For outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy exploring the mountains, resource roads made by the forestry and mining industries often provide access to some of our most beloved destinations.
In some cases, resource roads are used often and maintained regularly. Other times, they are choked out by alder or willow because of disuse and leave “pinstripes” on the sides of your vehicle. In these cases, you often need a 4×4 to negotiate the rough terrain.
…resource roads have opened up vast amounts of wilderness to outdoor recreationists…”
Either way, resource roads have opened up vast amounts of wilderness to outdoor recreationists, from hikers to ATV’ers, skiers to sledders. By penetrating the wilderness, however, these roads have also encroached on sensitive wildlife habitat and put a serious strain on a number of species, such as the grizzly bear and woodland caribou.
In British Columbia, Canada, a province with a long history of forestry and mining, there are over 385, 250 miles of logging and mining roads, or what the government calls “resource roads.” That’s enough road to circumnavigate the Equator 15.5 times!
In the American states of Washington and Oregon, directly south of British Columbia, there are approximately 89,477 miles of forestry roads, and 2,423 miles in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest alone. The Washington and Oregon forestry roads would go around the world about 3.5 times!
These roads provide access to natural resources… They are part of our history, and at least for now, part of our future.”
These roads provide access to natural resources, which also helps create jobs. The Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada’s British Columbia are blessed with an abundance of trees, minerals, and waters.
Their resources were first extracted in great quantities during the 1800s. As settlers moved west, gold towns boomed; large tracts of forest were cleared to make way for farms, towns, and railways. Eventually, this led to highways, pipelines, and power lines.
Our economy and way of life have depended on accessing and harvesting these resources for over 150 years. They are part of our history, and at least for now, part of our future.
The Who and What For’s:
Unless restricted, these roads are generally on public land and available for public use. It’s often seen as an adventure just driving on some of these roads to even get to a trailhead.
Mountain recreationists are an awkward position: they use these roads to access places we consider pristine, precious, and inherently valuable. We often hope to see wildlife from our vehicles or from the trails.
In Canada and the US, resource roads are managed by various levels of government. These roads can be subject to restrictions and regulations relating to their use, access, upkeep, and decommissioning.
Most often, the priority use of the roads goes to industry-related activities, since it is the forestry and mining companies that usually build and maintain the roads. It is not uncommon to pass a loaded logging truck; or you might see “Active Hauling” signs that warn drivers to share the road. Many roads have posted radio frequencies, and encourage drivers to use them.
Yet, study after study (this, this, and this are just three examples) has shown that encroachment on habitat is one of the leading causes of the declining numbers of species. The mountain caribou population in northern Washington, Idaho, and southern British Columbia – known as the International Selkirk population – is a perfect example. Recent estimates place the remaining number of specimens in this herd as below 40, and possibly as low as 100.
Efforts to protect the southern mountain caribou population have largely been futile, and often contradictory. One such attempt was establishing the Stagleap Provincial Park in the 1960s. At 1,133 hectares in size, the park sits atop the Crowsnest Highway between Salmo and Creston in BC’s Kootenay region; it is only a few miles north of the Idaho border.
As far as BC Parks go, it’s small. Yet part of its mandate and purpose is to protect caribou and grizzly habitats. According to BC Parks:
“The park has a key role in protecting habitat for internationally endangered mountain caribou.”
The area is acknowledged as being a prime caribou habitat and part of a migration route that crosses the international border.
The park lists: “harsh winter conditions, habitat depletion and fragmentation, predation, and human-caused disturbances” as factors that are negatively affecting the caribou population.”
The park itself is great. The problem is that logging roads, mining roads, gas-line right-of-ways, and power lines surround it. These roads are accessible by 4×4’s and ATV’s in the summer and fall, and snowmobiles in the winter.
There is active logging just outside the park boundaries. Furthermore, on most winter days, the park is bursting with backcountry skiers and snowshoers who like the high, easy access to the peaks and ridges in the park.
The park lists: “harsh winter conditions, habitat depletion and fragmentation, predation, and human-caused disturbances” as factors that are negatively affecting the caribou population.
“So is the park really able to protect their habitat?”
The case of Stagleap Provincial Park is just one small example in a much bigger issue. The question is:
How do you balance conservation, resource extraction, and public recreation?”
Many jurisdictions in Canada and the U.S. are wrestling with the issue, with varying degrees of success. There are no easy solutions. Some propose wolf culls, closing resource roads to the public, increasing the park sizes, or captive breeding.
Others go even further and are calling for a drastic change in the way we live that would reduce our impact on natural habitats. Yet others see the issue in more Darwinian terms – species come and go, and that’s how it’s been for millions of years.
“Can we really enjoy the great outdoors without impacting the habitat of threatened species?
Economic factors play an important role as well, as our wild places sustain jobs and create income. While we debate and struggle with these issues, the fact is that time is running out for many species (like the southern caribou, among many others). They need us to agree on a solution now.
What About You and Me?
As for those of us who use all those resource roads to access our favorite hiking, mountain biking, ATV’ing, or snowmobiling destinations, what is or will be our role in the discussion?
Can we really enjoy the great outdoors without impacting the habitat of threatened species? What is it about heading into the wilderness that we love so much? Do we ironically hope to see a wild animal as we go crashing through its territory?
Tough questions, but now is the time to ask them.
More Information At:
- For more information about the Stagleap Provincial Park, visit: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/stagleap/
- Conservation Northwest’s take on Sustainable Forest Roads: https://www.conservationnw.org/our-work/wildlands/sustainable-forest-roads/
- News about the evolution of the Woodland caribou: https://www.hcn.org/issues/50.9/opinion-selkirk-caribou-are-quietly-going-extinct
- For more on British Columbia’s Resource Roads and Safety Information: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/industry/natural-resource-use/resource-roads/local-road-safety-information
Noteworthy Conservation Efforts:
- The Wolf Conservation Center is all about teaching people more about these mighty animals, their relationship to the environment, and how each and every one of us can help protect them.
- The Selkirk Conservation Alliance is an NGO that advocates for the protection and conservation of the natural resources of the Selkirk Mountains in the US.
- The Vital Ground Foundation has a special project meant to protect the Selkirk Ecosystem, and especially its grizzly bears.
- The Center for Biological Diversity’s efforts to save the Mountain caribou population.
Know of any other noteworthy and praiseworthy efforts to protect and conserve this beautiful area and its ecosystem? Then please tell us more about them in a comment.
Carley is a teacher and nature nerd with a passion for helping people get outside. Apart from teaching, she leads nature programs and outdoor trips for people of all ages. Carley also manages her own YouTube channel, The Last Grownup in the Woods. Before becoming a teacher, Carley worked as a fisheries technician and backcountry park ranger.