Columbia and Western Rail Trail

The Trails Society of BC organized a mountain bike ride on the Columbia and Western Rail Trail, above, for outdoor enthusiasts on Oct. 19 so they could see the impact of road-building and logging allowed by the provincial Ministry of Forests.

In spite of the growing popularity of non-motorized rail trails in B.C., the province is allowing an unspoiled section of the Trans Canada Trail to be turned into a logging road. Not only that, but the Ministry of Forests is allowing a dozen other logging roads on rail trails.

Outdoor enthusiasts say Interfor’s new road is a dangerous precedent since it is part of the 164-kilometre Columbia and Western Rail Trail between Castlegar and Midway that was given to the province by the Trans Canada Trail organization for non-motorized use in 2004.

On July 26, John Hawkings, director of Recreation Sites and Trails BC (under the Ministry of Forests), asked for feedback on a proposal to cancel the recreation designation for a 67-kilometre section of The Great Trail (formerly Trans Canada Trail) between Paulson and Fife, and turn it into an official road tenure.

Despite the conditions of the rail trail gift, “there is significant use of the rail grade by on-highway vehicles by both the public and industry,” said Hawkings.

More than 650 letters were received by RSTBC, including objections from several Okanagan outdoor recreation groups. A decision is expected early this year.

On Oct. 19, the Trails Society of BC organized a ride on the threatened rail trail to get mountain bikers and others “up there to see what will be impacted if road-building and logging are allowed to continue,” said Ciel Sander, society president.

Since then, Castlegar and Grand Forks volunteers collected 630 signatures on a petition opposing the delisting by RSTBC.

“This is a precedent threatening rail trails and The Great Trail of Canada. We, the undersigned, are citizens concerned about the lack of public engagement and the impact this proposal will have on our future economic growth as a tourist destination,”says the petition.

Trails BC, which did not organize the petition drive, forwarded it to RSTBC officials as well as West Kootenay NDP MLA Katrina Conroy just before Christmas.

“There must be an effort at comprehensive public consultation as this is a provincial

asset, and also an iconic national trail … Sending a stakeholder a letter does not constitute public consultation,” said Sander in a letter accompanying the petition.

In May, the province released its first Active Transportation Strategy, said Sander, noting the strategy states: “The Province will undertake a process to enhance rail trails and bridge connections.”

“Rail trails have a very low gradient, making their width and surface accessible to more users than typical natural trail surfaces. This proposal to turn the Trans Canada Trail into a roadway is contrary to this strategy and it’s the exact opposite of what these forest-resource communities need for economic diversification and community vitality,” said Sander.

“With the Spirit of 2010 Trail launch in 2004, the Province of B.C. converted many of the railways in B.C. into multiple-use, non-motorized recreation trails to allow for recreational travel in the scenic and natural settings of British Columbia.

“This vision seems to be completely lost with the current management regime.”

According to its website: “The Spirit of 2010 Trail is the first segment in the creation of world-class recreational rails-to-trails product … The Spirit of 2010 Trail is 750 kilometres in length and there is the potential to convert over 2,000 kilometres of rail trails in total.”

Trails BC learned that on July 30, four days after the RSTBC letter to stakeholders, the Ministry of Forests gave Interfor permission to build a logging road on 12.5 kilometres of the Columbia and Western Rail Trail immediately east of Christina Lake.

“The rail trail provides necessary access to a working forest, which benefits the local economy and all British Columbians,” said a ministry spokesperson. “Government also recognizes this trail as an important recreation feature and it will remain open to recreational use. It is not unusual to have a mix of users on the rail trail; about a dozen other authorizations have been provided in the past along much of the ‘Great Trail.’”

At the end of each season, the tenure holder must ensure that the trail surface conditions are left in a state that is consistent with, or better than, the surface condition prior to use beginning for the season.

“The Great Trail rail trails should be managed as a linear recreation site or linear park,’ said Sander, “not continued to be used as a road for motorized vehicles. Already we’ve seen operations that have graded and widened the rail trail into a roadway, losing the esthetic ‘rail trail feeling’ and encouraging increased motorized traffic.”

The section from Rathmullen to east of Hodges is being used for logging right now, said Sander.

“It seems odd to me that the government would allow the delisting of this historic rail trail when rail trails in the U.S. and bike pathways are incredibly popular, bringing small rural communities back to life. In Washington state, they are managing the Palouse to Cascades Rail Trail as a state park. It should be stressed to the government that the province needs to look at the rail trail in its entirety and come up with a position that is consistent throughout B.C. rather than breaking it into little pieces.

“We do not believe industrial tenures are compatible with a rail trail. The esthetics of the rail trail have already been lost in many sections with industrial use and unregulated motorized use.”

“This latest development is why we worry for the future of the Columbia and Western Rail Trail,” said Jane O’Faherty, communications adviser for the Trans Canada Trail organization.

“The trend of direct and indirect authorizations being given forest tenures poses a threat to this exceptional public asset as well as the safety and comfort of non-motorized users. We are particularly concerned that the trail could be damaged and slowly turned into a road when our desire is to see this trail become a designated greenway.”

TCT respects the importance of the forestry industry, she said.

“But let’s not forget that ‘tourism remains one of B.C.’s largest sectors, contributing as much to the province’s GDP as oil and gas, and more than mining, forestry and agriculture’ as stated in a news release issued by the Province of B.C. in 2018. Rail trails like the Columbia and Western Rail Trail are significant landmarks treasured by British Columbians and visitors from around the world.”