Groups gear up for fight over KVR

Petition calls for historic trail system to be opened to motorized users

  • Sep. 8, 2011 5:00 a.m.
A cyclist enjoys the view from the KVR Trail. Battle lines are being drawn over a proposal to allow the use of ATVs on the trail network.

A cyclist enjoys the view from the KVR Trail. Battle lines are being drawn over a proposal to allow the use of ATVs on the trail network.

The chasm between cyclists and motorized off-road vehicles over use of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail has been growing in recent months, and both sides of the divide are now looking to the provincial government to bridge the political gap.

A petition to open up the Kettle Valley Trail to motorized users is making the rounds on the Internet, garnering more than 1,500 signatures to date.

Summerland ATV president Phillip Young said the petition arose after motorized users of the trail noticed signs put up around May long weekend that stated motorized use of the KVR was no longer permitted. For off-roaders who have used the path since the rail route was decommissioned decades ago, the change came as a shock.

“We’ve been using it for 20 years for access to getting out to the bush, then all of a sudden they’ve decided to cut if off to all motorized use,” Young said, adding some members have spent time and funds on maintaining the trail.

“A lot of people who live at Osprey Lake, those were the ones who really got choked about it. Nobody came up there and asked them questions about it.”

The signs spurred conflicts between motorized users and non-motorized users like cyclists and hikers, which never used to happen before, he said.

“There were no incidences erupting around the use of these trails. But all of a sudden the government put signs up just to test the waters to see if people would abide by these signs. In a few short weeks, there were four or five instances where people decided to play policemen,” Young said, recounting how some conflicts heightened into a war of words and even spitting. “It’s just sad.”

Young said the ATV community understood the initial steps the Forests Ministry took to close off KVR access to motorized users for years, noting how reserving the segment between Osoyoos and Oliver for walkers and cyclists makes sense.

“I can understand that: It’s through a community, so you don’t want a bunch of people ripping up and down there on dirt bikes or quads because of the noise factor,” he said, adding that additional segments were designated non-motorized shortly after until ultimately deciding Faulder to Princeton would be restricted to off-road vehicles.

“Little by little by little they’ve been diminishing these trails. The people got to a certain point because they keep taking it, taking it, taking it away,” Young said. “All the people who are involved in it are looking at the government saying, ‘Why are you giving it to the walkers and peddle bikers? Why only them?’”

Marilyn Hansen from the Summerland Trans-Canada Trail Society, however, said her organization has received grants and donations from private donors on the promise the trail would be devoted to non-motorized uses, except in winter when snowmobiles are permitted.

“ATVing is nice for those who do it, but I don’t think motorized traffic has to be everywhere. … Why do we have to have everything motorized? It’s nice to be able to enjoy nature in quiet,” she said. “We’ve had many visitors from Europe who have felt cheated when they come here because they see ATVs.”

Ministry of Forests spokesperson Cheekwan Ho said senior governments and non-profits have invested more than $100,000 on the 20-kilometre section of the trail between Summerland and Osprey Lake since 2009 to combat erosion of the crush gravel tread surfaces.

That’s why the ministry legally designated the area as non-motorized in summer months (snowmobiles are permitted in the winter), to avoid having to resurface rail trails that can range between $10,000 to $20,000 per kilometre.

“This trail was always intended for hikers and bikers, and we understand this change is concerning to the ATV community,” Ho wrote in an email reply to questions.

Trails B.C. has been eyeing the KVR’s condition, though, because it hasn’t been seeing the growth in tourist visits posted by other rail trails in North America. At the turn of the century, between 3,000 to 4,000 people used to sign the guest book at the KVR Midway Museum each year as they embarked on the trail. Trails B.C. president Al Skucas said the path had become a draw for local, provincial and international visitors, particularly from European countries like Germany.

“Those numbers have been declining over the years, quite substantially,” he said. “Especially from a cycling perspective, the trail is starting to get degraded from ATV use here.”

In the last two years, work along the KVR has focused on segments between Summerland and Faulder. The section between Penticton and Chute Lake he said now includes more sandy sections that bog down bicycle tires.

“It’s getting really difficult to cycle a lot of those sections of the KVR here,” he said, adding some tour operators go so far as shuttling tourists from Chute Lake to the Bellevue trestle so their clients can avoid trail pitfalls. “We hear of people who have fallen down off their bikes.”

Word may have spread to other tourists, who don’t seem to be flocking to KVR like other areas. Skucas said the Cranbrook segment was resurfaced about eight years ago and restricts ATV use to ensure quality trail conditions. Tourist visits now average 40,000 cyclists per year.

“As far as I’m concerned, we have better scenery. It’s a much nicer ride,” he said. “I think there’s tremendous potential here and it’s basically being lost.”

Skucas acknowledges part of the dip in visits likely pertains to the Myra Canyon fire on Okanagan Mountain, which forced the temporary closure of the 12-kilometre route between Myra and Ruth trailheads. But visitor numbers haven’t recovered.

“There are other rail trails in North America where their use is exponentially up, where our numbers are going down,” he said. “It’s directly proportional, I think, to the amount of motorized users. People are going elsewhere to ride.”

Skucas recognized there are motorized user groups that use the backcountry responsibly when it’s select “yahoos” who damage the surroundings needlessly. “The responsible ATV groups realize they can get a bad rap,” he said.

Skucas said 95 per cent of rail trails in the United States do not permit motorized uses along the paths, and the province has been slow to regulate motorized off-road vehicles.

“In British Columbia, we’re probably the only jurisdiction in North America that doesn’t have licensing or regulation of ATVs, and we also haven’t had a trail strategy,” he said. “We always say it’s like the wild, wild west out here.”

Enforcement is next to impossible. Fines or charges cannot be considered, Skucas said, because there is no legislation surrounding motorized vehicle use on trails.

“We can put a sign up, but basically there can’t be any consequences here,” he explained.

That could change in the future. The provincial government has recognized the need to oversee the all-terrain vehicles, Skucas said, as they work toward implementing a system under ICBC to require each vehicle be licensed and plated for a one-time fee.

Licensing and registration would be a welcome change for Summerland ATV, Young said.

“They’ve been dragging their feet about this. They keep saying it will be in place next year, no next year. It’s been going on for quite a while. Now it’s getting to the point that the government is being pushed by the population to get this done,” he said.

“In essence, Step 1 is registration, then all these other things will fall into place.”

But enforcement plays just one part in the issue of trail degradation.

The Trans Canada Trail National is the Canada-wide organization that incorporated the KVR into its 22,000-kilometre system. While the organization is not involved in the operational aspect of local trails, it provides support in the form of funding for trail construction and maintenance of the network.

Communications director Julie Brouard said the organization’s board reaffirmed its vision in 2009, when they committed to developing “a greenway trail that promotes non-motorized uses in the summer months” along the Trans Canada Trail.

“We want the users to have the best trail experience that they can. We’re concerned that the shared use of motorized vehicles diminishes that user experience,” she said.

Brouard said other situations in the Maritimes have arisen where trail deterioration became “very noticeable” in areas used by motorized vehicles.

As a charity, the organization receives its funding — either through grants or donations — as a result of committing to self-propelled uses on the trail that promote green uses.

“That’s what we get funding from, is people who believe in that. For us to take those funds and build HOV trails would go against our brand identity,” she said. “It’s not a question that we’re going to pull the plug. … We’re not only there to help build the trail, but have a sustainable trail as well. “

Brouard, however, does not dismiss concerns from the motorized vehicle groups. Trans Canada Trail held a roundtable with ATV and other motorized users to drum up solutions on how to ensure access and protect the trails. Recommendations have come out, and a working group is reviewing suggestions for future.

“We realize there needs to be room for both. It’s just the shared use that concerns us. There are successful models out there of how different trail groups can work together. Sometimes it’s parallel trails, but we’re basically working to resolve these concerns. We’re not against ATVs, we realize there’s a use for those and a group of people who do use them and it can promote tourism. But basically we’re … trying to build the best trail possible for non-motorized users.”

But the province may be missing out on its opportunity to cash in on trail use. The Quad Riders and ATV Association of B.C. compared the economic benefits generated for Quebec from La Route Verte, a separate bicycle corridor, with that of the province’s motorized trail network. The analysis found La Route Verte generates $138 million in revenue — $38 million of which goes back to the provincial government — while motorized sports generates $915 million with the provincial government’s share as $324 million.

Terry Wardrop, Quad Riders and ATV Association of B.C.’s land and environment co-ordinator, said the Quebec government benefits significantly from annual licensing revenue, which is then put back into maintaining the trail system. B.C. could do the same.

“They could make millions. The beauty of it is the province of Quebec charges an annual user fee for motorized recreation, which they use to pay for, build and maintain more trails. It’s user maintained,” he said. “The sports are willing to actually pay their own way. I don’t like comparing or saying another sport is bad. But in actual fact the government seems to be quite willing to spend millions of dollars on one sector, but squeal like hell when we ask for some dollars.

“And the government doesn’t want to impose these user fees that we’ve recommended. It’s really weird actually.”

Using taxpayer funds on the Spirit of 2010 Trail, Wardrop feels, requires the government to treat all trail users fairly.

“We want equal say on what happens. If the government is going to spend a whole bunch of money improving the opportunities for cycling, then we would like an equal share. If they’re going to cut us off, then build a parallel route so we can maintain the access we’ve enjoyed for years.”

Ho said the Forests Ministry plans to work with motorized users to accommodate alternatives, but did not elaborate on what the timeline would be or projects being considered.

Whether those alternatives be parallel trails or user agreements, South Okanagan ATVers are hoping all people get out to enjoy Crown land peacefully.

“We don’t want to make more wars,” Young said. “We want everybody to go out there together.

“There’s enough land out there that everybody can’t get along. For them to be fighting over the KVR is just silly.”