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‘Free-for-all’ access to burned Okanagan forests stopping post-wildfire regeneration: Advocates

Thompson-Okanagan forests closed for wildlife regeneration are at risk due to unregulated activity
Forest fire aftermath from Rock Creek wildfire. Provided by Jesse Zeman.

Thompson-Okanagan post-fire road closures have not been enforced and the B.C. Wildlife Federation wants to establish equitable and cautious access to trails.

After the summer wildfires last year, Okanagan forest trails were closed by the B.C. government to protect and preserve wildlife as the area recovers, but B.C. Wildlife Federation executive director Jesse Zeman said there has been little oversight to ensure rules are followed.

It now appears any commercial operators including guides, ATV tour operators and anyone with a commercial interest are exempt from the closures while the public is locked out, he said. The group has also received several complaints about mushroom pickers and people driving into the forests to cut wood.

“I’ve been getting calls almost daily about what’s been going on here in the North Okanagan from my members,” he told Black Press Media, adding that signage indicating closures and restrictions is minimal.

“It’s very poor, this now falls into the responsibility of the natural resource officers. There are not even a couple of handfuls of them in the entire Okanagan Valley.”

READ MORE: Thompson-Okanagan backcountry roads a no-go this summer

Closures were done to give the forests a regeneration break after-burn damages, the province said in a statement to Black Press Media. Impacts include erosion, ecosystems and habitat loss, the potential spread of invasive species, increased vulnerability of wildlife and loss of vegetation cover.

Assessment of burn severity and reinforcement of regulations is crucial to restoring the forest, Zeman said emphasizing that in the absense of this work the ministry issued two permits for mushroom buyers to go scout out areas and those permits were photocopied and handed out to mushroom pickers.

Mushroom picking is unregulated and is currently allowed under restrictions.

People have been accessing trails in vehicles due to leniency and permits, Zeman said.

BCWF is calling for the province to review burn severity and forest access to determine what is and isn’t viable regarding commercial and public activity.

“… It needs to be everyone in or everyone out,” he said. “If you want to walk, bike or go in on horseback, and you do it responsibly, that should be no problem.”

The federation is urging its members and the public to contact their MLAs and Forests Minister Katrine Conroy asking for a return to sensible restrictions on access to fire-damaged forests and a moratorium on commercial activity in those areas.

In an emailed statement, the forest ministry said they are committed to removing or replacing the closures with a mechanism that prevents damage to vulnerable fire-affected landscapes, while enabling broader recreational access.

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