A small group of people have put Powell River’s backcountry under threat, according to local authorities. The actions of illegal dumpers and those who vandalize nature have resulted in a concerted frontline response by organizations and agencies invested in conservation efforts.
According to Powell River Outdoor Recreation Users Group Trail Society (ORUG), an umbrella group of organizations involved with backcountry preservation, vandalism and illegal dumping is ongoing and affects the region’s most sensitive and important asset: outdoor recreation.
“Fire is the big one,” said Pat Walsh, ORUG president. “I suspect that would be a major part of the issue.”
Some of the fires are from toxic, wooden pallets that can ignite wildfires. The problem lies with the people committing the crimes and pallets acquired from local retailers, said Walsh.
“Responsible merchants need to be informed that this is where their pallets are going and they need to work together to find some sense of satisfactory solution so these things are not winding up in our backcountry,” said Walsh.
It is not only wooden pallets that are being burned and creating risks of wildfires. According to BC Wildlife Service conservation officer Andrew Anaka, people are causing damage to the environment and putting their own health at risk by also burning other materials.
Where Anaka has come across litter left by illegal fires, he said he has also found boats, trailers, campers, refrigerators, paint, oil, car batteries, aerosol cans, mattresses and box springs that have been set on fire.
“Eventually somebody finds these things and they light them up,” he said. “They stand around these big bonfires and have no idea what kind of risks they’re putting their health in by inhaling the fumes.”
A number of popular and easily accessible dump and burn party sites scattered throughout the bush are well known to ORUG and enforcement authorities.
“One of the party spots is Duck Lake,” said Anaka. “We’ve had cases in the past where large quantities of fibreglass, roofing tar and tires have been burned there; that’s definitely going to enter the Duck Lake watercourse. People downstream rely on that water and are going to use it, including the fish hatchery.”
On April 1, Results Based Forest Management owner Chris Laing was working on behalf of City of Powell River when he received a report of a fire near the Dayton forest services road, a well-known dumping area.
“It looked like some punks had been out there the night before,” said Laing. “[They] had taken tires, rims, mattresses and accelerants, lit up piles of it and [had been] 4x4ing with what must have been huge trucks right through young trees.”
After calling the fire department to put out the fire, Laing said he saw a pile of garbage bags full of vermiculite that he suspects a contractor or homeowner had dumped.
“I pulled 1,500 pounds of vermiculite out of there myself,” he said. “There was still probably another a third of that remaining that needed removal.”
Pure vermiculite is non-toxic, however, some vermiculite products produced before 1990 contained asbestos, which is toxic. According to Laing, backcountry dumping, vandalism and partying has been going on a long time and keeps getting worse.
In his 27 years of experience dealing with these issues, Anaka has found that people committing the acts are not just vandals and hooligans.
They are everyone, he said, and tough to catch unless they dump registered items, such as boats and campers, which have serial numbers to track.
“Some people will leave identifying information, such as telephone bills,” said Anaka. “We go through the garbage, locate names and track these people down and deal with them. But a lot of it is completely anonymous; you have no idea who dumped what, where or when.” Unfortunately there are not enough resources to clean it all up, he said.
Future backcountry recreational development, overseen by Recreation Sites and Trails BC (RSTBC), could be impacted, according to Walsh. He said dumpsites and pallet burning parties make the provincial agency “very hesitant to develop further sites.”
According to Walsh, a plan to proceed with a new boat launch into the Haslam slough area that will give paddlers access into Haslam Lake is a concern for RSTBC.
“Is it going to become another party spot with more pallet burning?” he said. “It’s a terrible shame the legitimate recreational user potentially has to do without because of the irresponsibility of a few.”
ORUG has been working with local recreation and enforcement agencies to have a plan for this year’s outdoor season. Walsh said it involves increased patrols and presence by enforcement agencies such as RCMP and natural resource officers and putting in place a program of site inspections for high-risk locations. ORUG is also exploring the acquisition of wildlife cameras that can be installed by constituent user groups to collect evidence of misdeeds.
According to Powell River RCMP, they will be increasing backcountry patrols and any video footage acquired through cameras not installed by them can be used as evidence. The best frontline deterrent to these crimes, according to all groups and agencies involved, is the public.
“Record and report; everybody has a cell phone,” said Walsh. “Take photos, record what you’re seeing, record licence plates, record descriptions, record times and dates and contact the appropriate authorities.”