What rights do the public have to access private and crown lands? What rights do the public have to use publicly funded roads to access crown lands?
The Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC has had long-standing concerns about the public’s ability to access land for backcountry recreation. In February 2017, Andrew Weaver, leader of the Green Party of BC, introduced a bill in the BC Legislature: Bill M 223 – 2017 - Right to Roam Act. This bill sought to ensure the right of citizens “to access public lands, rivers streams and lakes and to use these spaces to hunt, fish and enjoy outdoor recreation in accordance with the law.”
Although extinguished when the May 2017 election was called, the proposed legislation fit with the long-held concerns of the Federation. Public access to public lands has steadily eroded under agreements endorsed by the previous provincial government according to the Federation’s research. Some government agreements allow private parties to restrict the public from accessing Crown lands. The Federation’s members have also noticed increasing numbers of gates across publicly funded resource access roads. These curtail the public’s rights to provincial Crown lands—including provincial parks. The Federation believes that it would be valuable for everyone to understand the public rights and provincial obligations as they relate to access to, and over, public and private lands.
Therefore, as an apolitical body, the Federation will collaborate with all political parties in BC to address this. As almost 95%—or ~880,000 square kilometers—of the province of BC is designated Crown land. It is a significant area. Establishing the legal right to access Crown lands by accessing and crossing private lands or by traveling on publicly funded resource roads is what is sought.
In several European countries, including Scotland, Sweden, and Norway, access to nature is a constitutionally protected right. The legislation varies from country to country and requires everyone to behave responsibly, but essentially, residents and visitors have the freedom to roam on both public and private lands.
Here in British Columbia, we do not seek “carte blanche” access to all lands. We appreciate that safety, environmental stewardship, and liability are concerns that must be recognized. The rights of First Nations and private property owners must also be acknowledged and respected. However, what is occurring today is a gradual erosion of access and this must be addressed, whether through Right to Roam legislation, appropriate provisions in tenures or policy.
Degradation of Access
A simple example of specific access issues that have arisen and that have motivated the Federation’s work and the need for legal clarity is Whistler Blackcomb (now owned by US company Vail Resorts, Inc.). This corporation has been granted tenure in, and adjacent to, Garibaldi Provincial Park. It is the Federation’s opinion that traditional access to Garibaldi Park has been actively and deliberately restricted through declining cooperation with the public, gating public roads and parking lots, and expecting backcountry users to use the facilities of the resort to attain access. This has been accommodated through tacit acquiescence of previous provincial governments. The Federation’s members believe these acts—as examples—contravene the rights of the public to have access to public lands. To illustrate this the Federation has gathered supporting accounts from our many member clubs across the province.
The Future of Right to Roam in BC
We anticipate that with the refreshing attitude of the new government—and MLA Weaver’s ardent belief in the principles of one’s “Right to Roam”—there is an opportunity to advance the rights of the public to access Crown lands, by writing these rights into law.
The understanding and collaboration of Ministers Heyman and Donaldson and their government are critical. Should we receive a positive response from government we would join with likeminded outdoor recreation, conservation and environmental organizations across the province and plan a provincial strategy to advance this initiative.
We expect to raise awareness, organize and/or campaign around the issue of public access with the intention of assisting government to establish Right to Roam legislation and to ensure fair and reasonable access agreements with private tenure holders and commercial backcountry operators. While we understand the realities of safety, security and liability we firmly believe that the public does have rights here.