Wildfire recovery rules poorly enforced, spark commercial 'free-for-all' in B.C. Interior, advocates say

·3 min read
Morel mushrooms — an expensive fungi that thrive in areas previously disturbed by fire — pictured in an area north of Kamloops, B.C. on June 8, near the site of the 2021 Embleton Mountain wildfire. The Thompson-Okanagan Region saw more than 550,000 hectares burn in 2021. (David P. Ball/CBC - image credit)
Morel mushrooms — an expensive fungi that thrive in areas previously disturbed by fire — pictured in an area north of Kamloops, B.C. on June 8, near the site of the 2021 Embleton Mountain wildfire. The Thompson-Okanagan Region saw more than 550,000 hectares burn in 2021. (David P. Ball/CBC - image credit)

The wildfire-scorched woods of the Thompson-Okanagan have become a chaotic, commercial "free-for-all" according to the B.C. Wildlife Federation — a year after the region made up nearly two-thirds of land burned in B.C.'s third-worst fire season.

The organization is crying foul over what it alleges is the poor enforcement of B.C.'s wildfire recovery rules, which included the closure of 536,000 hectares of public land to recreational motorists in an effort to allow the charred ecosystems to regenerate naturally.

The federation's executive director said he blames unregulated mushroom sellers, all-terrain vehicles, and salvage logging for jeopardizing efforts to restore habitats and respect the natural cycle after fires.

"The public interest should come first," Jesse Zeman told CBC News. "Industry should not get a leg up.

"In these areas after a fire, we need to give it at least a year so that things have a chance to come back before we're busy putting motorized vehicles all over the landscape," he said.

David P. Ball/CBC News
David P. Ball/CBC News

More than 550,000 hectares of the region burned last year, according to the B.C. government.

The closures of forest service roads and recreation trails, first imposed last fall, prevent recreational motorists from reaching almost all of those hectares.

In May, the Ministry of Forests said the closures are "intended to be temporary during habitat restoration planning and activities," and would likely be removed when there is a successful "degree of recovery" of the ecosystems.

The ministry said previously burned areas need to have less road traffic and fewer motorists to prevent the erosion of charred soil into fish habitat, the compacting of soil from use, the spread of invasive species, and to reduce disruptions to migrating wildlife in an area where animals are at "increased vulnerability."

However, the government vowed that the closures would not impede commercial activities, and individuals can also apply for exceptions. This is placing the land's recovery at risk, said the federation, which advocates for hunting, fishing and wilderness conservation.

According to the federation, large-scale commercial mushroom harvesters are a big part of the problem.

Lucrative morel mushrooms are commonly found in the burned areas. The federation alleges some mushroom harvesters left significant amounts of litter in some places, and improperly copied and distributed provincially issued permits — although CBC News could not independently verify the claim.

The federation also said there is poor signage of the closed roads, and that some all-terrain vehicle operators and guide operators may be ignoring the motorized vehicle restrictions.

Kupki7 Rosanne Casimir, chief of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council which represents nine member First Nations in the area, said she also hopes to see stricter rules to ensure the ecosystems can regenerate after wildfire seasons.

"My hope is that all areas would have some kind of protection, but most importantly working with local First Nations as well who have direct knowledge of these areas of land," she said.

A provincial spokesperson told CBC News the forest ministry's compliance and enforcement branch "prioritizes and addresses complaints received," as does the B.C. Conservation Officer Service.

"Some activities such as the commercial harvest of mushrooms, an unregulated activity, are exempt from the current motor vehicle closures which were enacted to restrict access to fire damaged areas," the spokesperson said in an email, adding that the province is "working with" First Nations "to minimize the impacts of mushroom pickers on vulnerable landscapes."

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