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Loved to death: the unpopular prospect of closing backcountry roads to save wildlife

Abandoned forest service roads provide great access to the outdoors but they leave species like caribou and grizzlies vulnerable. And efforts to get rid of them cause community uproar

The road is like a proving ground for the side-by-side quad we’ve borrowed for the day: slippery mud, jutting rocks, steep inclines and rocky traverses stand between the valley floor and the alpine vistas of Silvercup Ridge. But people have been using this road for generations — surely the latest in backcountry technology can at least afford us a view from the top. 

Less than an hour after leaving the parking lot, the Rady Creek road delivers us 1,500 metres above Trout Lake, a long, narrow body of water two hours north of Nelson, B.C.

“That’s the fastest access from valley bottom to the alpine I’ve ever had,” exclaims Judson Wright, a seasoned backcountry guide who is showing me around. 

But the road may not be providing that elevator to the top for long. For several years, the Rady Creek Forest Service Road has been on notice for deactivation, one of several in the area that may soon be gated, dug up or otherwise made inaccessible by government decree. 

A quad sits on a remote road with mountains in the background
The Rady Creek Forest Service Road is slated for decommission by the province, in part, to support wildlife recovery.

Forestry and mining, together, make up around $2.4 billion in direct revenue for the provincial government, plus at least 20,000 jobs — and accessing those resources demands roads. But when the companies move on, the roads take on a new life as access points for recreation. That access comes at a cost, both in maintenance and environmental harm.

At the heart of the decision to close roads like Rady Creek is the effect on species like caribou and grizzly bears — species that need huge swaths of unbroken land to thrive. The more roads, the more people, the more disturbance, the less chance those species have of surviving.

But the thought of losing access to the ridge has set the whole community on edge. 

Jeanine Ross grew up here, and her father helped build the Rady Creek road. His ashes are scattered on top of the ridge. She doesn’t understand why the government is trying to take it away.

“We’re not asking for a lot,” she says. “We’re just asking for a few roads.”

Ross was on a snowmobile for the first time when she was three years old, and in the summertime, there are two quads parked in the driveway of her house. When she heard the government was planning to close the road, she wrote an open letter to then-forestry minister Katrine Conroy, pleading with the minister to cancel the order to remove the road. Later, a petition appeared online and gathered nearly 10,000 signatures.

So far, the government hasn’t changed its mind. 

Jeanine Ross grew up using the Rady Creek Forest Service Road, a road her dad helped build. She’s frustrated about the plans to close it.

The Rady Creek road was built in the early 20th century by local miners to access gold and silver at the top of the ridge. A so-called Government Actions Regulation order protecting caribou means there will no longer be any harvesting in the area — so there’s no need for a road. 

“The caribou have been used for a lot of things, and mainly, in my opinion, they seem to use them any time they want to shut down a controversial recreational activity,” says Steve Shannon, a professional outdoor photographer who started the petition. “Caribou seem to be an extremely convenient excuse.”

But to Shannon, as well as Ross and thousands of people like them, the value of the road isn’t the access it provides to resources. The road itself is a resource. Taking it away doesn’t sit right when, the way Ross sees it, the species being protected have enough space as it is.

“There’s thousands and thousands of hectares of land for grizzly bears and caribou,” Ross said. “They can be all by themselves out in the middle of nowhere and nobody will reach them.” 

For much of the southern part of the province, that’s often not the case. Roads have sliced up the landscape, cutting like lightning bolts through the terrain. And wherever roads go, people go — people who don’t want to give up access to places they treasure without a fight.

Along Silvercup Ridge, we encounter Steve Jaksitz, an electrician based nearby in Kaslo. He’s sprawled out on the alpine scrub, taking in the stunning view with a friend over a picnic lunch. He knows the road he drove up here may disappear, and the thought of it fills him with resentment.

“This gives me purpose; it feeds my soul,” he says, looking out across the alpine valley spread out below him. “I don’t want that to be taken away from me.”

How roads directly and indirectly harm wildlife 

Roads physically separate habitat, cutting it into smaller fragments with less value to species that need unbroken space. Roads provide ready access for predators, wicking them through the landscape at several times the speed they would otherwise be able to travel. Likewise for humans, and the noisy, polluting and disruptive activities we participate in, not to mention the hazard of the vehicles themselves. Roads scare animals away from food sources that may be nearby, like a huckleberry patch or a stream. Roads are also a major source of runoff, adding silt to waterways where fish feed and spawn. Roads on steep slopes can let go and contribute to landslides. They even help invasive species colonize more areas more quickly. 

Perhaps most important of all, though, for bears in particular but also for many hunted species, is that they are a convenient way for hunters to access their targets. 

“We know that most bears are killed within 500 metres of a road,” explains Michael Proctor, a grizzly biologist who has spent his career working in B.C.’s Kootenay region.

But, despite the problems, (some more intuitive than others) resource roads weren’t thought about much in the ecology world until 1996. That’s when a seminal paper was published, identifying for the first time how exactly roads harm grizzly bears — and how little road is required to make a difference. 

“That’s the watershed paper that I think changed everybody’s minds,” Proctor says. 

The study, conducted in Montana, found that open roads that see even a little traffic (more than 10 vehicles per day) could determine whether grizzlies are found there or not. They even worked out that a density of 600 metres of road per square kilometre acts as a threshold for bears visiting or avoiding the area, even if it has valuable resources like berries. 

The same has held true, with different specific numbers, for elk, caribou, mountain lions, lynx, moose, wolves and more. 

It stands to reason, then, that a key strategy for recovering populations of species like grizzly bears has been to close roads.

But knowing about the problem and doing something are two different things. Even that 1996 study noted how unpopular closures were. Since then, it’s only gotten worse. 

Working as a caribou biologist for the provincial government, Aaron Reid has stood in front of a lot of angry crowds in his life — quadders, snowmobilers, hunters — who depend on resource roads to do something they love and in some cases rely on. Something they’re not willing to walk away from.

“Any road deactivation or road restoration in general that I’ve ever had experience with, there’s nothing but opposition,” he said. “Every single group: huckleberry pickers, mushroom pickers, you can just go on and on and on and on.”

Caribou Denali National Park and Preserve
Decommissioning roads is good for wildlife like caribou, but for communities who regularly use the roads it’s hard to accept. Photo: Denali National Park and Preserve / Flickr

Every scientist who spoke to The Narwhal for this story echoed the same sentiment: removing or closing roads is the right thing to do for wildlife, and at the same time, it’s a very difficult step for human users to accept. 

“A lot of people really use the backcountry,” Proctor says. “We love that backcountry, so in a way you might say we’re loving it to death.” 

Government liability motivates road closures 

Road density is not the whole explanation for why roads like Rady Creek and another popular local access spot, Healy Creek Road, are facing removal by the province. 

It’s true closing the roads would likely benefit caribou and grizzly bears. But Reid says he didn’t ask for those roads to be closed in the name of caribou; the decision had already been made by the time it got to him.

“The caribou program didn’t identify that road,” Reid says. It wasn’t a decision driven primarily by ecological concerns; the province closes roads that are no longer being used for industry based on one reason above all others: liability.

A government spokesperson confirmed the primary reason the Rady Creek and Healy Creek roads are being shut down is public safety. B.C.’s network of backcountry roads just keeps growing and, with it, the risk that users will be injured or killed. The liability for that may ultimately fall to the government.

A bridge with a yellow sign that says bridge closed
Though the sign says “bridge closed,” this is a commonly used access point to the Healy Creek Forest Service Road.

The way forest service road construction works in B.C. is that logging companies receive permits from the government to build the roads needed to access their leases, and are responsible for the upkeep of those roads to provincial standards. When the logging is finished, and when no industrial user is responsible for maintenance, they revert to the province’s care. But the province is falling behind on its part of the process.

Part of this problem comes down to maintenance. A 2020 auditor general report found districts received just a quarter of what they’d requested for maintenance work for forestry roads, with nearly $9 million worth of high priority work going unfunded. Inspections were way behind. Records were a mess.

A Resource Roads Act, which was announced by the previous B.C. Liberal government fizzled and has since been abandoned by the NDP. The act would have regulated the construction, maintenance and decommissioning of the roads, all under a single umbrella. Currently, multiple government branches handle different aspects of roads and there’s little incentive for the industries that build them to remove them when they’re finished.

‘Stuck with band-aid solutions’

Wright and I had been warned: the nearby Healy Creek Forest Service Road is only passable by dirt bike, or maybe by expertly piloted quad. At my insistence, we’d attempted the climb anyway, and here we were, stuck halfway along the steadily degrading road, with one tire of our somewhat wider off-road vehicle hanging way too far for comfort over the side of a slope that ended 150 feet downhill in the eponymous creek. 

Trying to move the machine forward or backwards would send it tumbling down the hill. Wright, behind the wheel, could be seriously injured or even killed. It’s happened before. Between 2010 and 2018 there were 70 deaths on logging roads, and according to the coroners service, 107 deaths on all-terrain vehicles in total. Those deaths and injuries can come back to haunt the provincial government, which recently faced a lawsuit for the injury of a driver whose pickup truck was hit by a tractor-trailer on a forest service road north of Kamloops.

The road along Healy Creek has been the subject of a drawn-out back-and-forth between the forestry industry and the government, centred around questions of liability and environmental harm. A 2012 audit of the road by the Forest Practices Board found “some of the highest levels of noncompliance it has ever encountered,” which the board found could endanger local trout and salmon, as well as the stability of the road itself. The forestry company that owned the road at the time, Meadow Creek Cedar, refused to decommission it — the company argued to the auditors that because the government had ordered it to stop logging in the area, the government should take charge of the road. 

The company went out of business shortly thereafter. The road was never fixed.  

Shannon told us going up the Healy Creek road in our vehicle was a foolish endeavour, but even if he hadn’t, the condition of the road was a dead giveaway. The bridges over the creek seemed to be dissolving into it, with yawning holes in their decks and rotting, often missing, rails lining them. The brush encroached on the trail like a parted sea that was slowly, inexorably, crashing back together. Forgotten offshoots of the road disappeared to the left and right. 

The Healy Creek Road is now on the chopping block for closure, but the equipment needed to deactivate it won’t be able to cross its crumbling bridges. So the province will first have to rebuild the bridges in order to remove them.

A backcountry guide stands beside a quad and looks at the poor condition of a forest service road
Judson Wright, a seasoned backcountry guide, saw first-hand the poor condition of the road. To decommission it, the province will have to rebuild bridges in order to safely remove them.

If the province removes this road, it will be a small contribution to reducing the overall size of the legacy resource road network in the province. But it will come at a moment when resource companies in the province are adding around 10,000 kilometres of new roads to more than 620,000 existing kilometres every year (meaning that every four years, B.C. is building enough roads to ring the planet). 

“We’re creating disturbance at a rate that far exceeds anything that we could ever restore,” Reid says. 

Instead of addressing the ongoing, worsening impact, he says, “We’re stuck with band-aid solutions left, right and centre.” 

Can closing roads make a difference? 

Closing roads to some kinds of traffic — even just closing them for part of the day — has shown to be an effective way to limit the harm they do. In the spring of 2014, Parks Canada began closing part of the Bow Valley Parkway from 10 p.m. until 8 a.m. It doubled the number of wildlife sightings on remote cameras installed along the road.

There are also more ambitious approaches. It’s possible to restore roads to a more natural state by digging them up, returning their original contours and replanting trees. It’s expensive, time-consuming and incapable of truly returning the landscape to the way it was, but it’s frequently pitched as an answer to the damage that’s still being wrought. 

Even Corey Bird, who has overseen a road restoration project in Splatsin First Nation territory, seems torn about whether restoration is truly making a difference.

“Everyone wants to feel like it’s the answer. We won’t know for decades if there’s been a benefit,” he says.” I think I’m largely discouraged because I feel like we’re being given some bait. There’s dollars, there’s lots of opportunity to go restore these areas. But at least in the areas I’m working, they’re still being impacted by forestry.”

If there is a plan to mitigate the damage wrought by the expanding road system, it’s restoration, not reduction in new building. But there is no automatic trigger that requires a company to restore a road when the logging is finished; in the four years between 2016 and the 2020 audit, less than 650 kilometres was deactivated, let alone restored, according to the auditor general report.  

B.C. is adding around 10,000 kilometres of new resource roads each year. Many will eventually be abandoned and there’s and there’s little incentive for the industries that build them to remove them when they’re finished.

Gates may be put up, but vehicles can get around them. Some roads, like Rady and Healy, have signs that say these roads will eventually be closed, while little is done to stop people using them. 

Meanwhile, on average across the province, every hour of every year, another kilometre of road is bulldozed into the landscape for new resource development projects.

Stranded in Healy Creek as we wait for a pair of Trout Lake locals to return with gear to pull us out of our mess, I wander down to the creek below. It’s shady and cool in contrast to the hot, dusty road that winds through the old logging cutblock above.

The water runs over smooth gravel and cobblestones — I spend far too long cracking open rocks for a sign of the gold that first brought settlers to Trout Lake and up into mountains — and then through a tangle of toppled trees, including big cedar trunks that brought a second wave of industry here. A few sets of unfamiliar animal tracks, one seeming to belong to an adult and one or two others belonging to their young, cross a drying muddy section of the riverbed. 

And then, our rescuers return. The sound of rushing water is not quite loud enough to drown out the motors.

The fieldwork for this story was supported by a grant from the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. As per The Narwhal’s editorial independence policy, no foundation or outside organization has editorial input into our stories.

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Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

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