By Steve Hubrecht
As spring gives way to summer in the Columbia Valley, and thought turns more fully to outdoor recreation of the non-snow based (and socially distant) variety, turf wars are erupting over trails, mountain bike trails in particular. The latest tussle centres on the CastleRock trails, and follows hot on the heels of the still-ongoing kerfuffle over the Dry Gulch area mountain bike trails that began a month or so ago. Both of these echo the furor over the proposed Barbour Rock multi-use trails that, following months of debate through 2016 and 2017, were never built.
The CastleRock mountain bike trails leapt to attention recently thanks to an online petition generating plenty of buzz on social media, and was even the subject of discussion by Invermere council at its most recent committee of the whole meeting.
The petition, on change.org, was started by Panorama resident Owen Peters in support of his friend Simon Kessler. Kessler, an Invermere resident, and friends have been doing trail work, on and off, on pre-existing mountain bike trails (commonly called the CastleRock trails) running through Lot 4616 since 2006 including for the past four or five years in a row. As Kessler explained in a letter to Invermere council, and by phone to the Pioneer, he was recently approached by a natural resource officer (acting on a complaint), informed that building recreation trails on Crown land (which Lot 4616 is) without official permission is illegal, issued a trespass notice, told he can no longer build there and informed that he has one month to ‘reclaim’ the sections of the trail he has worked on (i.e. return them to their natural state) or face a fine.
The petition, which Peters has taken to local mountain biking trailheads, has garnered 1,700 signatures so far and seeks to have the CastleRock trails — which are currently unofficial “off-the-map” trails — legitimized. The petition outlines that designated official mountain bike and multi-use trails at Mount Swansea and at Lake Lillian (including the Johnson Trail) also began as unofficial trails that were then legitimized. In Kessler’s letter to council he asks if there is any way council can help in the situation.
“There was already a trail there, where I’ve been working, long before I started working on it. People have been riding their bikes there a long time,” Kessler told the Pioneer. “But because it was old, it was kind of sketchy. Some parts were dangerous. My main purpose with the (trail) was to make it safe, a bit more family friendly, mostly because there seem to be quite a lot of kids that like to play around and ride their bikes there.”
Kessler added that he’s been a professional mountain bike trail builder for more than a decade and has worked on almost all the valley’s official trail networks, including Swansea and Lake Lillian.
“To make a trail safe, you need to apply standards. So don’t, for instance, put a black (advanced level) jump on a blue (intermediate) trail. And you need to put in berms to slow bikers down instead of having a steep, sketchy hill. That’s what the CastleRock trail had,” he said. “It’s a popular place because there is really nowhere else with small jumps and berms that is close to town (Invermere). Swansea has some of that, but for those trails you need to be able to drive there, you need specialized bikes, and you often need to organize a shuttle. A lot of kids don’t have all that.”
The Pioneer sought comment from groups that in the past have expressed opposition to building new mountain bike trails or legalizing existing unofficial ones, but was unable to get comment prior to the print deadline. In the past, such as with the proposed Barbour Rock trails, trail opponents have cited concerns about environmental impacts such as erosion, disruption to wildlife, intrusion or alteration of other existing uses of Crown land, recreational sprawl, and fragmenting of wildlife connectivity as reasons for their opposition.
Several local residents have, on the petition, outlined their reasons for signing it.
“We need all the mountain bike trails we can get in the Invermere area. We are sadly lacking compared to pretty (much) every other mountain (town) that’s not in a park,” wrote Richard Unger.
“These are low environmental impact trails in an already semi-urbanized area, and they provide access to a healthy lifestyle that more people should be enjoying, not chasing away. The skidder trails that are grown over in there from the clearing of trees in CastleRock were not an issue, so how can this sensibly be an issue now?” wrote Lyle Prescott.
During discussion on the topic during the May 24 committee of the whole meeting, Invermere councillor Gerry Taft pointed out that Lot 4616 is not just an ordinary slice of Crown land. “Invermere has tried before to secure it as a park,” he said. “The approach being taken so far seems to be similar to that of if you built a house in the backcountry on Crown land. But clearly this area is very important … it should not be painted with the same brush as all Crown land.”
Taft noted that after the Lake Lillian trails were legalized, the number of the mountain bikers using them increased to the point that, in his opinion, “it is now over capacity.” He suggested that district staff reach out to the relevant natural resource officers, forestry officials and recreation officials, and ask them to hold off on any action one way or the other until more information about the situation can be obtained.
Councillor Greg Anderson chimed in, pointing out that since it’s Crown land, it doesn’t matter what council has to say about it, since ultimately provincial officials can make a decision on the land without input from Invermere.
Taft responded that it’s still a good idea for Invermere to at least have a say, in part because Lot 4616 does sit within the district boundaries and in part because of the special nature of the area. District staff agreed to follow up with provincial officials.
Photo by Pat Morrow of berms on a mountain bike trail