Maxwell Lake watershed use frustrates NSSWD

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Mountain bike tire tracks at access points leading into the Maxwell Lake watershed are as clear as the many signs warning people to stay out, and the North Salt Spring Waterworks District wants to remind people the area is off-limits for a reason as the summer heats up.

A forecast put out by the federal government predicts an above-average wildfire hazard for B.C. this year due to expected high temperatures in July and August, and NSSWD operations manager Ron Stepaniuk said illicit campers and/or careless smokers accessing the watershed potentially pose a serious threat.

“We have a large concern for fire in that area because it is heavily treed and hard to get to, and people do sometimes go off and camp illegally,” said Stepaniuk. “It’s a concern for us, but obviously it’s a concern for everyone. There’s a lot of activity up there, a lot of traffic. The risk is real and, should we have a fire in the watershed, it could dramatically impact water quality immediately and/or into the future if ground cover is stripped away due to fire.”

Salt Spring Islanders have used Maxwell Lake as a source of drinking water since 1913, and approximately 500 acres in total have been purchased by the NSSWD, most of which are protected by a covenant requiring their protection from logging and other activities.

Part of Maxwell Lake watershed fence cut and rocks moved to facilitate access.

While there’s no estimate of the average number of trespassers each year, Stepaniuk said he’s seen an increase in trampled ground, as well as occasional piles of horse manure and wooden structures such as ramps likely built by fat-tire enthusiasts. The NSSWD has installed nearly 500 metres (1,640 feet) of 2.4-metre (eight-foot) high fencing to prevent people from accessing Maxwell Lake, and for the past four years has hired a security company to monitor the surrounding area between the months of May and September at an overall cost of $13,672.

“We have a security company that goes up multiple times a day, and of course we have system operators up there as well because we have facilities in the area,” he said, adding they don’t have the authority to issue tickets.

But while hikers and horseback riders have a wide variety of options to choose from on the island, off-road bikers do not. This is something Outspokin’ Bike Shop owner Sean Mulligan would like to see change.

“When you build proper trails, you minimize the impact, and you also attract people away from areas where they’re maybe not supposed to ride,” said Mulligan. “A lot of people are opposed to mountain biking, but that’s what’s going to happen, people will ride wherever they want and they’re also going to build trails in places they shouldn’t.”

Bicycle tire tracks and dog pawprints seen in the mud of a Maxwell Lake watershed trail.

Mulligan added that most mountain bikers are environmentally aware and would seek to avoid damaging sensitive habitat but that it’s also an increasingly popular form of recreation and many people want access to dedicated terrain.

While neighbouring Duncan has two nearby dedicated mountain bike trail networks at Mount Tzouhalem and Maple Mountain designed to minimize erosion, Salt Spring currently has none, although a proposal was made in February to the Salt Spring Parks and Recreation Commission for a potential demonstration trail in Channel Ridge.

“If they want a solution, mountain biking is a growing sport and you need to build proper mountain bike trails,” said Mulligan. “I use the rather crude analogy of having a public washroom: You’ve got to give people somewhere to go.”

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