The Zeballos Forest Service Road has become so degraded over the fall and winter that residents of the five communities that use it, and Claire Trevena, the NDP MLA for North Island, say travel on it is unsafe.
“I’ve grown up in B.C. I’ve lived out in the bush my whole life along logging roads, and I’ve never seen anything so neglected as this,” Gwen Alsop, a school trustee living at Zeballos, told Ha-Shilth-Sa.
Alsop said there are times when the ambulance from Port McNeil can’t get down the road. “We have a school bus that operates on it every day…. We often have a bus going out the main road for different activities for the kids…
“Every time they do an activity that takes them all the way out on our road to the highway, I’m chewing nails hoping everything goes OK.”
Trevena said a ministry email went out to a select few this winter warning them not to use the road because it was too dangerous.
That was news to Alsop and the more than 250 locals on her Facebook Page “Zeballos Inlet Outpost.” When she asked her friends if any had heard of such a warning, none of the residents had been informed of the alert.
In the larger scheme of things, however, it wouldn’t have mattered if they did, because there is no alternative but to use the road no matter its condition.
“We are totally dependent on that road.”
Trevena has written to the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations, Steve Thomson, to protest the “deplorable state” of the service road, which has been “deteriorating rapidly”. The road serves the community of Zeballos, and the Nuu-chah-nulth communities of Ehattesaht, Ocluje, Fair Harbour and Kyuquot. It’s used by workers, school students, residents, paramedics, and tourists.
The RCMP have gone off the road, said Alsop. Even loggers complain about the road.
But it’s not the first time Trevena has asked that more resources be allocated to the road. Almost every year at budget estimate time—for the past 11 years—Trevena struggles to get the attention of the ministry. They tell her there are limited resources, but this year, that response is not good enough.
She said she was shocked by the condition of the road during her last trip in November, and Ha-Shilth-Sa has heard this complaint from others as well.
This is the worst year ever, Trevena said. An investment in this road is ‘imperative’, her letter to the minister reads.
She even challenges Minister Thomson to “drive to Zeballos in your personal vehicle to experience what residents have to face on a regular basis.”
Jenniffer Hanson, who is from Kyuquot, and must travel the entire length of the road to get to her community, not just the 42 km to Zeballos, said "the Forest Service Road from the highway turn-off all the way into Fair Harbour is horrible."
Alsop’s lived in Zeballos for just five years, and she and her school principal husband have already been through a few vehicles.
“I hate this road. I do… It’s brutal…. It beats you up really bad,” said Alsop.
Tearing up the roads are massive forestry vehicles and semis. Alsop and Trevena believe that Western Forest Products, the licensee on public lands which has “taken millions of cubic metres from Nootka Sound” has a “civic duty to serve the public and maintain the road from which it has benefited for so many years,” reads the letter.
”When the icy conditions are happening, it’s a skating rink out there,” said Alsop.
“One day there was a logging truck and it dumped at the bottom of one of these hills here, and I just can’t imagine coming up that one bad hill and have an out of control logging truck going down. And when the roads are really, really bad, it’s like the truck operators, sometimes to save their trucks, they’ll be going around the corner on the wrong side trying to dodge potholes and such. You have to have your wits about you.”
Alsop said Western Forest Products does have a responsibility to the road, but their response to that is “pretty minimal”. Western is “squeezing their pennies. They are in this for the profit, so, you know, as soon as you get some sort of private entity like that, this is what you are going to see.”
“It used to be they cared about the communities they worked in. But it’s not that case anymore.”
She said Western maintains the highway-end of the road, which is most often the worst part of the road.
“You go to meetings with these guys and… the ministry of forests had a cutback, and the ministry of transport had a cutback, and the Western Forest had a cutback, and you go ‘Come on. You know, this is safety.’ And they go, ‘Your safety is not our problem. This road is to transport our equipment on.’ So, it’s like everybody that lives out here, you know, you’re just tough out of luck.”
Alsop told Ha-Shilth-Sa that the communities in the North Island are fading away and out of the thoughts of government and an industry that has taken resources out of it for decades.
Trevena said the road, in the condition that it’s in, is a detriment to continued economic development as well. Alsop agrees. She said “We love it out here. We love the community. We love the kids.”
“At one point we thought about buying a home in here. And it was that road that put us off, and it puts off any businesses that might want to come in here.”
Alsop said Trevena has been a real champion for the road, “because she comes out here to see us.”
When asked if she thought it was a political decision to ignore the state of the road for more than a decade, Trevena acknowledged that there is “pavement politics” in the works in the province, but she hoped the government isn’t playing that game.
This is a safety issue, she insisted, and she hopes there is no political tinge on government’s inaction on the road.
“I’m really afraid it’s going to come down to we’re going to have a really bad accident,” said Alsop.
“You know… ‘until somebody gets hurt.’ I’d like to really avoid that.”