With roadblocks and patrols, and more than a year in planning, provincial authorities are staging an all-out offensive this weekend to stop destruction of the Thompson Valley’s grasslands.
Officials from provincial ministries representing wildlife habitat, fish, forestry compliance and enforcement, Conservation officers and RCMP are involved in the bid to push campers off the grass and into designated campsites in the forest.
Roadblocks were in place Thursday and Friday evenings on Tunkwa Lake Road, accessed from the Logan Lake side where Lower Mainland residents begin to teem into the area as early as midweek.
Graders have also been brought in to ditch some areas so trailers cannot be pulled in.
Noel Kekula, a recreation officer with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, estimates there are 600 campsites in the area south and west of Kamloops.
But they’re often empty, even at the peak May long weekend.
Last year during the May long weekend, forestry officials flew the areas of Tunkwa Lake, Cherry Creek and Six Mile Lake. They counted 300 units. Another 100 or so were thought to be so close they weren’t distinct.
That’s at least 400 units, maybe more than 1,000 people, burning, defecating, driving on and destroying salt grass, bluebunch wheatgrass and giant rye grass.
And that was during an “exceptionally cold” weekend when most campers stayed home.
What’s changed and why do campers flock to the grasslands?
Forestry officials have no direct answer. But ministry staffers Laila Salm, a range officer, and Shauna Jones, an ecosystems biologist, have their theories.
Standing beside the roadway at the popular fishing hole Six Mile Lake, Jones said there’s always room to add another unit to the party or another space to back in a trailer a few metres down the road.
Kids don’t get out of eyesight in the open grass and new trails and tracks can easily be chewed out, without lugging around chainsaws.
And word gets out swiftly through enthusiast forums.
Amber Cowie, manager of B.C. Grasslands Conservation Council, said the closure and enforcement are signs there is understanding among public servants for the need to take action.
Staff ultimately needs backing from their political masters, as well.
“We know there are people within the ministries who understand the value of grasslands. It’s nice they have the political backing.”
Kekula said the roadblocks and enforcement should come as little surprise. The ministry has done everything from posting ads in Fraser Valley newspapers to posting notices on ATV enthusiast and fishing forums.
Some of the reaction is not unexpected.
Kekula and other ministry staff are often searching for postholes where signs were recently planted. Drivers or ATV riders equipped with rope or chain are suspected of yanking them out of the ground.
Government officials are putting every resource here at their disposal on the ground, and in the air, this weekend in an attempt to draw the line.
The hope is the message will get out and users will learn to keep out.
Salm and Jones were also busy this week taking photo-points — photographs of grassland destruction through mud bogging or trails linked to GPS co-ordinates — so a return to health can be documented.
“People say, ‘It’s the cattle causing damage,’” Salm said. “Now we’ll be able to tell.”
Keep off the grass: closures in our grasslands
Six Mile Lake – 2,200 hectares.
Tunkwa Lake – 2,300 hectares
Cherry Creek – 880 hectares
No camping, no motorized riding on trails. Areas are signed at entrances and trail routes.
Provincial land managers say destruction of grasslands by campers and people on off-road vehicles is unprecedented. One of the contributors is cheap, Chinese-sourced ATVs and dirt bikes for adults and children: “They’ll break down and people leave them in the bush,” said recreation officer Noelle Kekula. “They’re disposable.”
At risk are grassland species including painted turtles, spadefoots, western toads and curlews.
Where to ride and camp?
Government officials are directing users to Greenstone Mountain and Duffy Lake, forested areas with designated campsites and some signed trails from clubs.
Late in the week, forest officials were getting word of people camping in grasslands, just outside the closure areas. There are also fears pressure will spread to Scuitto Lake and Noble Creek grasslands.
“We don’t know where they’ll go,” acknowledged Kekula. “We’re doing a lot of speculating.”