A Sad Day for Strathcona Provincial Park

Bedwell Lake
Bedwell Lake is accessible by fairly good trail from the Buttle Lake corridor of the park (if the suspension bridge at the trail head isn’t damaged).

BC Parks turned 100 just over a month ago on March 1st, 2011. On March 11, 2010, the BC Liberal government quietly and radically amended the Master Plan of Strathcona Provincial Park, the first park established in British Columbia. They did so to be able to issue the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort a permit to run exclusive horse tours in the sensitive Bedwell Valley. They did so despite the objections of the Strathcona Provincial Park Advisory Committee. They did so despite strong opinions against the proposal in public hearings. It is reported (but not confirmed) that the Park Use Permit was granted to the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort on April 1, 2011 – what a brilliant way to kick off BC Park’s centennial year. I hope it’s a bad joke.

Update – The Friends of Strathcona Park met with Minister of the Environment Terry Lake on Monday, April 4 and apparently there is still time to act – the Park Use Permit has not been issued …. yet. BC Parks has signed off on the issue so the decision rests in the government’s hands. Let them know that you’re concerned by contacting them as soon as possible! See the bottom of this post for email addresses and web site links.

Further Update – the Park Use Permit has been approved. See Terry Lake’s response on April 13 to one of my emails below:

The Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, which is located outside of Strathcona Provincial Park, has applied for a Park Use Permit to conduct commercial horse trips on an old road bed located within the park’s boundaries.  BC Parks has reviewed the permit within the scope of the current master plan’s language and zoning, as well as conducted a thorough impact assessment process to ensure that there are no impacts to the park.  Based on the results of the review and assessment, a decision has been made to issue the Park Use Permit to the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort.

All commercial activities within provincial parks must be conducted under a valid Park Use Permit.  Currently, there are several commercial operators conducting business in many provincial parks, including Strathcona Provincial Park.  For example, Clayoquot Wilderness Resort already has an existing Park Use Permit for recreation hiking and guiding.  The Park Use Permit allows a commercial operator to conduct business in the park, undertaking the same activities that can be undertaken by members of the public, but under a set of conditions to control the type and amount of activity.

When I first moved to Vancouver Island in the 1990s to attend Vancouver Island University (then Malaspina University-College) I used to hitchhike regularly to Strathcona for a weekend in the back-country. For a kid who grew up on the east coast and northern Ontario, the mountains on Vancouver Island were like nothing I had ever seen before.

Over the years I grew to love this old park and the connection with nature one gets from travelling slowly and quietly, far from the chaos of our busy lives. I worked as an interpreter for two seasons in the two provincial campgrounds at Buttle Lake and guided park visitors around many of the front-country loop trails and on full day hikes into the mountains. Ten years ago this interpretation program was cut along with funding for other services in the provincial park system.

There doesn’t appear to be funding left to do much unless it is tied to a significant recreational/commercial venture. Contrast the extensive boardwalk put in at Paradise Meadows (near Mount Washington) with the fact that the non-profit Friends of Strathcona Park (FOSP) had to shame BC Parks into acting to repair bridge access to the popular Crest Mountain Trail. One of the short loop trails that I regularly took people on 10 years ago has been impassable for the last several years in times of high water (the bridge on the Karst Creek Trail was washed out and has never been replaced). There’s a real sense of neglect that is sad to see.

Pond at the top of Crest Mountain
A foggy day at the top of Crest Mountain in Strathcona Provincial Park.

I think that Bob St. John has it right when he talks about the starvation of funding for BC Parks (and the education system, and health care system for that matter). The reasoning behind this strategy applies directly to situation in the Bedwell Valley. With inadequate funds, the trail systems in the park become unusable. A compromise has to be made in the park’s Master Plan to enable private interests to help “maintain” the park. But is this a solution? In the words of Karl Stevenson:

Government has now eroded the Master Plan against public wishes so that a wealthy government supporter can be granted access to the park to build an erosion-prone commercial horse trail in the erosion-prone Bedwell Valley.

In this case, John Caton comes riding in with his guests on their $1600/night/person horses (minimum 3 night stay) to save the day, promising to repair and maintain the trail so that his clients (and hikers of course) can use it.

So what’s the problem with that?

Horses are allowed in a few places in Strathcona Provincial Park – but these places are a long way to go and they are essentially no longer accessible. The old roads are deactivated and overgrown. If you want to ride the Bedwell River trail you’ve got to pony up the cost of getting your horse to the trailhead and back by water taxi. It’ll probably be cheaper to book yourself into the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort for a 3-night stay. Maybe that’s the plan. It also begs the question “If it’s so difficult and expensive to ride a horse in Strathcona Park, why amend the plan to allow it?”

Amending the plan to accommodate Clayoquot Wilderness Resort’s permit application does set a precedent for a different kind of horse use in the park and downplays the impact that horses can have on sensitive ecosystems like the Bedwell River Valley. It could open the door to further commercial horse use in other fragile areas of the park like Paradise Meadows from Mount Washington. Horse use is unacceptable in both of these areas for environmental reasons alone.

As a backcountry hiker, meeting a horse on a trail devalues the natural experience that I’ve willingly paid my backcountry fees for. Part of that connection is the appreciation of nature by moving in it, not above it. Part of that connection is also the sense of accomplishment that one gets from hiking from the trailhead to the campsite. Backcountry users gain a true appreciation of the terrain that they have traversed in that they have all “paid the price” in terms of sweat and effort to reach their destination. They come to realize why the land around them is special because they have become part of it.

Friends of Strathcona Park Trail Building
Tony works on the new section of trail being built by Friends of Strathcona Park volunteers in the Bedwell Valley, Strathcona Provincial Park.

The irony of this situation is that the BC Parks claims that they need to enter this agreement with Clayoqout Wilderness Resort because they don’t have the funds to maintain the Bedwell River Trail and repair the deteriorated river crossings. When the FOSP stepped up to the plate and said “We’ll show you how to build this trail with minimal impact and we’ll do it for free.” they were supported in their efforts by BC Parks.

Map of the Bedwell Valley Trail
Map of the Bedwell Valley Trail in Strathcona Provincial Park. The new trail eliminates dangerous crossings at the Living Bridge, Noble Creek and Ashwood Creek.

The fact that the permit may still has be issued makes it seem almost as if the government had already made up its mind. Over the last two summers the FOSP repaired and rerouted part of the trail to make it safer for hikers. This coming summer they plan to finish it with or without the sanction of BC Parks. I for one will be happy to join the crew and lend a hand. And if there’s going to be a protest, you can sign me up for that too.

Pond Near New Bedwell Valley Trail
One of many ponds near the new Bedwell Valley Trail in Strathcona Provincial Park. Photo courtesy of FOSP.

This is truly a sad day for Stathcona Provincial Park. I’m still hoping that the plans of big business won’t supersede the desires of the public on this issue. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the government actually listened to the people for once?

There may be a new premier in British Columbia and there may be a new Minister of the Environment but some things never seem to change. Anyone want to lay odds on whether or not someone with a stake in the Clayoquot Wildnerness Resort is a contributor to the BC Liberal party?

Perhaps with enough public pressure those making the decisions might just change their minds. They’re saying they’re ready to listen to the people. I can’t say that I’ve had any response from any member of the governing BC Liberals on this issue, including my own MLA, Don McRae. Perhaps if enough people write they’ll have to listen and respond.

You can do your part by stating your views against this decision by:

You may also be interested in reading about development pressure on the Juan De Fuca trail near Victoria – it follows a similar storyline.