Sharing the Columbia and Western Trail with industry could lead to better quality for all

B.C. removed ‘recreational trail’ designation from Fife-Castlegar stretch mid-July

If you’ve ever ridden your bike in the city, you’ve likely nearly been sideswiped by a vehicle. Maybe the driver neglected to check their mirror, or give you sufficient space, or shoulder check, or, just maybe, you did something you weren’t supposed to. Regardless, as a cyclist you may have since developed a disdain for larger motor vehicles and their operators getting into your space. Or maybe that’s just me.

But of course, as a bike, I and you too are meant to abide by the laws of the road. Wheels should stop rolling at stop signs and red traffic lights. We still have to signal when we turn. We still have to yield to pedestrians. And out on the trails, the rules ought to be the same. We all still need to share the pathway.

I love cycling. I didn’t own a car until shortly before I moved here and decided that arriving to a community event in Midway sopping wet and sweaty wasn’t really how I wanted to make my first impressions. That said, my bike is still my preferred way to get around in town, and how I best enjoy exploring the local trails.

One of my favourite rides is from Christina Lake up the rail grade towards the Paulson Summit. It’s a slow climb with a very pleasant reward on the return leg. (Although, last time I got two flats – a reminder to always be prepared too, or else you’ll be stuck walking the last couple kilometres in bike shoes.) Now, parts of that section of the Columbia and Western Trail (CWT) are to become permit resource roads, which loggers can use to haul from nearby cut blocks, during non-peak seasons. While sharing the trail with major vehicles makes me a little nervous at first, I expect that these industrial users will have a clear financial interest in maintaining the rail grade as best they can (and as is expected of them by the province). If maintenance means fewer flats and less walking, I’m game.

The move to re-designate the 67-kilometre stretch of the Columbia and Western from “recreational trail” to a resource road, in my view, is the result of the province biting off more than it could chew. In a 2014 report from the Ministry of Forests, Lands & Natural Resource Operations, the province determined that “The Provincial Rail Trail Program […] has not been able to live up to expectations.” The trails’ remoteness, maintenance requirements and multitude of uses were deemed to have “overwhelmed provincial resources,” causing the ministry to conclude that “the Province and partners have been unable to develop and maintain the rail trails to a standard that is attractive to destination tourists.” Where trails were being used, it was by off-road vehicles and locals.

It turns out maintaining more than 700 kilometres of old rail line and all its culverts and trestles to an appropriate standard isn’t cheap or easy.

So we look to stewardship groups and volunteers instead. There’s great work that gets done on local bike trails by work parties of volunteers looking to invest sweat, tools and material into their future enjoyment. But replacing culverts to avoid landslides and grading high-use trails (like the CWT) takes a bit more than volunteer pep and dedication. With the CWT, it seems we’re at the point where sharing the way with industry partners willing to pay for major upgrades (we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars) may be the only way forward for the moment, with that stretch at least.

So far, any political will for an extensive corridor of trails through the province marketed under the Great Trail name (formerly the Trans-Canada Trail) has yet to be bolstered by sufficient finances to see through such a dream. As such, a shift to an accountable-use format for the Fife-Castlegar stretch of the CWT can be seen as a worthwhile experiment to see how user partnerships may offer a way forward for an enjoyable, accessible and maintained corridor that we can all benefit from – if we’re patient and share.


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