Getting everyone to the table on land tenure issues

In Revelstoke, and land tenure issues pop into the public sphere from time to time, leading to a series of skirmishes that only scratch the surface of a complex issue, writes Ian Tomm, as he argues that what’s needed is engagement, with an equal place at the table for all.

Hiking in Glacier National Park. Contributed by Ian Tomm

By Ian Tomm

This article first appeared in print in the June issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

Public opinions about land use in and around our community are always interesting and sometimes frustrating. Recently, the discussions surrounding mountain biking on Mt. Cartier, including the proposed valley bottom trail expansion by the Revelstoke Cycling Association and the tenure application for commercial helicopter assisted biking from the summit, have been spirited and, at times misinformed. Land use in British Columbia is a lesser-known, complicated topic and, because of this, assumptions often get in the way of fact. The history and policy that govern land use are complex enough that understanding the challenges is daunting to any who dare to wade in on the issues. It’s no wonder that our discussions get stuck on understanding these challenges instead of looking down the path to progress and resolution.

B.C.’s economic and cultural foundations are built upon its land and water resources. The colonial attitudes that have largely guided resource extraction in the province since early European contact with Indigenous cultures have seen shifts over the past few decades. These attitudes have shifted more profoundly in the last 10 years and most recently in the election campaigns and governing mandates of provincial and federal political parties across the country. The increasing density and diversity of human activity on B.C.’s landbase and the maturation of First Nations’ roles in land use decisions have combined to surface a number questions. These are intellectually challenging and potentially significant public policy questions that are helping to modernize how we think about our province’s land and water – now, and well into the future.

B.C. is home to the most Crown land of any province in the country at around 96% of its total land area. By contrast, Alberta enjoys only roughly 60% of their province as public land. Social values and attitudes in B.C. have, over time, developed many norms surrounding how and who can use and access crown land. Some of these norms have evolved into legislation, regulation, policy and procedure while others continue to exist as part of the broader, ill-defined and somewhat nebulous social contract that is so much of public debate and opinion today.

Today there are 27 different land tenure and licensing programs in use in the province today, all with varying degrees of legal strength, cost and security. Underlying this hierarchical permitting and licensing structure lay vitally important environmental variables like ecosystems, watersheds, habitat, diverse flora and fauna and species at risk, to name but a few. To add to this complex matrix of public policy and considerations, the rights of First Nations’ interests in land and resource management has significantly changed. The 2014 Tsilhqot’in Decision of the Supreme Court of British Columbia was the driving force behind this shift. There have been a surge of provincial and federal government efforts around the policy implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and various truth and reconciliation efforts that cross programs, departments and ministries at all levels of government. Land use in B.C. has never been more complex.

Revelstoke, with its rich history of rail and resource extraction, is now established as an international epicentre of adventure tourism. The continued growth and vitality in this community is proof of that success. It’s clear that the unique attributes of our historic city — the terrain, ecosystems, weather (summer and winter) and people — have the foundations of a unique, globally competitive all season destination well positioned to support the community into the foreseeable future. The historical land uses of forestry, hydro and mining are increasingly being augmented by and, in some cases, overshadowed by other forms of land use including tourism and recreation in all its forms and flavours. It’s unlikely this growth will slow anytime soon. Revelstoke continues to develop as a tourism destination and is maturing into an international destination resort community. There have never been more travellers wanting to come to western Canada to experience rural mountain communities like Revelstoke. Locally, access to our community is increasing: incremental improvements and twinning of the Trans-Canada Highway, gradual improvements to Kelowna International Airport capacity, and our government’s continued success in marketing B.C. to the world are all opening doors. There are so many positive socio-economic attributes that attract people to the area to both live and play. It’s clear that the future is very bright for this not-so-little-anymore mountain town.

Over the past couple of years I have been genuinely excited and inspired by many of the tourism focused entrepreneurial initiatives that have been launched in and around our community. Not to mention the health, growth and vitality of the many long established operators in the area. Jeff Bellis’s summer mountain biking hut proposal in the Monashees around Mt. Thor, Mike Bromberg and Revelstoke Backcountry Guides with their hut proposal in the West Twin Creek and Twin Butte area and more recently Matt Yaki’s tenure application for Wandering Wheels on Mt. Cartier. In each of these cases we have long time, valued residents, taking the initiative to enhance our community by offering value added programs and services to locals and visitors alike. But each of these cases has also demonstrated the misconceptions in the public space surrounding the value of tourism and recreation in the local community and the unique characteristics differentiating public use from managed, licensed and monitored tenured use.

Tenured land users in B.C. are under legal, contractual obligations to the province to run their commercial operations on crown land according to approved and monitored plans. The plans take various shapes and forms. For tenured tourism operations they take the form of a management plan. Management plans are expensive, expansive and detailed documents, often very legal in nature, and are carefully developed in partnership with proponents, professional consultants, government and stakeholders. Annual declarations contained in Diligent Use Reports, Responsible Use Reports and other reporting requirements are submitted to various levels and departments of government to monitor the tenured operator. These allow for a regular discussion around use, plan enhancement and evolution, regulatory compliance and the mitigation and management of various risks, environmental and otherwise, relevant to the tenure and the activities permitted under agreement with the province. All tenured management plans see significant scrutiny through the referral process, which includes thorough consultation with First Nations and stakeholders.

Tourism-based tenures are processed through the same operational structure at the district and regional level, known as FrontCounterBC that other tenured users are. There are no dedicated or specialized staff for tourism based tenures, although some regions have greater expertise in files due to unique conditions or circumstances found regionally. For the most part tourism tenures have very little security associated with them, even in circumstances where significant capital investment is involved. As an example, Licenses of Occupation, which are typically granted for adventure tourism tenures, are subservient to all other forms of tenure and can be cancelled without cause with only 90 days notice. This is a very challenging and uncertain environment for business owners, their staff, service providers and guests. Many families and citizens depend on adventure tourism in this town for their livelihood and wellbeing.

Public recreation users are subject to very different terms and conditions when it comes to land use. Policy guidance is found in government frameworks empowered by the Land Act, Wildlife Act and the Forestry and Range Practices Act (FRPA) including the Permission Policy and FRPA Part 5 (Protection of Resources), Division 3 (Recreation), Sections 56, 57 and 58. The parts of public use that are organized are managed and are becoming more so over time. The many, largely volunteer, non-profit groups across the province are stewards of local public use efforts and they work with a specific and focused branch of government for public recreation, Recreation Sites and Trails BC (RSTBC). In Revelstoke, these groups include the Revelstoke Cycling Association, Revelstoke Snowmobile Club, Revelstoke ATV Club and Revy Riders. These groups are required to submit Annual Operating Plans, follow the governing Acts and undergo referral processes for stakeholders when proposing developments, they are largely responsible for building and maintaining trails and public infrastructure in the specific areas of Crown Land that they manage under a Partnership Agreement with RSTBC.

In a perfect world all forms of land use in the province would be managed and coordinated under a comprehensive and robust provincial land management framework with goals and performance measures to monitor and track progress over time at various levels from the province down to districts, regions and local communities. Unfortunately, the current situation is less than ideal as resource-strapped government is challenged to respond to perpetually increasing demands. Governments of the past have attempted land planning with varying degrees of success, with the last focused provincial effort dating back to the 1990s. Our world has changed a lot in the past three decades and there is no shortage of discussion today on the need and importance of getting back to the land planning table, as is evidenced by recent motions made by organizations like the Southern Interior Local Governments Association (SILGA), regional districts and some municipalities, including Revelstoke. Unfortunately, many of the people involved in these motions, and land use discussions more broadly, don’t have a lot of confidence for progress on a meaningful timescale to local issues, acute or chronic. Letters are being written and political and bureaucratic lobbying by all parties commercial, public and ENGO alike is occurring yet the path to meaningful progress for maximum community benefit remains elusive.

Understanding the complexity of land use provincially is daunting, but there are good, smart folks in government working on the issue and while slow, progress will occur over time. Locally we have the benefit of understanding the needs, issues and players better and if history is any judge, local efforts need to be the catalyst to meaningful and long lasting change when it comes to land use. We can write letters to government requesting specific, local, collaborative land use plans but what do we really mean by that? As a community what are we looking for? There are some who would like to see the reversal of human progress and the complete removal of human activity of any form from the land. There are others who see our access to the land as a primary value of life in Canada. It can be argued that it is this access to the land that creates such a strong concern for its well-being in the first place.

Regardless of the views, positions, stances or moral high ground, informed or otherwise, it is likely that progress will only occur when the various parties who have an interest in land and resource use and conservation locally sit down at the same table. Without prejudice, we each must acknowledge the important role we all play in fostering a vibrant, successful community that honours our area’s indigenous heritage and diverse ecological, social and economic values. We shouldn’t wait for government at any level to take leadership, because if we do we may be waiting for a long time.

Land use in B.C. is a highly complex topic, and this article is only a small, imperfect window into that complexity. The relationship between the various forms of land use from public recreation and commercial tourism to logging, mining and everything in between boggles the minds of most who dare to engage in the discussion. Informed public discourse is the antidote to the complexity and a path towards progress. If we, as a community, want to see change that supports the needs of new and existing businesses of all types (tourism, logging and others) in an environment sensitive to ecological health and sustainability it is going to come down to us, as a community, taking the initiative in a way that respects and acknowledges all parties at the table equally, and without prejudice.

Special thanks to the many people who supported this article and, in particular, Miranda Murphy for her attention to detail and expertise in these matters.

Ian Tomm, a ski guide by trade, has been working in winter tourism in and around the Revelstoke region and around the world for over 20 years including holding various positions as Executive Director of Avalanche Canada, the Canadian Avalanche Association and most recently HeliCat Canada. Currently he is a freelance consultant working in government relations and tourism sectors. He and his wife Tammy have called Revelstoke home for the past 12 years; both of their children were born at Queen Victoria Hospital.