With limited staff and budget, provincial agency has ‘fallen under the radar’ of government priorities, says Outdoor Recreation Council of BC
The Whistler Off Road Cycling Association (WORCA) has joined the chorus of trail-building organizations calling for more funding from Recreation Sites and Trails BC, the province’s lead agency responsible for approving trail infrastructure projects.
“We agree that they are underfunded because at any time, depending on the time of year and other priorities, they may have between zero and two technicians to review all the requests that come in. [throughout] province,” said WORCA President Dale Mikkelsen.
It is not uncommon for trail applications in the province to take a year or more to process. As first reported in The Squamish Chief, the as-yet-unapproved Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association (SORCA) application to expand the parking lot at the bottom of Pseudo Tsuga in the Diamond Head area has been submitted for the first time. times over 18 months ago. After taking into account the community feedback process and other site preparations, the whole process took almost five years.
“It’s finally starting to have success now,” SORCA President Jeffrey Norman told The Chief.
“At this stage, official references to stakeholders have been sent. The province will make its approval decision based on the feedback it receives.
The leader of Squamish’s most prolific trail-building group also believes that British Columbia needs to improve its ability to handle these requests, as it is “important to continue to inspire the volunteer community that is so important to our culture of outdoor recreation in the Sea to Sky”.
Norman said the province depends on SORCA and other volunteers to build and maintain most outdoor recreation infrastructure in Squamish.
“That’s a big ask,” Norman wrote in an email to the chef. “For some projects, like building trails, the community is very excited to help. However, without a clear path to approval within a reasonable timeframe, many people simply ignore the process.
Other infrastructure, such as parking lots, requires significant funding, but it still often takes the province more than a year to even open an application, he added.
While some trail associations have called for more transparency in the approval process, Mikkelsen said Rec Sites and Trails BC have always been open about the status of their applications.
“From a transparency standpoint, the province has always made it clear to us that you’re in the queue, but it’s not entirely first come, first served,” he said. “If a trail association all of a sudden launches 30 new applications and they did it before everyone else, that doesn’t mean they get 30 approvals before any other association.”
Staffing shortages and long processing times at Rec Sites BC have changed the way WORCA approaches its trail requests, Mikkelsen added. While some organizations may shower the agency with many applications in hopes of getting their projects in the queue, WORCA tries to narrow its applications down to a handful per year.
“At WORCA, we’re thinking about what we can actually build, what we can actually get funding for, and the timeline in which we can deliver those trails,” Mikkelsen noted. “Really, if we get two approvals this year, we can’t handle much more than that anyway.”
In 2021, the organization submitted only two new trail applications, slated for approval in time for this year’s construction season: the as-yet-unnamed route from Into the Mystic to Function Junction and the D ‘Arcy Memorial Trail near Jane Lakes.
Further helping WORCA’s cause, in Mikkelsen’s mind, is that requests for trails in Whistler generally only come from WORCA – even on projects they have partnered on, like the D’Arcy Trail – while d Other communities can submit requests from trail associations as well as individuals. and for-profit builders.
Mikkelsen said he also ensures that WORCA applications are approved by local government, First Nations and the environment before being submitted to the province.
“We only do two applications [annually] and they are very easy for the province to approve. We try to make their job easier,” Mikkelsen said.
Meanwhile, outdoor recreation advocates across the province are blasting the BC government for failing to adequately fund an agency overseeing the upkeep of more than 1,000 recreation sites and 20,000 kilometers of trails across the province.
With 50 employees and an operating budget of $8 million, Recreation Sites and Trails BC has “fallen under the radar” of government priorities, according to Louise Pedersen, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC (ORCBC).
“It’s just not good enough,” Pedersen said. “We wish they could speak for themselves, but for some reason they seem to have been forgotten for decades.”
Pedersen added that lack of funding has prevented agency staff from participating in land use and recreation planning that would help ensure BC has a “network of sites and trails.” world-class recreation”.
Rec Sites and Trails BC has a mandate to provide quality recreational experiences on Crown land outside of provincial parks, First Nations reserves and local municipalities.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, which oversees the agency, said it would be “premature to talk about plans for increased funding”, citing the ongoing provincial budget process.
Indirectly, ORCBC said it represents more than 100,000 British Columbians who use the massive network of trails and recreation areas for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, Nordic skiing and snowmobiling, among other activities.
Last year, the BC government allocated $83 million over three years to strengthen infrastructure at BC Parks. But none of those funds have flowed to recreation areas outside the parks, where 85% of the province’s land base is located.
Pedersen said his group was among several outdoor recreation advocates who participated in the 2022 budget consultation process last September.
When the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services returned with its recommendations in November, it said the government should provide increased funding, not just for parks, but for “recreation and trails to fill the gaps in maintenance and staffing, including dedicated funding to community organizations for trail maintenance and development.
Pedersen said longstanding capacity issues mean many recreation groups are facing lengthy delays getting approval to rehabilitate trails. Hearing their recommendations taken up by the budget committee was “extremely reassuring”, she added.
But as 2022 budget negotiations continue, Pedersen said British Columbians who care about outdoor recreation need to remind MPs of their long-standing blind spots at a time when the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic drives more people out than ever before.
Pedersen said trail counters in the Sea to Sky region, for example, saw a 150% increase in traffic in 2019 and 2020. Other areas of the province are reporting similar increases over the past two years.
– With files by Steven Chua from The Squamish Chief