The Capital Regional District’s new proposed guidelines for mountain bike trails in parks has bikers and conservationists divided. We put voices from both sides to Rebecca Mersereau, Capital Regional District Vice Chair to hear the CRD’s responses to each’s concerns.
The Capital Regional District’s new proposed guidelines for mountain bike trails in parks has bikers and conservationists divided. We put voices from both sides to Rebecca Mersereau, Capital Regional District Vice Chair to hear the CRD’s responses to each’s concerns.
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Disclaimer: These interviews have been edited for length and clarity
Jackie: My name is Jackie Lamport. Today is Monday, May 10th. Welcome to the Capital Daily podcast. Mountain bikers and conservationists are brought together in their concern with new Capital Regional District Parks mountain biking guidelines, although they remain on opposite sides of the debate. We put both sides to the CRD to find out if there is common ground to be found.
Jackie: On April 30th, CRD Parks approved new mountain biking guidelines that sought to address the shortage of trails within Greater Victoria parks. However, the guidelines satisfied neither mountain bikers or conservation groups. Mountain bikers claim that the guidelines dismissed advice from the community, notably the warning that new trails must be built to limit the building of “rogue trails.” Conservationists argue that mountain biking will destroy the parks, and therefore any guidelines that promote trails will only lead to more destruction. Today we decided to present both sides of the debate to Rebecca Mersereau, Saanich Councillor and Capital Regional District Vice-Chair. She joins us to hear and address the concerns.
Jackie: Rebecca, thank you so much for joining the podcast today.
Rebecca: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Jackie: I want to first ask where the CRD is at right now with these guidelines.
Rebecca: The proposed guidelines went to the parks committee last month and were supported by the committee, and they will be voted on or considered by the CRD board this coming Wednesday.
Jackie: And you've heard back from the public on the issue at this point.
Rebecca: At this point, we did get a significant amount of correspondence; by email, we got hundreds of emails from the mountain biking community, I would say largely. We also had about 18 or perhaps 20 public speakers at our parks committee meeting last month. So I would say those speakers had a broader range of perspectives on the issue.
Jackie: For this debate, we spoke to a representative from each side. We’ll be hearing from Alon Soraya, the President of the South Island Mountain Bike Society (SIMBS).
Alon (audio clip): I've been working hard in my time on the board of directors to enable more opportunities for mountain biking in the region. I'm really excited that these guidelines are going to open a way forward for that.
Jackie: And Tory Stevens, who has a PhD in wildlife biology, is Chair of the Elders Council for Parks BC and is a former ecologist at BC parks.
Tory (audio clip): I was trained as a wildlife biologist, but through my work environment, I became more of a landscape ecologist, and I worked for BC Parks for a couple of decades. The issues that I focused on were adaptation to climate change and biodiversity, and I really saw myself as a large landscape ecologist.
Jackie: We'll start with Tory. Her first concern was that there wasn't an equal standing and that bike trails were getting priority over ecological issues. This is what she said.
Tory (audio clip): Biodiversity of the CRD parks did not have equal standing so that right off the bat seemed like an uneven start. There are statements about assessing the environmental impact and staying out of sensitive ecosystems. That sounds very good, but when you realize what's left of the natural world on sunny Vancouver Island, it has been squeezed into these little fragments of parks. To then cut them up with mountain biking trails, it's just more compromise, and I don't think biodiversity can handle any more compromise. They've been compromised to the point of extinction.
Jackie (to Rebecca): What would you say to that comment?
Rebecca: I think to your earlier point, Jackie, about a sense, perhaps that mountain biking interests, if you will, were prioritized in the process. It is important to recognize that this initiative came about through a specific request by the CRD board to look at how to integrate mountain biking activity within the regional park system. So that was the orientation of the exercise. The initiative attempted to do so to help mitigate these impacts on other values, ecological values in particular, and that is definitely a tough balance to strike. One of the things I think we sometimes forget is that our regional parks network was established to protect ecological values. That's the mandate that the public gave to the CRD to establish this growing park system, and that continues to be our main priority for the system. So I think Tory’s comments are valid to that end. Perhaps we don't know as much as we should or don’t do as much monitoring as we should to ensure we're not impacting those values. However, I do see some opportunities on the horizon. To sort of ask whether we have that balance, right, in terms of how we're prioritizing the different things we want our parks to do for us, and to ask the question, “are we managing them?” Well, we're updating our ten-year strategic plan for the regional parks network, beginning later this year, where I think we will have some space for those discussions about not only mountain biking but beyond protecting the ecology. There certainly are expectations that the public has for recreating in our parks. So we ought to understand what those are and understand what those impacts on the ecology are to manage those impacts.
Jackie: But she (Tory) also said that the guidelines are inconsistent with some of the other CRD guidelines.
Tory (audio clip): There's too much ability for the CRD to make decisions that are poor ones. And they'll just say, “we're following the guidelines.” The CRD has a lot of other planning documents that they put together for various parks. The mountain biking guidelines are plain inconsistent with some of those other documents, and they don't seem to acknowledge that.
Jackie: Is that something that you have found to be a concern?
Rebecca: I will say that the guidelines aren't intended to be specific to particular parks. They're meant to give us a framework for making decisions about where to locate mountain biking and how to locate it. So what would the trail standards be, and what are the expectations for maintenance? I'm not aware that they're in conflict directly with other guidelines in place, but it's important to recognize it's really just a guideline to help us decide how to incorporate that activity.
Jackie: Meanwhile, Alon was generally happy with the guidelines that he had seen. His concern was actually just the timeline.
Alon (audio clip): Our only concern with the guidelines is that they might not enable the creation of new mountain biking opportunities in a very timely manner. They're going to defer to management planning processes and strategic priorities of the park system to facilitate new mountain biking, which could be a very long process.
Rebecca: I think the concern about timelines isn't that surprising concern. On the other hand, I think it's important to recognize that the CRD isn't able to turn on new mountain biking trails overnight, in the same way, that it couldn't provide new amenities for other types of recreational users. One of the main reasons we have detailed planning processes to help us decide what to do in parks and where to do those activities is because we're trying to protect that main purpose of our parks network, which is the ecological purpose. So to do that, we need to understand what the ecological significance is and then figure out how to incorporate those activities in a way that doesn't unduly impact them. It takes time to figure that out, and to do it carefully. So I don't expect that process will change. However, I think there's a couple of opportunities to address the concern mentioned by Alon around timing. CRD staff have identified that there may be potential to incorporate new mountain biking trails in Thetis Lake Regional Park. That would be something that would happen in the short term and not require a long planning process. The other thing that's really key for all stakeholders in this discussion to remember is that our parks network is growing quite significantly. We're investing more every year and acquiring new parkland. So we have an opportunity to meet more needs within our park system to make sure we're protecting the ecology, of course. Still, also it should give us the geographic space to look at different recreational users and see if we can meet their needs within the growing network of parks we have.
Jackie: One of the things that Tory was concerned about was that people who mountain bike may not always respect the trails and will go off and create road trails.
Tory (audio clip): Mountain biking trails seem to proliferate, and there were a lot of people on the CRD call that said that was not true. But I'm sure there are, and perhaps the majority of mountain bikers who stay on the trails. The fact remains that there are enough who don't, and new trails begin to appear.
Jackie: Alon believes that mountain bikers will respect the given trails.
Alon (audio clip): We see that in our community trail days. More and more volunteers come out all the time because they see the quality of the trails that we're building and how they are sustainable and fun. They want to be a part of that and learn how to support that.
Jackie: Is this a part of the conversation, that there may be people no matter what who don't respect the trails?
Rebecca: Yeah, it's definitely quite a large concern, I think from all standpoints. I would say there's a suggestion that if the CRD can provide more sanctions, intentional trails and amenities for the growing mountain bike community, that that would help alleviate pressure and reduce some of that unregulated trail building. That seems to be the position of the mountain biking community. I would say that our actions in terms of looking at bringing on new trails, and there are some examples earlier this year of CRD, working with the community to do that. I think we are moving in that direction, and the results so far have been good. So I do hope over time, it will reduce the impacts of that illegal trail building. I think part of the answer is also a bit more about the public education piece and having people understand the impacts of building those trails.
Jackie: I want to push further on that, given that there will likely be outliers. Do you think it's good to provide ample opportunities for people so that they don't feel like they have to build their own or go off-trail?
Rebecca: I think with any type of activity, there will always be a small minority who don't follow the rules. There's probably, frankly, not a lot we can do about that group other than discourage it. Trails, generally, are disassembled by the CRD when they're discovered, and that would discourage people from that behaviour. So we need to be realistic about that. On the other hand, I do feel that there is value in recognizing that this is a growing activity in the region, and there's certainly a sense that the CRD isn't doing as much as it can to support the growth of that region. We are blessed with a significant regional parks network. I think that there is an opportunity to establish goodwill with the large majority of the mountain biking community by working together to figure out how we can better meet their expectations and needs. I think these mountain biking guidelines are a step in that direction. They give us a framework for figuring out with them how we can incorporate this activity into our parks.
Jackie: Tory had some specific concerns from the conservation side, and I just want to play you some of those.
Tory (audio clip): That mountain bikers can go so much further, in a day or half a day, however much time they have, then somebody who is on foot so they can go way back into these parks; that's been shown to be detrimental to some species, they don't mix well, in wet climates, there's a lot of soil erosion. These muddy areas in the trail get wider and wider, and then rain events come, and it washes all the particulates into streams there. The same can be said of hikers; they make the trails wider as well. So I'm not trying to say mountain bikers are the only ones, but they go faster, and they go further, skidding around. A mountain bike plays more havoc with meadows than walking across in a pair of shoes.
Jackie: What would you say to those concerns?
Rebecca: I think those are all valid concerns, and I've been advised that there is a fair bit of science that does demonstrate the harmful impacts of mountain biking activities on the environment. So no dispute there at all. We already have this activity happening in some parts of our regional park system, and I don't believe that's going to change. In fact, all signs suggest that the CRD at the staff level and up the political level is interesting, and working more closely with that community to do more. So I think the question is, “how do we do that in a way that minimizes all of those impacts that Alison spoke of?” One option that I personally tend to think about is, would it make sense to have a regional park that perhaps is acquired not in a natural state and not in a pristine ecological state, but something that's already been in a degraded state, and that is the basis for providing amenities to the mountain biking community so that you're, you're not introducing that activity in an area where it will have those impacts? So I think I think we have options. And as I said, we have a growing park system; we’re buying more parks every year. So I think that is an option that ought to be on the table. I'm quite confident we can land on an approach that addresses a lot of the concerns Tory has raised and does more to support this growing activity.
Jackie: Alon and Tory also brought solutions to the table as well; both sides weren't just complaints. So I want to bring you one of the things that Alon said about how he thinks that there's an opportunity for this to be done responsibly, which would benefit everybody.
Alon (audio clip): Through good design and planning, working with land managers, state, other user groups, First Nations representatives, to make sure that trails are situated where they're appropriate, where they don't impact sensitive ecosystems and cultural heritage artifacts, and then building them according to those recognized standards that I mentioned earlier. It absolutely mitigates environmental impact, and it provides that fair and responsible access to recreation that is being asked for by residents in a way that that is an excellent user experience and also helps to develop that sense of stewardship.
Jackie: Tory had similar solutions to what you mentioned earlier. She brought up the idea of having dedicated spaces outside of the parks and more sensitive ecological areas.
Tory (audio clip): The most important thing to do is set aside some area outside of parks that can provide buffers for parks and provide space for mountain bikers, maybe an economic opportunity for a First Nation. There are a lot of good things that could come from a mountain biking Park if it was in the right place and designed properly. I think it's the mountain biking community that needs to be in on the ground floor of designing something like that.
Jackie: Do you think this is a sign that there is some common ground to be found here?
Rebecca: I think so, and I think it is encouraging to be talking and that all parties are getting into the place of thinking about solutions. We have a real opportunity over the next year as we open up our regional park strategic plan and manage or even acquire parks in a different way. For instance, within a large park, you could have a smaller, designated area for a particular use or have parks focused on specific recreational activities. So I think those are all really valid conversations to have, and I hope members of both stakeholder groups will participate in that planning process that will be getting underway later in 2021.
Jackie: We asked both Alon and Tory what they thought should be the priorities in these guidelines. I want to play these for you and then also hear what the CRD priorities are. We'll start with Tory.
Tory (audio clip): What I think that they have to be really careful to do is zone parks in a way that maintains some space for wilderness. And wilderness doesn't mean no people are ever allowed in there. I think traditional Indigenous uses and people wandering through are fine. But just setting up an infrastructure in a park that invites people into camp or bike or whatever they want to do. As I said before, it needs to be carefully thought out because recreation is one of the biggest impacts to parks.
Jackie: And now, Alon.
Alon (audio clip): To enable the development of opportunities for the sport that residents are clearly asking for: it's clear in the communications. I've been privy to that, that recreation is a very important priority for our park system. But more so to do that in a way that supports what is most important to everyone, which is conservation of our planet and our shared natural spaces.
Jackie: Now, what are the CRD’s priorities?
Rebecca: I think there is potential for that. I would say the situation's characterized by a scarcity mentality currently, right? We have a notion that we have a fixed park network, and we need to meet all these needs within it when we're buying more park land. So I think we can meet those other needs. But, of course, the environmental imperative is getting more urgent to buy that land before things degrade further. We need not to lose sight of that in the process.
Jackie: One thing I was curious about, and we put it to both Tory and Alon, was the strategy to use recreational activities as a way to preserve and protect land.
Tory (audio clip): Getting people out helps people connect with nature and feel like they want to conserve natural spaces. So in that sense, that's a good thing.
Alon (audio clip): Generally speaking, I think it really is a very important idea to consider, especially in a regional park system, that's really close to urban centers. That's really needed for our communities as a source of outdoor recreation space. So by planning and designing sustainable access to these places, we can really support conservation efforts in a very meaningful way.
Jackie: Is this something that the CRD is thought about?
Rebecca: I do think it is. Furthermore, I think it's a public expectation that when we have park land, it is accessible to them. So I think it's necessary that we provide the amenities or the infrastructure if you will, the trails that allow people to see just how valuable these parks are. I think we need to communicate about their importance. I'm thinking right now about our watershed that the CRD owns and protects in the CRD and how I think one of the difficulties is when people don't have access to it and can't see it, it's difficult for them to appreciate the scale and the importance and the value of that asset. Sometimes, I have to remind people about the watershed and why it is protected, and why is it so valuable? We need to communicate about those things continually. Having the opportunity to get people out to see the wonderful natural features themselves, almost does that job for you.
Jackie: Overall, Alon seems to believe that having trails and building and maintaining them sustainably is the best way to move forward. Whereas Tory believes Southern Vancouver Island is a unique and sensitive ecosystem, and conservation needs to be a priority. How do you balance these two sides, especially when they both sound so reasonable?
Rebecca: Yeah, I think we do, and we need to be pragmatic and recognize that all types of recreation do have impacts on the natural environment. We need to understand the extent of those so that we're making informed decisions and accepting that perhaps in this location, we are anticipating these impacts. Therefore we're going to manage for those impacts. Whereas maybe in this other location, or this more significant area, we're going to decide that that's hands-off, that's not appropriate, perhaps for even benign hiking activity. So I think it's about being knowledgeable about the impacts of activities and intentionally managing our park system for those.
Jackie: Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.
Rebecca: Thanks for doing this. I'm just so impressed by Capital Daily. It’s amazing what you guys have done in a really short period of time.
Jackie: Thank you, that's so nice to hear. There were a few more questions that we asked both Tory and Alon that are important to play. First, when it comes to things they have in common on the issue, there's a lot to be found. They both believe in the importance of conservation.
Alon (audio clip): Obviously, we're in a climate emergency. All of us are doing our own part to minimize our impact and be good stewards of our environment. We really believe that, in our role as a volunteer society, we can help support those initiatives by enabling good design and good planning of trails, citing them where they're appropriate and where they won't have an impact on sensitive ecosystems, and then building them in line with internationally recognized guidelines for how to build sustainable trails for all users.
Tory (audio clip): If by conservation, you mean sort of saving native biodiversity, I think it's absolutely essential to our well being particularly. When we are in an era of basically a climate emergency, we need to make sure that we have functional places on the landscape, where all of our native species and the species that are moving up from the south, as the climate warms, that they have places where they can move through their corridors. That move up in elevation and that these organisms and ecosystems can reconfigure based on new conditions; we can't do it for them. There are way too many species, most of which we don't even know. So we have to provide the space where ecosystems can reconfigure.
Jackie: And they both agree that mountain biking and activities outdoors are important for our community. As far as benefits to people
Tory (audio clip): The de-stressing, good physical exercise and the ability to be in nature. Those are all great benefits of mountain biking. It's exhilarating, it's fun, and I love biking. I confess I'm not a mountain biker. But to add the fun of being out in nature, and the fun of bicycling, I can see why it would just put you in an incredible high.
Alon (audio clip): There are enormous benefits to the community in terms of health and mental health, and wellness. Mountain biking is an incredibly strong motivator for youth and people of all ages to get out and enjoy parks and enjoy nature and exercise. By giving people those opportunities to recreate in our natural spaces safely, sustainably, and responsibly, you develop a sense of stewardship, pride and connection between residents and our parks that is very powerful at supporting conservation initiatives.
Jackie: But Tory also highlighted the uniqueness of the ecosystems in southern Vancouver Island and why they're so important to protect.
Tory (audio clip): All of the ecosystems on the southern part of Vancouver are rare, from a provincial point of view. It's the coast of Douglas fir, and there just never was very much of it. It is such a great place to live that most of it have been developed. So we're in a place where the ecosystems are rare, sensitive, and there isn't any room for putting mountain biking trails in places that are not sensitive because it's all sensitive.
Jackie: While Alon argued that by building trails sustainably, there will be less impact than if they don't.
Alon (audio clip): There is a wide body of data published that demonstrates that the most important aspect for trail sustainability is design planning in the building techniques and then subsequent maintenance. When trails are designed and built sustainably, the environmental impacts of mountain biking are quite comparable to other recreational activities.
Jackie: But perhaps one of the most divisive parts of this debate is just how much impact mountain biking has compared to other activities.
Tory (audio clip): Well, from what I heard at the last meeting, it sounded as if they didn't agree that biking was any more harmful to the ecosystem than hiking. But it's really hard to buy into that argument. I saw those changes on Mount Doug, a local mountain in Victoria, that 40 years ago when I first started hiking on it, there were little trails that went around, and then suddenly bikes appeared. There was a little flurry of mountain biking activity, and the trails went from, I don't know, 2 feet wide to 15 feet wide in places on the mountain. It was just shocking how quickly it happened, and the biking community was very defensive. I’ve heard responses like “hiking boots did just the same thing.” But I really have a hard time getting behind that argument.
Alon (audio clip): I think there's a lot of misconception out there around the impacts of mountain biking as it compares with other recreational activities. We believe, and we can say with confidence, because there's a wide and growing body of scientific evidence to support this, that any single recreational activity doesn't have more of an impact on the environment than another. But rather, as I said before, it all comes down to the planning and design of trails, or lack thereof and then the implementation, the building of the trails, and the maintenance practices that determine whether or not a trail is sustainable.
Jackie: And we'll end on this. We asked them both what they wanted the people on the other side of this issue to know. The answers were similar.
Alon (audio clip): I like to stop looking at the situation as one of different sides and different perspectives and start to focus more on our shared values and shared goals. We'd like to work with conservationists to learn more about our park systems and the environmental values, and what they have to offer. We’d like to help support that with our volunteer work.
Tory (audio clip): I just want to emphasize how much the mountain biking community and the people concerned with conservation have in common. They're both groups that love the outdoors, and they're both groups that are concerned about their future and their children and grandchildren. I have a hard time believing that there isn't enough common ground that there is going to be a solution to this. I hope it doesn't compromise biodiversity yet again. Every time there's an issue, people say, “let's compromise, and then you compromise.” Then there's another issue, and there are more compromises. If you just keep doing that, wilderness vanishes.
Jackie: The proposed guidelines go to the capital Regional District Board on Wednesday. Thank you for joining us for another “Municipal Monday.” If you enjoyed the podcast, please leave a rating and a review and subscribe so that you don't miss any episodes going forward. We post new shows every Monday to Friday. My name is Jackie Lamport. This is the Capital Daily podcast. We'll talk to you tomorrow.