Whose land is it anyway? Understanding Crown land tenure in BC

The mountains around Revelstoke are covered by a complex tenure system involving uses such as hell-skiiing, mountain biking, and backcountry skiing, to name a few. In the post, columnist Robyn Goldsmith makes sense of the BC tenure system.

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Heli-skiing with Great Canadian Heli-skiing, Wikimedia Commons user "PowderFaceShots"

Tourism in BC is a hot commodity, and adventure tourism and recreation seem to be constantly on the rise. Of course, many British Columbians value our beautiful province, and like to take our own opportunities to get out and enjoy our wild public spaces. We are also a province that depends heavily on natural resources. Sometimes commercial interests and public interests conflict with each other, and it is the role of the provincial government to manage that conflict on our public lands.

Crown lands around BC, and around Revelstoke in particular, face competing uses. In winter we have established ski hills, heli-ski operators running skiers and boarders deep into the mountains, cat ski companies ferrying people up and down slopes, guided snowmobile tours, and backcountry guiding companies heading into the hills. It can feel like our local mountains are dominated by tourism operators. In addition, there is competition for resource extraction the other three seasons of the year. Land uses sometimes conflict with each other, and frequently conflict with recreation by private users.

In BC, approximately 94% of our land is Crown owned. Some of that land is encompassed in provincial or national parks, which have their own particular governing rules. For Crown land that isn’t encompassed in a park, the Land Act and the Forest and Range Practices Act govern, and the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO) develops policies and regulations in order to manage use and grant access. Since 1999, it has been mandatory for any tourism operator on Crown Land to hold tenure – a temporary license, a license, or a lease. Leases allow for lengthy occupation of Crown Lands, while temporary licenses allow for short term use, and regular licenses apply where there will be limited improvement on the site.

When a company applies for tenure, they apply for a specific tract of land. They submit a tenure management plan, which outlines the proposed use area, the intended use, and whether there will be any areas in which they wish to restrict public access. They will need to address environmental issues, such as mountain caribou habitat, and issues of public interest. The government makes a decision whether or not to grant the tenure by considering their guiding principles (the MFLNRO Adventure Tourism Policy is available here). In February of 2015, the government adopted new policies to encourage harmonious use of our land, as the conflicts between various uses were becoming problematic. Whether or not these new measures will be successful in minimizing conflict has yet to be seen.

Tenure is a scary prospect for those who have invested their livelihoods into commercial tourism. Those who build elaborate backcountry lodges, or even resorts, don’t own the land they sit on, and they run the risk of being burdened with overlapping tenures or losing their tenure completely. Tenure holders and MFLNRO must find a way to balance the needs of tourists with those of the public. Every year there are new controversies between the public and tenure holders. Recently, Cypress Mountain Resort prevented the public from using an access trail into Cypress Mountain Provincial Park during certain hours. Self-propelled backcountry users were dismayed. Last year, Kootenay Heli-Ski’s application for tenure in the Selkirks bordering Kootenay Provincial Park was denied, due in large part to public outcry about the disruption it would cause in the neighbouring park. In the Valemount/Blue River area, the conflict between snowmobilers and heli-ski operators has been intensely heated and problematic.

Section 58 of the Forest and Range Practices Act enables the government to restrict use in order to preserve recreational or range value. This could be anything from restricting access completely to restricting particular uses. The conflict between commercial use and recreational use is more pronounced between snowmobilers and commercial operators, as snowmobilers can often venture farther into the backcountry than backcountry skiers. As a result, it is fairly common to restrict snowmobile traffic or motorized travel in certain areas.

Many of us value the backcountry for its tranquility, and having our wilderness reverie interrupted by the whir of rotors or the whine of a snowmobile engine is intrusive. Others value the thrills and freedoms of a snowmobile. Tourists come in droves to experience legendary powder by sled, ski, cat or helicopter. There will always be tradeoffs, conflicts, and heated discussion surrounding public land use. We have different values and goals for our backcountry, and the MFLNRO has the unenviable job of balancing those goals.