The author of a 2008 report on the safety of B.C.’s logging roads is accusing the province of ignoring his findings, in the wake of the fatal bus crash near Bamfield.
Ombudsperson Roger Harris’s report on “resource roads,” or logging roads, contained 17 recommendations to improve maintenance and safety, following 16 related deaths in three years.
Many of them have been adopted, but not what Harris calls his “cornerstone” recommendation – the creation of a new designation for logging roads that serve as a community’s primary or secondary access roads.
This designation would have “clearly defined standards” for maintenance, construction and enforcement. Roads would be funded similarly to the public highway system.
In his report, he specifically brought up Bamfield Road, concerned by the fact that thousands of students and researchers were using it each year to get to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. It’s also regularly used by Bamfield residents, tourists and members of Huu-ay-aht First Nations.
Last Friday, a bus carrying 48 people, most of them students from the University of Victoria, was on its way to the marine sciences facility when it crashed down an embankment on Bamfield Road. Two students were killed.
And the report crossed Harris’ desk again.
“Regretfully, for all the wrong reasons,” he said on Thursday, Sept. 19.
In a recent statement, the Ministry of Transportation said the issue is complex because the province doesn’t own the road. Private companies own and main it for forestry operations.
But Harris argued it hasn’t been primarily used as a logging road for many years.
“These roads were originally built for a single purpose: To move logs,” he said. “But as these [logging] camps become communities, those roads become multi-purpose. The Bamfield Road is one of the best examples. A logging camp, it’s not. But it’s still under the same road system as a logging camp.”
Bamfield is not the only B.C. community served by resource roads. The villages of Tahsis and Zeballos on Vancouver Island are only accessible by mostly gravel logging roads, as well as numerous First Nations communities in the Interior.
Harris’ 2008 report said resource roads have become an extension of the public highway system.
“People living in these communities should have the same equitable treatment that you and I have,” he added on Thursday. “If you live in Bamfield, you have no idea what the condition of the road is going to be when you leave your house in the morning.”
The road doesn’t necessarily need to be paved, Harris said. But ownership should be transferred to the government, with clear requirements for maintenance.
A petition started by one the crash survivors asks for road conditions to be improved between Port Alberni and Bamfield. As of Thursday morning, it had more than 7,000 signatures.
But Harris fears that while public pressure might lead to improvements, nothing will change for the many other communities that use private resource roads as their primary access.
“We see things like medical facilities, hospitals, schools … Those are essential public services that governments provide,” he said. “A road that gets you to and from your home is equally an essential service.”
B.C. Premier John Horgan mentioned the 2008 report on Thursday, acknowledging that the Bamfield road is an “age-old problem.” He also noted that the road is privately owned and under the purview of Western Forest Products.
“It is used by the public and we’re going to have to find a way forward,” he said. “It’s terrible that a tragedy where two lives were lost had to focus our attention on it, but I know that we’re going to be working…to try to find a way.
“Kids travel to Port Alberni on that road every day to go to school,” he added. “If that’s not enough to see action, I don’t know what is.”