that this summer has so far been worse than last year.

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