DND eliminates Westwood trail access to public

Cites safety issues even though public has been using popular trail system for years.

The Department of National Defence will be cracking down on hikers, runners and mountain bikers who illegally trespass on its property behind Westwood Lake by issuing tickets and even laying charges.

Sara Helmeczi, spokeswoman for CFB Esquimalt, said the DND is taking a tougher stand to protect the public from potential harm. The military and RCMP use the land as a rifle range, which requires a large buffer zone to guard against stray bullets.

DND trespass signs and barbed wire have been removed over the last several years, resulting in illegal trail building and increased public infiltration into the area.

“We’re not changing our policy, the land has always been DND property and it has always been illegal to trespass on it,” said Helmeczi. “They were never open, they were never official trails. We’ve had signs up for years but they keep getting stolen, so we’re not putting up new signs, we’re just replacing the ones that are missing.”

Because of the dangers and the increase in trespassing, more military police will be patrolling the property and issuing fines and tickets.

“It’s a rifle range so safety is our No. 1 concern. We can’t have people wandering back there not knowing they’re getting close to that range because military activities can start up at any moment,” she said.

The sudden crackdown came as a surprise to Nanaimo’s running, hiking and mountain bike communities. Many members of those groups have spent hundreds of hours building trail networks behind Westwood Lake, assuming it was OK because the trails had been used without incident for years.

Westwood Ridge, arguably the city’s most scenic and popular trail, is now off limits.

Norm Thibault, owner of Frontrunners, said not having access to the trails eliminates one of the best areas in the city for outdoor recreation.

In the News Bulletin’s annual Best of the City published last month, readers named the Westwood trails the best in Nanaimo.

“When people refer to Westwood Lake area they’re not talking about just the proper six-kilometre trail around Westwood Lake,” said Thibault. “They’re talking about the general area which includes [Morrell Sanctuary], Westwood Ridges, and all the way up to Mount Benson and that’s what they’re referring to when they say that’s the No. 1 area for running In Nanaimo. It’s going to affect lots of people who use it as well as tourism,” said Thibault.

Two key running events take place on the trails as do regular hiking groups and the Bastion City Wanderers, Nanaimo’s VolksSport group. The annual GutBuster running race uses trails on DND property, as does Fletcher’s Challenge. Both require DND permission, which hasn’t been a problem in the past.

“They’ve always been very accommodating when it comes to these events, but I don’t see how we can use those trails now if there is barbed wire running across them,” said Thibault.

Mark Perdue, spokesman for the Nanaimo Mountain Bike Club, said he understands the safety concern, but there has been no opportunity to discuss alternatives with the DVD.

“This has probably been the biggest wall we’ve hit so far,” he said. “The response we got was a flat no and that they’re not interested in working with us because this is a safety issue.

“Our view is that there isn’t really a safety issue because so many people have been riding and hiking for so long without incident. We’re not really sure what the safety issue is because they haven’t told us.”

Perdue said the area is key in linking trails in the south end of the city to the north, and without the trails near Westwood, the system will remain fragmented.

Helmeczi said posting a schedule when the range is being used isn’t an option because there is no set schedule – military or RCMP training can commence at the facility at any given time.

“We don’t want to appear heavy-handed, but want people to know it’s an out of bounds area for good reason,” she said.