A coalition of backcountry organizations from across British Columbia is preparing to push the province to commit another $60 million to fund BC Parks in its 2021 budget. Top of their list of priorities: opening up Pinecone Burke Provincial Park in Coquitlam.
The call comes as the B.C. government announced it had acquired 650 hectares of land earmarked to become 16 provincial parks and two protected areas across the province.
But the new tracts of land do little to relieve pressure on Lower Mainland provincial parks, which have seen overcrowding reach crisis levels during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You’d be crucified if you were to say more parkland isn’t a good thing. But one of the problems we have is getting a park management plan for the park systems we already have — and Pinecone Burke is a poster child for that statement,” said Barry Janyk, executive director of Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC.
Backcountry organizations like Janyk’s have been calling out the provincial government for years over a lack of funding to BC Parks, a system that manages 1,035 parks and protected areas across 14 million hectares — an area larger than the country of Greece — with an annual operating budget of $41.6 million.
Metro Vancouver, by comparison, managed its 23 regional parks and conservation areas with $46.8 million last year.
With people bursting at the seams to get outside, snaking lines of traffic into Joffre Lakes Provincial Park in the summer or Cypress Provincial Park in the winter is only one side of an overwhelmed system, said Janyk.
Many wilderness areas managed by the province require the construction and maintenance of cabins and shelters, trails, signage, as well as funding so staff can keep control of crowds, watch over the park and act as the first point of contact to ensure visitors’ safety.
“It’s causing a number of issues, not only for the public but also for the administration of parks, recreation sites and trails,” said Janyk. “You can’t continue to keep going like this. The system is going to break.”
FOCUS ON WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE
Established in 1995, Pinecone Burke’s 38,000 hectares of trail, lakeshore, forest and alpine terrain have never had a park management plan, despite encompassing an area equivalent to 94 Stanley Parks.
That’s put pressure on the wilderness area as mountain bikers, hikers and snowmobilers blaze unsanctioned paths. At the same time, the past 25 years have led to a growing number of outdoor enthusiasts stretching many parks across the Lower Mainland to their limits.
“We still don't have a park management plan. That's mind-boggling,” said Louise Pedersen, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C. “Rather than going out and buying new areas ... for the time being, let's look at what we already have.”
Such a plan would essentially zone Pinecone Burke so mountain bikers don’t end up on the same trail as a snowmobile. It would also maintain those trails to make sure they are safe and don’t negatively impact the surrounding environment. At the most basic level, it would provide park-goers with a physical entry point, as well as key infrastructure like parking and bathrooms to support visitors.
Pedersen said she has received a number of calls in recent days from Coquitlam residents concerned people are parking along residential streets looking for a place to access the park.
“It’s just a mess. There's just no designated parking for accessing the main trailhead,” she said.
In what Pedersen describes as a “missed opportunity,” she said she hopes a push to boost funding to BC Parks will put a renewed focus on Pinecone Burke. An open Pinecone Burke could help relieve crowds now heading to places like Golden Ears Provincial Park in Maple Ridge, Minnekhada Regional Park in Coquitlam and even the provincial parks on the North Shore.
The management plan would also coordinate with other levels of government, and could help solve ongoing problems at popular destinations like Crystal Falls in Coquitlam, where the city is in the midst of working out a solution to manage surging crowds.
“We've got all these people around Metro Vancouver, you know, they're looking for places to get outside. At the moment, there's just no coordination in terms of how access is created and maintained,” said Pedersen.
A NEW PARK BRINGS NEW RISKS
Opening up a massive tract of wilderness is not without risk.
While Pinecone Burke Provincial Park is close to residential areas, you can also put your backpack on and march across the Coastal Range all the way to Mount Garibaldi near Squamish.
“Once it’s open, there’s going to be a lot of people going up there as a relief,” said Janyk. “People getting into trouble is really caused by people who go outside but really don’t understand what they’re getting their ass into.”
Coquitlam Search and Rescue has been pushing deeper into the surrounding mountains during the last few years, training for an uptick in inexperienced backcountry enthusiasts.
In the wake of rescuing 17 stranded campers from the secluded shores of Pinecone Burke's Widgeon Lake, Coquitlam Search and Rescue president Tom Zajac warned any opening up of the park would lead to “a huge increase in people and associated rescues.”
Zajac said the rescue organization is working with BC Parks and Metro Vancouver park officials to pre-plan helicopter landing spots and work out the best ways to respond to calls to far-flung corners of the park, and a ministry spokesperson told the Tri-City News in August the management plan will continue to be under external public engagement until at least 2021.
Moves to address a lack of quality parks also appears to be coming from higher up in government: on Nov. 26, 2020, letters from the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy and the parliamentary secretary for environment committed to "guide work to create new campgrounds, trails and protected areas" and "propose new funding to improve infrastructure" due to the heightened importance of outdoor recreation during the pandemic.
RAMP UP EDUCATION
Groups like the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C. and the Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C. are looking for ways to ramp up backcountry safety training for both a new generation of outdoor enthusiast and visitors unfamiliar with the local terrain.
Janyk points to an incident in 2017 when five hikers were sent hurtling to their death after a cornice — an overhanging feature of snow often found on mountain ridges — collapsed on Mount Harvey near the community of Lions Bay.
The group, said Janyk, had been part of the Vancouver Korean Hiking Club — Janyk reached out to them shortly after the incident to offer support and training, but the roughly 500-person club never responded.
"This is the kind of thing that we would like to do, but it has to be reciprocated," he said.
More and more people appear to be hungry for information: in recent years, the Federation of Mountain Clubs of B.C. has added clubs for Indigenous women and the LGBTQ community, and last year, two virtual avalanche safety courses put on by Janyk’s organization drew 1,600 people.
And with the pandemic, Janyk has added basic information to their training, like how to act when you meet someone on the trail.
“People are trying to escape the scourge of COVID,” said Janyk. “Do you jump into the bushes? No, maintain that one or two metres. Don’t carpool.”
A NEW GENERATION
Whereas in the past, niche groups explored the backcountry, learning from experienced friends, family and the odd outdoor club, today technology has made the wilderness seem so tangibly close.
“A lot of people now, with social media, it just seems so easy,” said Pedersen, pointing to the recent tragedy of an Instagram influencer from Toronto who ventured into the backcountry near Cypress Mountain to go snowshoeing by herself and was later found dead.
“It may not be very far, but it’s a wilderness area. Twenty minutes away — it could be Vancouver, it could be Coquitlam — you're in the middle of nowhere, you're on your own, your cellphone may not work.”
Pedersen said part of that solution should come from staffing the region's most visited parks with rangers, who can help pass on some of those important safety messages.
At the same time, Pedersen said many people don't have access to the extended training provided by backcountry groups, and she is looking for new ways to reach the thousands, maybe millions of people who go out to seek a wilderness experience. But first, she added, you need a place to explore.
“You’ve got Pinecone Burke, this beautiful park that's just kind of sitting on the doorstep of this huge population,” Pedersen said.
“It's the only one. It's just waiting.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated the Federation of B.C. Mountain Clubs helped train members of the Vancouver Korean Hiking Club following a deadly accident in 2017. The hiking club, in fact, did not respond to the umbrella mountain club's offer of help.