Last Wednesday, Sept. 21, at the Jaffray Hall, I attended a public meeting sponsored by the newly formed South Country Back Country Users Association. The meeting was extremely well attended and my estimate was that they had close to 200 people in the building.
At the meeting the group provided information for the new motorized seasonal restrictions in the Big and Little Sand Watersheds, Iron and Lime creek, and they also established a Board of Directors for the group.
This meeting had the potential to be very volatile, but it was actually well handled and respectful, and a variety of opinions were listened to during their public open mic session.
My feeling was that the majority of attendees were there to gather information, which is a good thing. The speakers (though not all) were mostly against the new Iron and Sand Creek closures. One respondent suggested a court challenge to overturn the closures, because their biggest beef was that the whole consultation process in this province is flawed, and that South Country residents closest to the AMA’s (closed to all motorized access) were completely left out of the process, and they were blind-sided by these closures.
Residents were not satisfied that only two public meetings were held on the proposed access management changes for 2016 — one in Cranbrook and one in Sparwood in late September of 2015. They said they knew nothing about them, until after the fact. That is entirely possible given the way the current system is set up, and we need important changes to make certain things like this don’t happen again. That’s why I think it’s a very positive move for South Country residents to establish such an organization. They do very much deserve a voice in these matters.
Before I offer a bit of a different perspective on this issue, let me clear a couple of things up which surfaced at the meeting. Some seemed to think that the government’s rationale for changing the areas from Vehicle Access Hunting Closures to AMA’s was shrouded in secrecy. It most definitely was not, because after the September 2015 public meetings the government established a public web page for the sole purpose of presenting all proposed changes for the next two-year Hunting and Trapping synopsis including proposals and rationales, and to initiate comments from the general public. That website went into effect in November of last year and was up there for all to see at least until late May of this year, although comments had to be in by January 31. I, and many others made comments about these prospective proposals. So there was no smoke or mirrors here. One other note on this subject: Of the 13 initial proposals by the Ministry, four were pulled from the regional submission to Victoria because of the feedback that was provided from the meetings.
Secondly, the Ministry rationale for suggesting seasonal closures, including the conversion of the existing Iron and Sand Creek motorized Hunting closure, to a closed area that places some restrictions on all motorized vehicles in these areas, was clearly made in favour of habitat, NOT in favour of commercial interests (guide-outfitters) as some individuals had suggested. The wording, which I and anyone else could easily access already last year, was as follows: “This area is a migration corridor for elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer, and it provides good access to goat habitat. There is excellent summer/fall grizzly bear habitat on numerous slide paths, alpine meadow complexes and good quality winter range for elk and mule deer in slower snow years. Furthermore, there are numerous high quality slide paths in the Big Sand/Little Sand creek complex, which are highly visible from access roads. The initial restrictions met the objective of reducing impacts with motorized recreation access through motor vehicles for hunting closed areas (MVHCA); however, with the development of additional access over the last two decades, plus the proliferation of motorized non-hunting recreational access, most benefits from the original MVHCA have been lost.”
Hence their proposal to change the area into a single, seasonal access management area (AMA).
The outfitter’s wife in the area spoke at the meeting, and certainly she recognized that the optics of the situation could look suspect, but in actuality she explained their business (Grizzly Basin Outfitters) had nothing to do with the government decisions. I applaud her courage for speaking in what could have easily been a very hostile environment. It was a far cry from that, as I mentioned, BUT she didn’t know that going in, so one has to give her a lot of credit for even being there. I think most people who attended the meeting appreciated that fact. At least the ones I talked to after the meeting did.
I do agree that the public consultation process in this province is indeed seriously flawed, because just a few years ago there would have been no reason for meetings such as this to even occur. At one time we had a very current and up-to-date Southern Rockies Management Plan which covered the Elk Valley, Bull River and Flathead drainages, and the Cranbrook West plan which encompassed all the areas west as far as Yahk. I was actively involved with the Cranbrook West plan, and so were over 30 different user groups. If the Southern Rockies and Cranbrook West plan recreation tables were still in place the SCBCUA representative would have been welcomed to discuss the concerns at hand. The SRMMP and the Cranbrook West tables were unique to southeast B.C. and involved hundreds of hours of volunteer time and large amounts of taxpayer monies to pay for facilitators, building rentals, etc.
In the end, a landmark agreement was signed by the vast majority of participants, and to get there, many compromises had to be made by every single group at the table. However, now the public finally had a bonafide recreation plan which gave everyone an important voice on such things, as new backcountry tenures, road closures, and land use planning. Meetings were scheduled on a regular basis and subcommittees were set up to deal with all the sensitive and sometimes controversial issues. Members of the general public who were not involved in any clubs were welcomed and encouraged to attend any of the meetings.
Local Ministry people liked this process, because they could get input very easily from a wide variety of user groups almost instantly, to establish direction. The tables were a very effective venue to present Ministry management programs, such as access management, to a broad cross section of the public and a wide variety of user groups.
Then after a period of time the meetings became less and less frequent — and then there were none at all. Here’s what I think happened. It’s a classic case of “be careful what you ask for.” The government initiated the whole process to get public input, but at the end of the day it became somewhat of an an albatross for them, because it tied their hands in many ways. Yes, there were budgetary issues as well, but the will of the user groups and sensible common folk were now involved in helping to dictate policy. Heaven forbid! So, there was a political decision made in Victoria at that time, to effectively pull the rug out from underneath the Recreation tables, and effectively bury all the fine work, money invested, and time committed by people who know the backcountry far better than mid- and high-level bureaucrats ever could.
It was a terrible decision, which frankly caused a great deal of resentment from many of the people involved. More importantly, this decision, eliminated the only effective public engagement process available to residents of the East Kootenay, which allowed them to have input and receive information on resource management decisions that could affect recreational use on Crown Lands.
What I believe needs to happen, particularly in an election year in 2017, is that all user groups, need to push our MLA candidates to re-establish the Cranbrook West and East Recreation tables, so that all user groups have the voice they deserve, including the newest one in the East Kootenay, the South Country Back Country Users Association.
F.J. Hurtak is the author of the books “Elk Hunting in the Kootenays” and
Hunting the “Antlered Big game of the Kootenays” available at selected retailers
in B.C. and Southern Alberta.