An overflowing council chamber was revved up Monday night over the prospect of motorized vehicle use being enshrined on Mount Gardner.
The issue, which has been hotly contested for the past two years after council passed a resolution asking for the vehicles to be banned on the mountain, was back in the spotlight following a consultation visit to Bowen by Recreation Sites and Trails BC (RSTBC) earlier this month.
RSTBC is in the process of gathering information through what’s described as a Visitor Use Management Framework, which they’ll use to make recommendations to the Ministry of Forests who will make the final decision. Bryan Mitchell, land and resource specialist with RSTBC, is heading the project and led the June 1 stakeholder meeting.
Mitchell appeared virtually before council June 13, but the evening began with a lineup of 30 speakers at Municipal Hall, a near unanimous chorus of residents echoing their opposition to any use of motorized vehicles on the mountain during the more than hour-long public comments section.
Oppositions were varied but centred around certain main themes. One of these was the potential impact on the environment, such as damage to soil or disturbances to local wildlife.
Disturbances to local residents was another major concern. Several speakers expressed their discomfort at having to share the trails with motorized vehicles, also citing the relative noise levels of dirt bikes and ATVs.
The consultation process itself didn’t escape complaint either, with many attendees saying it appeared from the tone of the meeting that it was a done deal motorized vehicles would be permitted come decision time.
Mitchell’s update followed, where he outlined what RSTBC is factoring into their recommendations and where they are in the process. The stakeholder meeting – part of Phase 2 of the four-phase project – was the last item to have a specific timeline attached to it. An actual decision is still several months away, and unlikely to take place this year.
One of the main reasons for this is delays in conducting a full archaeological assessment of the mountain, as part of reconciliation efforts with Indigenous groups. Mitchell says the ministry simply doesn’t have the resources to undertake this right now, and is unsure when they will.
Once work begins Mitchell says archaeology reports usually take around four to five months to complete. He added he expects the process to move fairly quickly after that.
RSTBC maintains nothing has been decided yet
Following Mitchell’s presentation it was council’s turn to comment, where Coun. David Hocking followed up on people’s frustrations with RSTBC. “I’m quite frankly astonished that when you (RSTBC) finally come, and you started this consultation process… you appear to have a solution already decided… that there will be motorized use on at least part of Mount Gardner.”
“That’s not how the process works. I would expect you to come and say here’s the issue, let’s hear your thoughts,” said Hocking.
Mitchell responded “There is no preconceived outcome of what this work will be. I’m starting with a completely clean slate.”
Hocking also wanted to know how RSTBC felt motorized vehicle use reconciled with climate change, given extreme weather events B.C. has seen lately such as hotter summers and the atmospheric river. Mitchell says environmental issues are outside the scope of his work.
“That isn’t our role within RSTBC. Our role is really to manage recreational values. I recognize there’s concern about motorized use and its impact on climate change, but that ultimately comes from a different branch of government, and any mandates that would restrict that type of use isn’t our responsibility as RSTBC,” said Mitchell.
This did little to satisfy the councillor. “I’ve been working on climate change for a few decades, and lots of folks have ducked the issue who are responsible by saying ‘well it’s not my arm of government to do that,” said Hocking.
“There’s no magic bullet to deal with climate change emissions, every department and every aspect of every department has to do it, and I’m sorry you just can’t drop it off your mandate.”
Mitchell said the municipality should advocate to the provincial government for more resources to fight climate change.
Coun. Sue Ellen Fast said there was a worry that Bowen would become a destination for recreational motorized vehicle enthusiasts if their use was allowed on Mount Gardner. “The scale of the motorized use will probably be changing, I think that’s what people are concerned about.”
Mitchell pointed out there’s currently no rules restricting these vehicles on Gardner. “There’s a history of motorized use on the island, there’s never been any regulations under any provincial legislation… We’re completing a consultation process in light of the municipal resolution, as well as the significant amount of interest we’ve received from the public on the issue, as well as stakeholder groups, to inform a decision on whether or not the province should enact regulation for the first time… that would restrict motorized recreation.”
Final decision unlikely until 2023
Coun. Maureen Nicholson wondered in light of the many people opposed to the use of these vehicles, including 80 letters received by the municipality in the past week plus the public showing at council, whether this could speed up a decision.
Mitchell agreed the evening had been a near unanimous showing for one side, but said RSTBC still had to follow due process. “With the significant impact that’s been noted by stakeholders to the environment, the high level of both political as well as citizen interest in the issue… the province of B.C. and RSTBC have decided to put a higher level of scrutiny into our decision making process.”
“It would be easy just to take the resolution from your municipality and translate that into a decision, but ultimately there needs to be a higher level of scrutiny… to make sure that everyone engaged in this feels there’s a process, they had the opportunity to speak, and ultimately it was transparent and they can see themselves within the final decision,” said Mitchell.
Coun. Michael Kaile concluded by asking Mitchell to do everything he could to move things along. “Because this is becoming an exercise in frustration in so many different ways, and I see no goodwill being built up by not coming to a speedier conclusion,” said Kaile.
Mitchell also cleared up a 2021 letter from RSTBC which stated the group would create a non-motorized experience on Mount Gardner, but failed to expand on what that would be. Mitchell said he interpreted the letter – described by chief administrative officer Liam Edwards as “very confusing and very loose” – as a decision to develop this non-motorized experience on the mountain.
Mitchell confirmed this means no matter what the final decision, there will be spaces on Mount Gardner motorized vehicles are not allowed.