BC Wildlife Federation calls for return to backcountry closures in fire areas

Backcountry 'free for all'

The B.C. Wildlife Federation says backcountry closures in the wake of last year's wildfires have turned into a "free for all" in the Thompson-Okanagan.

The federation is calling for a "science-based return to restricted backcountry access to fire-damaged forests," claiming Ministry of Forests road closures have "devolved into chaos."

"We were in complete agreement with the government about the need to restrict access to fire-damaged areas of the Thompson-Okanagan to prevent erosion, limit the spread of invasive weeds, and prevent environmental damage by off-road vehicles, and to allow natural regeneration," says BCWF executive director Jesse Zeman.

"The Thompson-Okanagan already has road densities that are three to four times higher than the science-based threshold that negatively impacts wildlife; the wildfires only made that worse. There is a need to reduce our impact in critical areas to allow our streams and forests to regenerate."

The region was hit hard by wildfires in 2021, with fires raging from north of Kamloops all the way to the U.S. border. The largest was the White Rock Lake wildfire, which burned more than 80,000 hectares and destroyed dozens of homes in Monte Creek and on the west side of Okanagan Lake.

There were 459 fires in the Kamloops Fire Centre region, which encompasses the Okanagan, They burned a total of 497,497 hectares.

With fires burning across the province, a provincial state of emergency was declared on July 21 that would last until Sept. 14.

This spring, reports from Monte Lake and Westside Road said trespassers have been entering the burned areas to forage for mushrooms – often on private property.

The Okanagan Indian Band and others have asked non-residents to stay out.

Some incidents have turned into confrontations as fences burned in the fires are no longer there to mark boundaries.

Locals are also concerned inexperienced foragers will trample tender new growth surfacing after the fires.

The wildlife federation says some access exemptions were granted by the province for salvage logging and people with cabins in fire-damaged areas, "but this spring the government issued permits for scouting by wild mushroom buyers. A lack of funding for natural resource officers has resulted in poor signage and very little enforcement."

Mushroom picking is unregulated, and things "really went sideways," says Zeman, after mushroom buyers photocopied permits and handed them out to pickers.

"So, it has essentially turned into a free for all.... It now appears any commercial operators including guides, ATV tour operators and anyone with a commercial interest is exempt from the closures, while the public is locked out."

Recreational users have also been reported driving motorized vehicles on closed roads, and off-road vehicles are reportedly being used off trails.

The BCWF supports a return to principled, science-based access to post-wildfire forests, in which critical areas are off-limits to all motorized access.

"If you want to walk, bike or go in on horseback, and you do it responsibly, that should be no problem," Zeman said.

The BCWF is calling for a return to access restrictions in fire-damaged forests and a moratorium on commercial activity in those areas.

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