ATVs and the Alpine

🕔Jul 28, 2006

With hundreds of kilometers of old mining roads snaking up the mountains, Jim Easterday of Smithers says the Bulkley Valley is the perfect area to drive his Jeep in the backcountry. In low gear, the chunky tires of his four-wheel drive can quickly gain 1,000 metres in elevation, saving a whole morning of back-breaking climbing.

He, like many outdoor enthusiasts, loves spending time high above treeline in the pristine alpine meadows. But even with the added horsepower, Easterday is finding this pursuit ever more challenging.

But it’s not the getting there; it’s what happens when the hard-pack road peters out and the soft, loamy ground of the alpine meadows begins.

At this point Easterday puts his Jeep in park, shoulders his pack and strides out across the mosses and heather. However, he can’t say the same for all motorized backcountry enthusiasts. In the last five years, Easterday says he’s encountered more and more swaths of deep, rutted tire tracks in the mountains.

The Seven Sisters Provincial Park near Terrace has some of the worst examples of all-terrain vehicle (ATV) damage, but other degraded places include the Microwave Range and Sinclair Mountain near Telkwa, Morice Mountain near Houston, and Toboggan Creek near Smithers.

When ATVs spin their heavily lugged tires in soft ground, the tracks made in delicate sub-alpine ecosystems last 30 years. In the meadows of the high alpine, ATV tracks can last more than 100 years. “They are virtually permanent,” says Easterday.

To make matters worse, if enough heavy vehicles have punched through the fragile habitat, the ruts are so deep the next rider may worry about getting bogged down. To avoid this, ATVers often veer off existing tracks and make fresh lines through the alpine. Over time the entire area can become covered in tracks.

Easterday got so concerned about the damage being created by motorized vehicles that he started the Outdoor Recreation Alliance. The group is led by eight directors who love the backcountry, but who use a variety of non-motorized and motorized methods to access it in both summer and winter.

Easterday thinks education is the key to protecting the alpine. “All people go to the alpine because it is such a beautiful place. But if they destroy it for those who use it after, that’s not sustainable,” he says.

At present there are few regulations prohibiting motorized vehicles from the back- country. The Bulkley-Stikine Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP), signed off in 1998, states that motorized users should stay on existing hard-pack trails, but the policy relies on voluntary compliance.

Adrian de Groot is chair of the Community Resources Board, a body tasked with monitoring the implementation of the LRMP. He says finalizing a Recreation Access Management Plan (RAMP), which would divvy up motorized and non-motorized areas for both summer and winter use, is a priority.

Work began on the RAMP before the LRMP was signed, but the document was never finalized. The conflict between user-groups has been so severe, especially over winter use, that many areas were not resolved.
There is no one-stop shop for anyone new coming to the valley to find out where they are allowed to go with an ATV, nor is there any clear legislative way to enforce these access restrictions.

Fred Oliemans of the Integrated Land Management Bureau is working to change that. He and others are preparing a document listing all recreation areas in the Bulkley Valley, along with what is allowed and not allowed in each area.

He says some areas like the Harold Price Meadows, which were unresolved in the RAMP process, were agreed to in later multi-stakeholder processes. The Telkwa Caribou recovery area is another sensitive region where an agreement was reached outside of the RAMP. This area is restricted for motorized and non-motorized users alike during certain periods in the winter and summer due to caribou activity.

The prairie above the ski hill on Hudson Bay Mountain is deemed non-motorized, but is often used by snowmobilers in the winter. Oliemans hopes the document “Recreation Access: Trails and Areas in the Bulkley Timber Supply Area,” which will be available by the end of summer 2006, will help reduce the unauthorized use in some areas.

BV Quadriders is a Smithers-based club that started last year. They, too, hope to reduce the use of unauthorized areas. Keith Dippel says their goals are to promote safe and environmentally-conscious riding. With 50 or so members, he says they represent just a drop in the bucket of all the quad riders in the area.

He sees hundreds of quads on the back of trucks and gives out his card whenever he can, asking people to join their club or come on a group ride.

The club is aware of certain areas riders are not allowed into, and they abide by all signs. Dippel is well aware of the ATVers reputation. “It only takes one bad apple to make everyone look bad,” he says.

He says club members would love to see an off-highway vehicle park with places for mud bogs and other rodeo-type sports, but they haven’t pursued the topic much.

The issues around ATV use in sensitive ecosystems are not limited to the Bulkley Valley, or the Northwest. Nor is it limited to alpine areas.

On Haida Gwaii, some people find it odd that motorized vehicles are allowed to roar up and down North and East Beach in Naikoon Provincial Park. But Hugh Markides, Smithers-based regional manager of environmental stewardship for BC Parks, explains.

Generally, motorized vehicles are not allowed to operate off-road in parks or protected areas in British Columbia, he says. But after 10 years of work to create the Naikoon Park Management Plan, signed off in 1999, parks staff came away with a clear picture of what recreational users on the islands expected.

Markides remembers a meeting when 300 ATVers arrived to stake their claim. He also remembers antics on the other side, when then MP Jim Fulton, slapped a fish down on the Prime Minister’s desk during question period, demanding to know why the government was going to allow vehicles to cross the Tlell River, a valuable coho and steelhead breeding ground.

In the end, the interest groups agreed on certain points. ATVs are allowed on the beach, but not in the dunes or the bogs in the park. An area was designated as road access around the base of Rose Spit, and Haida Fisheries erected markers over sensitive clam and shellfish beds.

Still a gate over the fiord on the Tlell River, along with a sign posted with appropriate times of year to make the crossing, disappeared without a trace one year. And last year, Parks staff discovered a group of men cutting a trail through the forested parkland to get quick access to the beach. While driving on the beach is not illegal, cutting trees on Crown land is.

Easterday says ATVers cutting through Crown timberland is becoming more common in mountain areas, too. Now that logging operations have moved out of the valley bottoms and up the steep slopes, sometimes there is only a kilometer or two of forest before the wide-open alpine is reached. Once an illegal trail is opened up, others use it, unaware that it is unauthorized.

Even with all the concerns in the Northwest, Easterday admits a lot of places in North America are far worse off because there is nowhere for ATVs to go. “In Ontario [ATVers] are breaking the back fences and ripping up back parts of farms. Farmers are out with shot-guns,” he says.

Easterday remains optimistic that by raising awareness of the impact ATVs have in sensitive ecosystems, backcountry enthusiasts will become more responsible.

“We are fortunate that we have thousands of kilometres of Forest Service Roads, and hundreds of kilometres of mining roads,” he says. “And we are very fortunate to have pristine alpine areas … it is just a matter of not wanting them to get trashed.”

Trails for Quad Riders
Telkwa to Terrace: Ride over the Telkwa Pass to Top Lake and down to Terrace. Designated motorized-use in the Bulkley LRMP.

Bell Lake: The BV Quadriders held a group ride in this area near Hazelton on the Kitwanga Back Road and then off-road on a trail to the lake.

Dome Mountain Trail: The trail is non-designated for summer recreation (no decisions yet made on the area), but is a winter motorized-use area. The BV Quadriders held their annual Poker Run there, staying on the hard-pack road.

Future: BV Quadriders are trying to get approval for a trail near Chapman Lake. The route would be 65 to 75 km long, winding up to the Nilkitwa area and back to Granisle on Babine Lake.

For more information:
Check for more information about the club and group rides.
See the Outdoor Recreation Alliance concerns at
A Forest Practices Board Special Report on access management issues highlights some of the concerns in the Bulkley Valley. Check to read about the problem across BC.