Don’t Fence Me In: ‘Right to Roam’ comes to BC


Photo courtesy of Grant McLean

British Columbia MLA introduces “Right to Roam” Act

By Grant McLean

Having relocated to the Vancouver area from mid-town Toronto last year, one of the experiences I most anticipated was exploring the natural beauty of the Lower Mainland on my bike.   Whenever possible, I search for small roads away from cars, gravel paths, and river dike trails.  I have since discovered picturesque climbs along forest roads, some that wind their way up towards stunning cold water lakes and magical hidden beaches.

Google street view is a friend to the curious cyclist. And yet, sometimes the blue line on the map just stops, halted at a gate or fence where no further access is permitted. Posted signs may warn visitors to keep out.  Stopped in the road, you find yourself unclipped from your pedals, looking around to consider your options.


Photo courtesy of Grant McLean


In many natural areas, there can be confusion about what land is actually open to public to access, are bicycles permitted, and what lays beyond these barriers placed on private property.   Can I ride to Coquitlam Lake? If not, why?

In February 2017, Andrew Weaver, MLA representing the Oak Bay–Gordon Head district on Vancouver Island, introduced a new bill titled The Right To Roam Act (1).   This legislation has the potential to increase access to public wild land, lakes, and rivers for recreation.  In this Bill, “roam” is defined as non-motorized travel for the purpose of lawful recreation, and therefore would include access for bicycles.  This right would allow for people “upon and across uncultivated land”, defined as land that is in its natural state.  

The need to assert this right has become increasingly clear.  Decades ago, the British Columbia government considered reserving the right to designate a right-of-way over land in all future Crown grants, but sadly this never happened.  In part, it was seen as unnecessary as forest companies freely granted recreational access to their Crown and privately-held properties. But since then a number of companies have withdrawn access, if effect, creating barriers between forested areas within and beside municipal boundaries.  In some cases, hundreds of kilometres of roads to access lakes stocked at public expense have now been gated off (2).


Photo courtesy of Grant McLean

Codifying public access rights is a fairly recent process.  Scotland passed the the Land Reform Act in 2003 which gives everyone the right to cross land (and inland water and foreshore) for purposes of recreation, education and commercial activities (3). Their approach was to create “core path” plans setting out a system of trails that give the public reasonable access throughout their areas. The basis of this right partially restores the historic commoner rights lost during the ancient enclosure period when the commons system ended. Norway, Sweden, and Finland have similar access rules, for cycling, skiing, walking.

Critics and private landholder concerns are with regard to the potential public safety liability, and damage from garbage, vandalism, and fire issues make opening access a risk. Of course these are valid issues, that need to be addressed along with the responsibilities required of the public. But these concerns have not stopped other jurisdictions from ensuring public access to wild private lands.   

In Canada, the law in Nova Scotia provides public access for fishermen and women. The Angling Act assures for a right to go upon uncultivated land, river stream or lake for the purposes of fishing, or crossing by boat or canoe.  The Act also considers compensation for actual damages to the landholders, and “shall not in any way limit or restrict the right of any owner or occupant to compensation for actual damages caused by any person going upon or across such lands”, reinforcing the public responsibility that goes along with the right of access (4).

Photo courtesy of Grant McLean

Under current B.C. law and the Trespass Act, owners of forests and wild private property have a relatively unconstrained right to exclude the public seeking recreation from crossing their lands, no matter the access issues this creates.  Does this make sense?  

Major Canadian cities are becoming more congested, and more cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts who live our modern urban lifestyles in downtown areas will continue to look to escape the sprawl that has enveloped our exurban regions for recreation.  Access to nature should be encouraged for the benefit of public health.  Cyclists have been on the front lines of the urban infrastructure issue with hard-fought success in many areas.  We should be aware that issues of access extend beyond our urban borders, and into natural spaces as well.  It will be interesting to follow the path of the “Right to Roam” legislation, and the reaction to an idea that I believe is long overdue.

Footnotes
(1) http://www.andrewweavermla.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Right-to-Roam-Act.pdf

(2) http://www.elc.uvic.ca/publications/enhancing-public-access-to-privately-owned-wild-lands/

(3) http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2003/2/contents

(4) http://nslegislature.ca/legc/statutes/angling.htm

Grant works for Live To Play Sports, a wholesale distributor of premium bicycles, parts, and accessories, and rides to the office in Port Coquitlam, B.C. Grant also has a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning from U of T.

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