Year over year, the popularity of Mission’s backcountry around Stave Lake has grown in tandem with the heaps of garbage left behind.
Increasing amounts of illegal dumping, irresponsible campers and other unlawful activities are disrupting a once-peaceful environment that locals – the bears included – have enjoyed for decades.
“It’s horrendous. I used to camp down there myself when I was younger,” said Michele Chapman, executive director of Mission Environmental Stewardship Society.
“It was not like this back then. It’s totally different now.”
On March 26, 2022, 39 volunteers from MESS and the Four Wheel Drive Association of BC conducted their bi-annual cleanup of the isolated forest service roads snaking up the eastern edge of the lake.
By the day’s end, they had collected 4,500 pounds of garbage; their previous cleanup, they collected 4,000 pounds of trash; the cleanup before that, over 5,000 pounds.
She said the problem is getting worse, and she’s expecting a repeat this summer, even without COVID restrictions pushing people outdoors.
Chapman said MESS is trying to partner with local authorities like the Conservation Officers Service (COS), and the Fraser Valley Regional District to bring more awareness and enforcement to the growing piles of garbage.
She notes that Stave Lake West has been significantly better over the last five years since the City of Mission started making improvements to recreation sites.
But even in the west side’s recreational sites, the amount of wildlife conflicts are increasing annually, according to COS officer Sgt. Todd Hunter.
Wildlife conflicts had been on the uptick before COVID, but the problem spiked over the last two years to a level Hunter said he’s never seen before. He remembers forest service roads gridlocked in traffic jams last May long weekend, often packed with two-wheel-drive cars and novice campers.
Last summer, he said it got to a point where they recommended total closures of official campsites, and over the course of a several weeks, 300 to 400 illegal campers were evicted by COS.
Hunter said they can deal with rec sites issues, but the “random campers” are a problem leaving unsecured food waste, garbage and damage everywhere in their wake.
In one instance, campers used truck winches to move boulders protecting sensitive wildlife areas so they could set up camp; in another, officers broke up a rave party with several hundred people present, handing out big fines to the organizers.
“I’ll tell you, that was like the best ticket I ever wrote,” he said. “Totally oblivious. Did they actually care about the bears? No, obviously not.”
Two bears had to be killed in the area last year because they’d become so habituated, according to Hunter. One bear he put down himself.
Late at night, he was called up Stave West to a recreational campsite after a bear began walking through the middle of the camp undeterred.
“Having to deal with black bears in a setting like that in the wild is really upsetting, because that’s their turf,” Hunter said.
For several weeks, COS assigned overtime every Saturday for extra patrols, but Hunter said they just don’t have enough manpower to cover the whole region.
He said there are four officers assigned to the Lower Mainland region, which spans from Indian Arm in the west, Pemberton to the north, and Harrison Lake to the east.
Chapman said some areas on the east side are being used as landfills: hazardous chemicals, drywall containing asbestos, construction debris, oils, flammable paint cans, aerosol products, nails remnants from pallet fires, old furniture, burnt-out cars, and thousands and thousands of bullet casings and shotgun shells are left scattered across nature.
Her instincts say small contractors and junk-haul companies are illegally dumping, as the construction-type trash can be found on pull outs only a short distance up Sylvester Forest Service Road.
She suspects companies offering cheap rates with slogans like “No load too small” are using the wilderness, instead of the landfill, to avoid fees.
At one clean up, Chapman witnessed a weighed-down, junk-company truck pass by their volunteers headed north; when it returned, it looked light – presumably empty.
“There’s only one road in and out of the whole area and there’s no landfills out there. There’s nothing up there that you could be dumping that would be legitimate,” she said.
When it comes to hazardous waste, they contact the COS to get specialists to attend to the cleanup. Four reports over the last two years have been received by COS regarding illegal dumping, according to the Ministry of Environment.
Irresponsible campers and target shooters are responsible for the remainder of the trash, according to Chapman, adding they collected 50 pounds of casings on their March cleanup.
It’s illegal to shoot directly off forest service roads, but either that rule is not known, or it’s not working as a deterrent, she said.
“We’re finding target shooters firing right on the road,” she said. “We had a volunteer have to go out and tell someone to stop shooting by them on the road. The person argued with them, saying they were allowed to shoot there.”