Industry and recreation groups are voicing concerns about how B.C. plans to manage forestry and other resource roads.
More than 450,000 km of gravel resource roads crisscross the province, opening up Crown land to loggers, miners, BC Hydro and others. The same roads provide access routes to some remote First Nations and to the backcountry areas that B.C. hunters, hikers and other recreation groups like to get out and enjoy.
Currently, B.C. has 11 different laws and several agencies to manage its resource roads—a costly and sometimes confusing system that the B.C. Liberal government has promised to simplify with a new Natural Resource Roads Act.
Nechako-Lakes MLA John Rustad says the B.C. Liberals withdrew a similar bill in 2008.
“We didn’t really provide a lot of opportunity for input,” said Rustad.
This time, he said the province is doing more consulting. B.C.’s natural resources ministry posted a 40-page discussion paper about the new bill in October and gave stakeholders until Dec. 15 to comment.
Rustad said another flaw in the 2008 bill was that it seemed to shift too many insurance costs onto industry.
“There was a general belief that it had actually become a disincentive to do things on the land base,” he said, explaining that anyone who manages a resource road has to buy liability insurance in case a road washes out or triggers a slide that causes environmental damage.
Liability is still the number one challenge, said Rustad.
“Companies are interested in getting it off their books as quickly as possible,” he said, but that could mean deactivating roads that other resource companies and recreation groups want to use.
In such cases, Rustad said the question is who takes over.
“Who then takes on the liability?” he asked. “Who takes on maintenance costs of going out to the culverts and checking that everything’s okay?”
According to Doug Routledge, vice president of the Council of Forest Industries, in many cases the province is still the best candidate to manage the roads.
“The nature of their use has changed dramatically in the last ten years or so,” Routledge explained.
Whereas most of B.C.’s resource roads were previously used by a single forestry company, Routledge said it’s now common to see multiple users.
New traffic is coming from oil and gas companies in northeast B.C., he said, and a growing number of recreational users.
“Those roads are much more like a public highway,” he said.
In places like Tatla Lakes, he said forestry roads have also opened up two-wheel drive travel to remote First Nations.
“That’s a new and increasing amount of road use,” Routledge said. “I think there’s a role there for the provincial government to play.”
Routledge said if the province wants to keep an open-road policy, one thing it could do is set up a standard contract for cost-sharing.
“If we want to go fishing on the river or something like that, I don’t think we want to stop and put our twonie into a user box each and every time,” he said. Instead, he said, taxpayers could help keep roads open by having the province pay some 10 or 15 per cent of the costs.
Speaking for the Houston Snowmobile Club, Les Auston agrees that the B.C. government should continue to manage most resource roads.
Based on the province’s discussion paper, the club has already said it cannot support the new roads bill.
“When you read through it all two or three times, basically they’re trying to get out of maintaining those roads,” said Auston. That’s understandable, he added, except that there’s now a big push for more tourism on those roads.
Houston’s snowmobile club looks after some 250 km of trails, mostly on former or active forestry roads.
Auston said the club carries a $10-million insurance policy for the trails, receives another $2 million coverage from the province for maintaining them and has a good relationship with local forestry companies.
Although the discussion paper says resource roads will only be deactivated for environmental or safety reasons, Auston said the club is not so sure that government won’t deactivate roads as a control measure to keep people out of an area.
“That’s always been a concern of ours, and it’s a valid concern today,” he said.
Eckard Mendel, who represents northern B.C. hunters and handles access policy for the BC Wildlife Federation, echoed Auston’s concerns.
“The government, as far as I’m concerned, hasn’t proven that there’s a big issue with liability on roads left to get old on their own,” Mendel said.
“We don’t want to see roads de-activated so that people can’t access Crown land. We think the public has a right because the public in fact owns those roads.”
Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson said he’s heard concerns from small business operators on this matter.
He said the NDP will take a wait and see approach to what the government submits
“The major concerns that I have are that the cost of maintaining and operating the roads…will be downloaded to users.”
He said that is a concern for businesses in remote areas because if they had to incur extra costs it would be detrimental to their viability.
A finished version of the Natural Resources Road Act is expected by the fall of 2012, and will likely come into effect in 2013.
For more about the proposal, see the project website at www.for.gov.bc.ca/mof/nrra/.