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Managing outdoor recreation: Lessons from Squamish and beyond

Outdoor Recreation Council of BC report highlights benefits and challenges for B.C.'s recreation hotspots.
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Pair hike in Squamish. What do you think are the main benefits and challenges of being an outdoor recreation hub? Let us know with a letter to the editor: editor@squamishchief.com.

Squamish isn’t alone in its struggle to balance the many joys and real challenges of being an outdoor recreation hub. 

That is one of the takeaways of a recent Outdoor Recreation Council of BC report, titled The Impacts of Outdoor Recreation in Rural B.C. Communities. 

The report, presented by Ximena Diaz Lopez in a webinar recently, looked at Squamish, Burns Lake, Fernie, Revelstoke and Tofino.

It is based on 25 interviews with stakeholders in these communities, such as land managers, economic development officers, and leaders of outdoor recreation groups, that were done between October 2022 and November 2022.

It noted that there are many positives and some negatives for the communities now popular for their outdoor recreation.

Not surprisingly, the negative impacts of outdoor recreation are primarily human-caused — the degradation of the environment, such as human-wildlife encounters, or the destruction of cultural values, such as sacred Indigenous sites. 

“The interview data stressed that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. From camping to hiking to trail building — any activity that takes place outdoors is interacting with different values,” reads the report. 

“Values vary by region and site but may include environmental values like wildlife habitat or cultural values like sacred Indigenous sites. A lack of knowledge about the values can drive their destruction. Similarly, careless behaviours, regardless of knowledge, can lead to their destruction.”

The study noted that if there are too many people recreating in the same space, that can lead to unintentional destruction.

Squamish interviewees observed the most impact of all the communities featured, followed by Tofino.

Those locals interviewed expressed concern over wildlife impacts, garbage, litter, waste, trail erosion, unsanctioned trails, dispersed or illegal camping and van life. They also expressed concern over disrespect for sacred, cultural areas, lack of knowledge by some, overuse or over-tourism, closures and wildfire concerns. 

“In Squamish and the Sea to Sky Corridor, this sort of impact is described as ‘loving it to death,’” reads the report. 

Though not interviewed for the report, Lesley Weeks, executive director of Tourism Squamish, notes that the report closely aligns with the What We Heard report that the Sea to Sky Destination Management Council produced when developing the “Don’t Love it to Death campaign.”

"After consulting with many local, regional and provincial partners, several themes were identified. There is a need to educate both residents and visitors about their impacts on our communities and the natural spaces and wildlife that exist there," Weeks said in an email to The Squamish Chief. "But in addition to education, there needs to be active management and enforcement, and that is beyond the control of community-destination tourism organizations such as Tourism Squamish."

The often discussed strain on local housing was also noted for Squamish and other communities in the report. 

Plenty of upsides

The report and associated presentation also stressed that participation in a community’s outdoor recreation has some great upsides.

In addition to time in nature being a personally positive experience, it can also foster environmental stewardship, among other beneficial results.

Folks are motivated to protect outdoor recreation spaces from human-caused damages and may be motivated to protect them from external factors, such as development. 

The report gives the example of a stream being actively protected from development and then later serving as a spot for recreational fishing. 

Weeks pointed to another example being the "remarkable efforts" by the Sea to Sky Gondola in establishing the Sea to Sky Legacy Fund. 

"This fund will play a critical role in securing extra resources to preserve the beauty, cleanliness and safety of our region. Initiatives like this exemplify the innovative thinking that is essential in addressing these complex issues."

Weeks also noted her organization’s shift to promoting environmental stewardship and management of tourism.

Tourism Squamish priorities are destination stewardship, destination marketing and research, industry engagement and advocacy, and destination development, she said. 

"Tourism Squamish focuses the majority of its marketing efforts towards off-peak seasons when our accommodation partners have the capacity to host visitors, and our local businesses need a boost," she said. 

"Our destination stewards program, our leadership in the Don’t Love It to Death initiative, our regular meetings with the Sea to Sky Destination Development Council and the Visitor Management Roundtable are but a few examples of how our organization is engaged in protecting what we all love about living in Squamish."

Work with First Nations

The report notes another positive of being known for outdoor rec is that it can also create unique opportunities to work with local First Nations on outdoor recreation opportunities. 

Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) and Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association

(SORCA) were noted in the report for signing a historic memorandum of understanding which formalizes their relationship on the land, which is crisscrossed by biking trails.

It was also noted that outdoor recreation creates community. 

 “We have 3,400 members. Although not everyone is local, that is essentially about 15% of the community. I think that speaks to the community coming together,” said Ian Lowe, executive director of SORCA, in the report.

Recommendations

The report recommends further studies be undertaken to more fully understand outdoor recreation’s impact on Squamish, Burns Lake, Fernie, Revelstoke and Tofino.

It further recommends that the provincial government better support local land managers, organized outdoor groups (volunteers) and Indigenous Peoples in their work to protect and manage areas of outdoor recreation. 

“It is recommended that there be wide provincial support for valued outdoor spaces especially when considering that outdoor spaces are not only local assets, but they are also assets to the province,” the report states. 

Do local land managers agree?

District of Squamish

Asked about the need for more provincial funding, a spokesperson for the District of Squamish noted that the provincial government announced an $83 million dollar investment in BC Parks in 2021. 

“As a result, several provincial parks are being expanded across the province, many of which do not see as much visitor volume as those in the Squamish vicinity. While regional visitor management strategies are being drafted and finalized, an interim solution is needed," said 

District spokesperson Rachel Boguski in an email to The Squamish Chief. 

"In order to address the growing volume of camping demand experienced each year, the District would like to request the province to urgently consider further expansion of camping options and infrastructure at the BC Parks locations adjacent to the District’s boundaries as well as nearby Recreation Sites. This could include managed, low-amenity camping options as provisional solutions while longer-term visitor management strategies are developed.” 

Tourism Squamish

Weeks said that provincewide there is a need for increased support for financing the land managers and organized outdoor volunteer groups. 

“Tourism Squamish and other tourism partner organizations continue to advocate for increases in funding for BC Parks and Rec, Sites and Trails. We also support and advocate for funding towards community organizations who develop, maintain and protect our local outdoor assets and spaces,” she said.

SORCA

Lowe said SORCA, too, would like to see more provincial government financial support to expand its paid trail crew. 

“Squamish has been blessed by a strong volunteerism culture; however, the needs continue to grow — both from the perspective of resident and visitor growth on the trails and also new weather patterns making it much more difficult to maintain trails — and it’s unlikely the number of volunteers will grow at the same pace. This results in additional demand for paid trail maintenance work. We appreciate the support from the District of Squamish, yet it is not sufficient to fund the size of crew our trail network requires,” he said. 

In response to these recommendations and responses, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy told The Squamish Chief in an email that “the Ministry does not have a comment at this time.”

Sharing knowledge

Because the communities studied in the Outdoor Recreation Council report share similarities, the document also recommends that land managers share knowledge and solutions with other communities.

Boguski said the District is part of a network of other smaller communities experiencing similar impacts from visitors, including Canmore, Tofino, Ucluelet, and Whistler.

"This network regularly shares different initiatives and lessons learned around outdoor recreation visitor management."

Weeks noted that Tourism Squamish works with BC DMO Association, a non-profit society that represents over 50 community destination (marketing/management) organizations. Weeks is a member of its board. It also works with the Tourism Industry Association of BC, a provincial tourism advocacy group.

Lowe said that folks in other communities often approach and liaise with SORCA because it is so large. The local organization also has monthly calls with the folks from the North Vancouver, Whistler and Pemberton mountain bike associations. 

The study was funded by the Four Wheel Drive Association of BC, ECO Canada, and the Province of British Columbia through the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

Read the full report online. 


 

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