A group dedicated to protecting the oldest provincial park in British Columbia has gone to court in an attempt to stop the government from allowing horse packers access to a remote wilderness area.
"Horse use has been a contentious issue since day one in the park," Scott Bernstein, a lawyer for Friends of Strathcona Park, told B.C. Supreme Court Monday.
"This issue of conflict with backpackers … is kind of a sharing-the-trail issue," he said in his opening argument, in a case which pits the Friends of Strathcona Park against the Ministry of Environment.
Established in 1911, Strathcona Park sprawls over 250,000 hectares of rugged mountains and sparkling lakes on central Vancouver Island. It features glaciers, snow fields, a 440-metre waterfall and the Golden Hind, the highest mountain on the island.
Mr. Bernstein said the group wants the court to set aside a park-use permit that was granted by the government, last February, to Clayoquot Wilderness Resort. The permit authorizes the resort to build a horse trail along the Bedwell River and to put up platforms for luxury tents. The resort, which offers everything from whale watching to skeet shooting, currently offers deluxe outpost tents for $1,600 per person per night. Tents with flush toilets and private showers cost $2,000 per night.
The Bedwell River area is currently accessible only to backpackers who make a long overland hike through the park, or who travel by boat, up the west coast of Vancouver Island, from Tofino.
Mr. Bernstein said if the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort plan goes ahead, hikers who have made long treks seeking "a solitary experience" in the wilderness could suddenly find themselves face to face with a dozen horseback riding tourists, who are headed for luxurious tent camps that have been set up for them by wranglers.
Mr. Bernstein said the proposed horse trail would be radically different from the narrow wilderness footpath that currently exists. While backpackers now have to wade across streams and scramble over fallen trees, the horse trail would be more like a sidewalk through the woods.
"A horse trail is much more different than a hiking trail … You could take a wheelchair through there," he said of the proposed horse trail.
Mr. Bernstein told court that over the years, public advisory groups have worked with the government to draft a park management plan that stresses the protection of wilderness values in Strathcona Park.
"The park is significant not only to Vancouver Island, but also to the rest of B.C. … Strathcona Park must be protected to the fullest from recreational development," he said.
Mr. Bernstein said people have made it clear in public consultations with government in the past that horses should be banned from most areas in the park, and only allowed in a few locations where old logging roads already provide access.
"There is a legacy of very strong feeling … against any [new] horse use in the park," said Mr. Bernstein.
He said people don't want horse packers to get wider access, "because a horse weighs 1,000 pounds, has metal hooves and has the potential to be more disruptive [than a hiker on foot]."
"This case is about ensuring the Minister of Environment protects the parks for the good of the public," Bridget Horel, a spokesperson for Friends of Strathcona Park said in a statement released outside court. "Allowing a private company the exclusive right to bring horses into a wilderness area diminishes the park for all of us."
Clayoquot Wilderness Resort is not a party to the court case and won't be making submissions. Government lawyers have not yet had a chance to reply to Mr. Bernstein's opening arguments.