The Columbia and Western trailhead in Castlegar is on private forestry company land, and is used only with their permission. Photo: John Boivin

The Columbia and Western trailhead in Castlegar is on private forestry company land, and is used only with their permission. Photo: John Boivin

West Kootenay trail designation sparks debate

Columbia-Western Trail may lose its recreational status if province gets its way

A plan to remove nearly 70 kilometers of rail trails between Castlegar and Christina Lake from the province’s recreation registry is getting mixed reaction in the user community.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development says it wants public input into a proposal to “cancel the recreational trail designation” on a portion of the Columbia and Western Rail Trail.

Essentially, the change in designation would allow for industrial activity on the trail, with everything up to cars and logging trucks allowed to use the old CPR line.

“Currently, there is significant use of the rail grade by on-highway vehicles by both public and industry,” notes a letter sent to user groups by Recreation Sites and Trails BC director John Hawkings. “The Ministry is proposing the administrative transfer to ensure management is appropriate to current use.

“The proposed change reflects local interests and supports access for industrial activity.”

The letter says current recreational use of the trail would “continue to be accommodated.”

”Many portions of the Great Trail are composed of roads or rustic trails,” a media spokesperson for Rec Sites and Trails wrote to the Castlegar News. “If the province does change the designation of this section, there will be no impact to the Great Trail designation.

“Public use and access are expected to remain as they have been if the change is approved.”

Users split

A spokesperson for Trails BC, however, is angered by the proposal.

“It’s pretty phenomenal what’s written in that letter,” says Ciel Sander, who lives in Greenwood. “It essentially says the Great Trail has sections of the trail on roadway, so it’s perfectly acceptable to turn it into a roadway.

“This is about turning it into a haul road,” she adds. “It’s a greenway. It has grizzly bear habitat going through it. We don’t need another road.”

Sander says allowing heavier motorized use of the trail defeats its use as a tourism engine.

“It’s not heavily used for bicycles now, as people don’t like running into traffic, so they use other trails,” says Sander. “It been taken over by the off-road vehicle community, and we don’t have a trail service anymore that regular people using bicycles can use.”

And she says it also goes against the philosophy behind the Trans-Canada Trail network.

“If you go to the Great Trail website, their whole deal is to get sections of the trail off the highways and make them safe to recreate on without vehicle traffic. Because people won’t bicycle if there’s vehicle traffic.

“We think it should be a linear park.”

Off-roaders fine with it

But the president of the Columbia and Western Trail Society says his group has no problem with what’s being proposed.

“We don’t anticipate any changes,” says Jeremy Nelson. “I think there are opportunities, talking to the forest companies, they’d be willing to do even better upgrades like putting up 3/4 crushed gravel to enhance the recreation values with all of it.”

Nelson’s group of 120 trail users (which also includes a couple of dozen cyclists), has done maintenance and improvements on the trail for about 15 years. But he says real maintenance on the trail would likely cost in the tens of millions, and could never be borne by taxpayers.

“But working with the companies for the last five to seven years, we went from being one of the worst sections of the rail trail to one of the best,” he says, adding that could continue if industry maintains the roads.

Nelson says forestry companies like Celgar and Interfor provide support for everything from the interpretative kiosks to installing culverts and clearing rock falls. And he points out the forestry companies have legal right to access the area, and actually have title over critical sections like the trailhead from the Castlegar side.

But it’s not only access to resources that can’t be blocked. Nelson points out there are property owners living in small communities along the trail who also have the need and right to access their homes. And there are user groups who access the trail with disabled people and children, who also need to use powered vehicles.

Provincial resources

Nelson also sees the move as the province coming to terms with reality. He says B.C. inherited a massive piece of infrastructure without the resources needed to maintain it.

“This should never have been designated a recreation trail to begin with,” he says. “When the trail came along, no government department wanted it. Now it’s come back to haunt them. These guys can’t deal with it, someone has to be forced to take responsibility.”

At least on the point of provincial responsibility, Sander agrees with Nelson.

“Our stance is basically that they have never put appropriate management into this trail and they need to have the funding in order to make this work,” says Sander. “Trails BC supports off-road vehicles on other trails. But people from Europe never want to ride with vehicles. That’s just not what they do.

“Trails BC wants to get more funding to get this worked out, so quads and off road people get what they need so they don’t have to be on the rail trail.

“Let’s make everybody happy,” she says. “I think it’s possible.”

But she doesn’t see industry as the solution. And she thinks the conversation should be expanded.

“We are missing out on an incredible opportunity for our economy to diversify,” she says. “This belongs to Canada, it’s part of our history, and it needs to be a bigger conversation than a bunch of local organizations talking about it.”

But Nelson thinks the conversation should remain local.

“We don’t have any trouble locally,” he says. “These are urban cave dwellers from Vancouver that don’t have the faintest clue how rural people in British Columbia have to operate and work and live.”

The debate is likely to be intense before the decision is made. Government says it’s gathering feedback from First Nations, local government, stakeholders and the public.

Feedback can be provided to recinfo@gov.bc.ca by Aug. 26.

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The Columbia and Western trail already allows for much motorized traffic, but will see heavier vehicle use if the province changes its designation. Photo: John Boivin

The Columbia and Western trail already allows for much motorized traffic, but will see heavier vehicle use if the province changes its designation. Photo: John Boivin

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