Credit: Dreamstime.com

Some time ago, a photographer friend posted a few images and words to his blog, detailing some early-season skiing on a Vancouver Island mountain that, for sake of diplomacy, shall remain nameless.

It garnered the following semi-literate, anonymous response:

Way to go dush bag... why don’t you expose one of the best-kept secrets on the island,” said the belligerent blogger before concluding that, “You could at least keep the name of the place outta the post.

Besides the insulting language (I’m fairly certain he meant “douchebag,” but that’s beside the point), the comment is laughable considering that this “best-kept secret” is included in Philip Stone’s popular guidebook Island Turns & Tours, complete with logging road mileage and GPS coordinates.

Backcountry territory feuds aside, the online insult reminded me of how odd of a place my home is, here on the southeast coast of Vancouver Island, and how scurrilous land transactions dating back more than a century have had profound impacts on the way we play on the land. This is cowboy country, and being an outdoor enthusiast here requires ninja-like skills of adaptation and survival. I’ll explain why momentarily. 

Anyone who adventures in Canada, with skis, climbing gear, kayaks, canoes, or whatever, inevitably becomes intimately familiar with long dusty roads as we exploit the infrastructure of logging or mining to access remote regions, whether it’s a chain of lakes in northern Ontario, or a wild valley in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. 

Canada’s wacky province on the western fringe — my home province — is 94 per cent Crown Land. Roughly 14 per cent of the province has some sort of protection in the form of provincial parks, conservancies, national parks and other designations that limit commercial activity. The rest is carved up into a dizzying array of overlapping forestry, mining, hydro-electric and other industrial tenures, not to mention heli-skiing, hiking, backcountry skiing and other commercial tourism tenures. In essence we, as citizens, collectively own this Crown Land; however, the government (on our behalf) cuts deals and negotiates tenures with a long list of interests wishing to extract something of economic value from the land. 

Depending on where you stand philosophically and politically, this jobs-and-capital-focused arrangement either works well at keeping the economic engine humming along, or is a slowly unfolding disaster of environmental degradation and habitat fragmentation. 

It’s far from unbridled resource extraction — tenure holders of all kinds must meet a host of provincially and federally legislated regulations. As long as we, the general public, don’t interfere with tenure holders and respect land-use designation (parks that restrict motorized recreation, for example) we can travel this land unencumbered. 

On the southeast coast of Vancouver Island, it’s a different story entirely; the Crown Land ownership and tenure model crumbles and instead we have vast holdings of private timberland. As a backcountry enthusiast who has slipped around his fair share of locked logging-road gates or hidden in the woods like a kid caught stealing gummy bears from a corner store as a forester’s truck roared past, it’s a scenario of “get your kicks first, ask for forgiveness later.”

How we arrived at this cowboy country situation is the result of a historical twist of fate, a century-old land giveaway of epic proportions. Between 1883 and 1925, as part of a complex deal to cement British Columbia’s nascent union with Canada, the provincial government began giving coal baron Robert Dunsmuir a series of land grants that, in the end, totaled a staggering 8,000 sq-km of Vancouver Island turf; which, if you share perspective with the Coast Salish First Nations, had been stolen and wasn’t the government’s to give away in the first place. 

In exchange for this windfall of timber and mineral wealth, the ambitious Scotsman was expected to build coalmines and complete the Esquimalt-and-Nanaimo railway all the way from Victoria to Campbell River, laying down the foundations of a prosperous society on the distant Pacific shores of this still-young confederation. 

He delivered on the former, amassing a staggering personal fortune along the way, not to mention leaving behind a legacy of labour abuses and dead miners in his dangerous sub-surface coal operations. However, he failed on the latter — the railway line ran out of steam 50 km short of Campbell River. Easy come, easy go. Since Dunsmuir’s heyday, the sprawling tracts of the so-called E&N Land Grant have been bought, sold and resold many times over, the majority of which are now owned by logging giants like TimberWest, Island Timberlands and Western Forest Products.  

What does this have to with ski, mountain bike and climbing bums like me? Well, lots, actually. Regulation of private land forestry in British Columbia is barely a notch or two above non-existent. Around here, you get used to seeing oceans of stumps no matter which direction you point the camera lens. The borders of Strathcona Provincial Park, a Class A park and BC’s first, are virtually defined by clear-cuts and the gates to some of my favourite mountain haunts are usually locked and access is officially restricted. Recreation on private lands is always problematic; the owners usually see no benefit and only exposure to risk and liability from allowing mountain bikers, climbers, paddlers and others to use their lands. Unlike in parks, or other Crown Land assets, there is no road map of rules and regulations for accessing the land. Yet outdoor enthusiasts are a creative and adaptive bunch. In Cumberland, mountain bikers have carved out a network of mostly renegade trails on private land that have achieved legendary status and turned that old coal mining town into one of the hottest off-road riding destinations on the West Coast. 

The United Riders of Cumberland, or UROC, is a non-profit collection of mountain bikers that has proven to be an adept advocate for mountain biking, forging an ad hoc relationship of mutual acceptance between riders, hikers and other outdoorsy folks and the timber company landlords, who ultimately answer to far flung shareholders and have at best a tenuous attachment to local communities. In the case of Cumberland, the private forestry interests deserve credit; sometimes machine operators take time to remove slash from trails that have been damaged by logging activities and foresters occasionally even consult the outdoor community before enacting logging plans. They’re under no obligation to do so; let’s face it, these days timber companies operating on the BC coast are largely in the business of exporting logs to China, not promoting grassroots tourism. And despite UROC’s best efforts, this private land situation puts Cumberland in a tough situation at a time when it wants to leverage these trails into tourism dollars. So, in an effort to formalize this relationship, the village administration recently hired a recreation coordinator to negotiate a land-use agreement with the logging companies, a goal that remains a work in progress. 

Of course, this is but one of many examples of creative solutions to recreation land-use conflicts. Pick any community, and you’ll find unique conditions and challenges. For years, climbers visiting Penticton’s Skaha Bluffs ran afoul of an adjacent resident whose property was used as a parking lot to access the crags, permanently threatening access to this sport-climbing destination. Climbers rallied, and thanks to donations from local businesses, MEC, The Land Conservancy, Nature Conservancy, BC Parks and individuals collected over a sustained multi-year effort, they raised enough funds to build and open a new parking lot in 2009. In the process, Skaha Bluffs acquired official provincial park status. 

A decade ago, in the community of Saint-Raymond, 60 km northwest of Quebec City, farmers next to the Bras-du-Nord River were getting peeved with paddlers cutting across their land to access the water. Realizing that canoeing and kayaking was an important part of the region’s burgeoning tourism economy, individuals and companies involved in outdoor tourism formed a co-op, the Bras-du-Nord Co-Op de Solidaritie, to address land-access issues with a united front rather than extinguishing brushfire conflicts one at a time. The cooperative, which now employs more than 30 people and counts hoteliers and guiding companies among its members, has served as a model for other tourism co-ops around Quebec.

Back on my home turf of Vancouver Island, outdoor recreation is a strangely anarchic beast and I have to admit there’s a part of me — the ninja part — that’s grown fond of this situation. It fits well with the frontier past of the Island, during which time Lord Dunsmuir carved out his unscrupulous fortune on the backs of immigrant coalminers. As has become an autumn ritual, when first snow frosts a nearby peak — which shall remain unnamed — I’ll look up at one of my favourite stashes and drool. You know, the stash on private forestland that, thanks to a historical twist of land grants and giveaways, is cached behind lock and key more than 100 years after the deed.

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2013 issue.