|I first met Kevin in Burns Lake in 2009. I was doing a story for Bike Magazine about the incredible trails up there. I was with Kari Medig, Joe and Evan Schwartz, and Alex Pro. What most struck us about Kevin was just how much of a 'Dude' he was. Goatee, pony tail, and a beat up Transition bike in the back of his green government issue F250. We had the previously never before imagined experience of shredding trails with a government official, the actual guy who could shut you down building illegal trails no less! As an illegal builder of massive proportions (back then anyway) I was blown away to discover a government recreation officer that was actually cool (after dealing with one in my hometown region that was less than helpful). Kevin totally changed my opinion of the role the government could have in BC's mountain bike culture. After meeting him I was very jealous of the communities his the region because I knew they had perhaps the coolest recreation officer possible. Way before I started the Characters series I knew I'd eventually head back north to hang out with Kevin... he's just that kind of Character. - Riley McIntosh|
Where are you from originally? How did you end up in Smithers?
I grew up in Oakville, near Toronto. I was fortunate to ‘cottage’ north of the city each summer, which grew into a preference for rural/forested areas over urban places. I moved to BC from Ontario in 1994 and have not seriously considered moving back. I have been in Smithers for over nine years, after sampling many other towns in BC in the years before that. What is your official job title? Who do you work for?
Here is the long version which I rarely use: District Recreation Officer, Nadina-Skeena Recreation District, Recreation Sites and Trails Branch, Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations. It is easier to say: Recreation Officer, Recreation Sites & Trails BC. The Recreation Branch (Rec Sites & Trails BC) is a very small work unit in the Ministry of Forests. We have between 30 and 40 staff for the province. Our domain is managing extensive public recreation outside of BC Parks and settled areas, which includes over 1300 Sites and 800 Trails. Where did you go to school? What is the type of training needed for your job?
I started with Forest Tech School in Vancouver, and finished that up back in Lindsay, Ontario. I continued there doing Geographic Information Systems, then came back to BC where I studied Forestry and Ecological Restoration at Universities in Prince George and Victoria. Typically a forestry background is the norm for Recreation Officers – some are even registered Foresters (I am a registered Forest Technologist). However, as post secondary programs diversify to meet changing needs and towards increasing integration in resource management, we are seeing more and more programs offered in Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Management, which are probably a great fit for people wanting to get into my field. How many Recreation Officers are there in BC? Are you responsible for a huge area?
There are about 18 Recreation Officers. Many of us have Recreation Technicians helping out in the district with operational work. There are probably about 12 technicians. The branch also has a Director, an Administrator, a Provincial Officer, four Regional Managers, a Trails Manager and a Trails Specialist. Yes, we all have very large districts – mine includes the communities of Burns Lake, Houston, Smithers and the Hazeltons – but also a large area around these and all the other smaller villages in between. In most cases it would take the Recreation Officer several days of driving just to get around their District. Have you played a big role in the development of the authorized mountain bike trails in your region?
Yes and no. I would say I have played a mandatory and high level role, but the real work as you know is mainly on the ground and I certainly do not want to take any credit from our community MTB clubs, volunteers and trail builders. Having said this, my role is critical. I support the community groups through stewardship agreements, insurance, ensuring policy/standards/guidelines are met, coordinate tourism/marketing and support clubs in local capacity building. I subsidize groups, purchase materials and facilities, and as a Forest Official and Land Manager provide legal authorizations to construct trails, campsites, and related facilities.
One of the key functions I play is to ‘tenure’ the riding areas, and public and stakeholder consultation is a big part of that. I am, in this way, as a Land Manager the go-between our partner groups and other stakeholders/public. So conflict mitigation and collaborative planning is part of that. Until the point where clubs have sustained capacity to be ‘autonomous’ stewards anyhow, then it is possible to allow them to communicate directly to public, make some decisions, and further enact their own vision on their own terms with limited interference from me. This is the point where these trails and networks take on a life of their own and become central to community recreation amenity.
One other big role I play is brokering external funding – providing legitimacy, written support, financial commitments, and a policy framework with standards – which provides needed certainty to the funders. So in that way although much of the investment is external to this branch, we act as the gate keepers to ensure the projects are undertaken in a legal, sustainable, safe, and conforming way. Which spots in your area are the highlights for mountain bikers?
Speaking for my district, Boer Mountain Recreation Site in Burns Lake was the regional pilot project for our Authorizing Mountain Biking on Crown Land Policy when it was in draft form. Based on successes of such pilot projects, and some refinements due to lessons learnt along the way, that progressive policy is now official in BC... so Boer Mountain is central to regional efforts towards legitimizing mountain biking on crown land. It also represents a network of collaborating partners and stewards, as well as being managed for multiple values at once, such as tourism, local and regional recreation, youth development and engagement, accessibility, and of course – progressive mountain biking trail design and construction. The Boer network is aimed at beginner, intermediate and advanced riders alike – and hosts families and other recreation uses such as trail running, hiking, walking.
Smithers has its own character and culture. Whereas in Burns Lake we started from essentially scratch, Smithers already had plenty of existing (old school/fall line/freeride) trails to catch up with. While there are more xc/all mountain and intermediate trails in Smithers today, there is still a healthy dose of expert/advanced trails that are less refined. Regionally this has the effect of bringing travelling bikers to Smithers for a different landscape and experience. So you are developing a new recreation site in Houston, where I saw firsthand there is awesome potential for a new riding area. However, the entire program hinges on many factors to actually happen. What are these factors?
This is a situation where I saw an opportunity to leverage successes in the mountain biking developments in adjacent the communities of Burns Lake and Smithers, and I know that if we build some great trails in Houston we cannot fail. Kind of like putting the cart ahead of the horse, but also having a vision and replicating other successes. There is not even a MTB club currently in Houston, however for now the Hiking Club is working with me as a champion. My main driver is providing local recreation amenity – particularly for the youth – as I know from experience the regional and tourism benefits will naturally follow.
I commissioned a master trail plan from IMBA Canada last year – in as much for the inherent credibility it comes with, but also to make development easier and provide certainty at a strategic level. Now we have a plan, but still not much money to build it. What has to happen quite simply, as it is already a Rec Site (Mount Harry Davis Rec Site), is to raise funding to build trails. I have some seed money to help this along, and have used Wildfire Management Branch crews to begin clearing the first trail. Hopefully I can hire trail builders out of Smithers and Burns Lake to complete the first part of the first trail this year. Once we have something ride-able and conforming to standards, it will hopefully start the ball rolling where the community takes interest and we can develop a collaborative approach for subsequent development. I’m sure it will happen, it is just a question of time, and being prepared to move ahead given opportunities. I would rather try and fail at it than avoid the attempt. Where do you see mountain bike tourism going? Would you say well-structured recreation sites providing camping, swimming, and washrooms on top of the trails themselves is the best way to go?
MTB Tourism is growing, and from my perspective will continue to do so. We have the provincial Mountain Biking Tourism Association (MBTA) of which I am a director – combined with Rec Sites & Trails BC policy (safety standards, sustainable trail building guidelines, legal authorizations, partnership agreements, insurance, operating plans, etc) which are in combination well positioned to step forward on the tourism front. It is already happening of course, with a great deal of success.
In terms of ‘structure’ of amenity, each community will remain different. Wherever possible we work with what we have, but also at the pace and direction appropriate to the community and the MTB clubs. We do not want to build an unsustainable amenity. So, where Burns Lake happens to have swimming, camping, hiking/biking, canoeing/etc,etc all in one location – we do not necessarily have a candidate area for another project like that in the region. A lake at the bottom of a largely undeveloped slope of crown land is not as common as I would like! Smithers for example has three main designated riding areas, but none of them have a lake or an opportunity (or even a need) to further develop with camping. The evolution of these projects is slower and more considered. Down in southern BC it may be more feasible to have MTB Parks such as in Scotland, but our solution for that is commercial ski hills running MTB trails in the summer – of which there are about eight in BC I think, and also backcountry lodges are developing trails, which is very cool.
|In the Recreation Sites and Trails program, district recreation officers always have a full plate managing huge areas, competing interests and trying to meet a never ending public demand. In fact it is often more like an overflowing 40 gallon drum where every time the level drops just below the rim, someone dumps another 5 gallon pail of work into it. Amongst this workload, Kevin has gone above and beyond to support and develop mountain biking in the region. Working with Kevin, I know he sees it as more than his job but a real opportunity to contribute to the community that he both lives and works in. There is no question that Kevin has a vision for mountain biking in the northwest and is determined to see it through. So far the results speak for themselves. - John Hawkings, Trails Manager, Recreation Sites and Trails BC|
BC has an incredible diversity of mountain biking terrain and trail types. What would you say are the significant attributes of your region?
This region actually has a bit of everything, as do most regions in BC. Predominately though, across my district, it is all-mountain or downhill riding in forested settings – pine, spruce, and aspen forests. If we are able to get Hazelton going in the coming years, it will offer more of a coastal experience such as found in Terrace (big trees, shallow rocky soil, wet, steep). The ideal areas around here are south facing pine/spruce/aspen slopes, which have deeper soil for trail construction, fast draining with abundant natural features (rock outcrops, roots, etc) to work with. Also, we have main riding destinations being developed (Burns Lake, Smithers) leading the way for others along the same route such as the communities of Houston and Hazelton. I take a regional approach to this product development at this point.The formula at its simplest is first make it accommodating for locals, to rediscover their trails. Then with some work it becomes a regional recreation amenity, capturing regional travellers. Then, the icing on the cake is to further refine with infrastructure enhancements, signs, and marketing to help capture tourists – this is then a bona fide tourism amenity! We try to work with the ‘roadtrip’ culture of travelling bikers – but only after making it a lot better for local and regional users as a priority. The local riders need to be happy with the trails before we start marketing them to the outside world! Historically park wardens, land managers, recreation officers, etc, have almost been viewed as the 'Enemy' to mountain bikers from the perspective of trails being shut down, stunts being torn down, etc. What would you say to that?
Yes, until about eight years ago, the province of BC was looking the other way when it came to the unauthorized construction of MTB trails – they just didn’t have a mechanism to authorize them so, the BC MTB culture grew from a guerilla mentality (and that is kind of cool, because if it was legit back then we would not have the same freeride character and uniqueness which is still an undercurrent to the culture).
When the Rec Branch moved from Forests to Ministry of Tourism (after nearly coming to an end as the province attempted to divest the entire program) we had a chance to reinvent the branch from a very small seed of what it once was. The Branch, lead by the Trails Manager, researched other progressive jurisdictions who were legitimizing MTB on public land with a great deal of success (e.g. Scotland, New Zealand, Oregon, Switzerland) – and took an opportunity to develop a draft policy to authorize new developments and legitimize existing trails retroactively through upgrades, signage, etc, up to current standards. This has been a slow road, but we are getting there with participating communities.
Not all communities buy into this totally, some out there still like to do their own thing and have that authentic old school culture prevail over the more contemporary approach. Each will and does evolve based on their own perspective/capacity but also a key ingredient here is the availability/capacity of the District Rec Officer. Whereas the MTB culture is not new to me, having biked for years, it was very easy for me to get on that page quickly, engage the groups and convince them that the new way is the only way. Other districts have other pressures/priorities - but for the most part, after over seven years, most districts are now moving forward with local MTB clubs in the implementation of our policy/standards, which again is the key to getting funding for new/better trails. How is your relationship with your local bike clubs? It seems like you have been extremely supportive and helpful to mountain bikers?
It’s different by community. I engage with them where I meet them, try to connect and work together at the limits of their capacity, honouring their vision. As the regional pilot project, I have formed a strong bond in Burns Lake and continue to be with them at every step of the way – the Burns Lake Bike Club basically leading now. They have a very mature and inclusive vision of Boer Mountain, including intentional collaboration/relationship building, marketing/tourism, local/regional recreation amenity development, youth engagement, enhanced accessibility, etc. They know that rising tides floats all boats and the more values they can address the more sustainable, relevant and resilient it will be. They are correct, and I am with them on it – it is the solution for that community.
Then there is Smithers – very different. We retroactively legitimized many trails that were already built by the current biking community, and are managing them mostly for riding experience rather than the extended suite of values, honouring the more ‘old school’ flavour and working with it. We work together using agreements/standards in the same way, and have over the years been quite successful in bringing in external funding to build a lot of new trail to current standards. The networks here will eventually diversify and provide more for families as they do for committed riders. Meanwhile, the riding scene here is authentic and legitimate where it is at. In fact, the expert riders have a strong preference for Smithers in this region. So if a local rider in your area wants to build a trail, can they call you up and get permission?
Absolutely. My angle on this is that ideally they would be affiliated with the local club and an application would come that way. We want the clubs to represent the MTB sector, and see the clubs as the ideal stewards for the trails in that they hold the existing agreement for legal trails, insurance, and I work towards helping build capacity in the club rather than work with individuals where I can, with the goal of future sustainability of all trails.
|Kevin Eskelin is a true leader in BC and especially in the north region, with facilitating the hard work of volunteers and bike club partners into building world class mountain biking destinations. His dedication and keen interest both on and off the job has been proven time and again with partnership bike clubs such as the Burns Lake and Smithers Mountain Bike Associations, and now assisting with the formation of new clubs and whole new trail systems such as the one in Houston on Mount Harry Davis. In 2006 when Recreation Sites and Trails first developed a draft policy for managing mountain biking in BC, and initiated a few pilot projects around the province, Kevin excelled at engaging clubs and fostering a common understanding for implementing the policy in order to bring mountain biking out of the deep dark undisclosed corners of BC Forests to a very high standard facility enjoyed by bikers of all ages and skill levels. The Kager Lake/Boer Mountain Recreation Site is a testament to the dynamic growth for mountain biking in the north, with multi skilled trails, a very engaged club and facility operators, a very unique setting with 'bike to only' camping areas and now a universal access boardwalk. On top of all that, the project continues to grow with added amenities, a very nice dock, tenting pads, etc. as all that are involved, are so highly engaged in the project. It truly is an amazing feat and an excellent example of what can happen through hard work, great volunteers, and excellent leadership. - Jim Ladds, Northern Regional Recreation Manager, Recreation Sites and Trails BC|
What about huge jumps and crazy lines? How do you deal with them? Or do you tear them all down?
If features are beyond the limits of our policy (e.g. not safe, poorly designed, only ride-able by a small fraction of the community) this presents a few options. If the local stewardship group is taking ownership, we work together to bring the big crazy stunts to a standard that is safe, using trail filters, signage and ensuring they are within limits of acceptability with regard to our adopted standards and guidelines. If these are rogue structures or trails with no ownership, they are removed or rehabilitated simply for public safety. There is room in our authorization policies for expert features, however the proper way to get that done is with my help to ensure they are well designed, safe, and will not lead to unreasonable risk to the broader public. So your region is big, how the heck do you keep up?
This goes back to helping wherever possible with capacity building, including membership, in the local bike clubs – so as our Agreement Holders they represent as much of the riding community as possible. Rogue building happens though, and usually without the knowledge of the club or us – so I rely on the public to report these developments and we assess as soon as we can. Generally though, we cannot be everywhere at once, so there is some inherent risk management there – but only the authorized trails conform to our safety standards, so if there is unauthorized construction, those are inherently ‘use at your own risk’ by public – it is my hope that the absence of signage, maps, and the obvious non-conforming nature in comparison to the other trails alert the public to the fact they could be very dangerous. What happens if someone builds an 'illegal' trail that goes through various land titles; let's say private, railway, and crown. If the trail is really well built and an asset to the community, is it your job to try and establish this trail?
A very good question! Whereas our ‘toolkit’ is limited to Crown Land and should be used in certain ways, including proactive consultations – there are always custom solutions to invent for the greater good. The key thing to measure here is the significance to the community, if it is high and obvious, I would attempt to make it work. However, prior rights exist: private land is private land, there are just no bones about that. So, for retroactive authorization in this case, it would need the support of all land owners, existing tenure holders, and other governments would have to commit as required to making it work. Without that, we could not allow it – but again, if it is highly significant we could try to retroactively modify things so it did work. The unfortunate part is there are limited resources for such ‘make work projects’ and often times it would remain illegal or be closed due to the onus on land managers to retroactively fix an unauthorized trail. The benefit of that approach involves social learning – a tell tale lesson to do it right the first time if you will. You often speak of the "Win Win Win" situation, can you give me an example of this happening lately?
This refers to taking on more than one perspective, and trying to devise more complicated solutions so more than one stakeholder benefits from our solutions. I have lots of examples of this, most are too complicated to summarize quickly, however I will give one in general: The Burns Lake Mountain Biking Association has identified multiple values to be addressed with the development of their trail network – including tourism, accessibility by all ages, and encouraging multi-use. This approach allows us to engage a broader array of stakeholders and partners – such as local and regional governments, the tourism association, service clubs, the community forest, and local businesses. When what we are building provides something special for many different people, multilateral relationships are possible. We then work with each group of people’s particular interest, leverage funding together, and quite simply arrive at a place where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That trail network (Boer Mountain Recreation Site) is now not only about world class mountain biking, but a great place to camp, swim, canoe, run, walk, hike and learn to bike. The investment in that recreation site over the last seven years is approximately five times what I have invested on behalf of the province – we have shared the development, stewardship and maintenance responsibilities, and as a result the whole project is more sustainable. That to me is what so called community capacity building, resilience, and economic diversification looks like. How much money has gone into these trails in your area?
The Boer Mountain project in Burns Lake has seen approximately $800,000 in capital investment over the past seven years. The three designated riding areas in Smithers (Bluff Rec Site, Piper Down Rec Site, Ptarmigan Road Rec Trails) have seen about $400,000 in investment over the last five years or so. This money has been spent on new trails, but also rebuilding older trails, signage and facilities.
*That concludes this edition of 'Characters.' Please re-read Kevin’s answer to the last question. Look at those huge numbers, support for mountain biking is growing in our Province!
Interview: Riley McIntosh
Photos: Margus Riga
Riley McIntosh is a mountain biker from the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. He has done a fair bit of trail building and has dabbled in writing. He loves interviewing interesting people and learning more about them. He hopes that Pinkbike’s readers enjoy the Characters series.Riley would like to extend a sincere thank you to Pinkbike, Margus Riga, Scott Secco, and Kevin Eskelin for helping this one come together. Also a huge thanks to Northern BC Tourism, Kona Bicycles, and Experience Cycling.
Characters #1 - Thomas Schoen Characters #2 - Bill McLaneCharacters #3 - Tig Cross and Sasha LeBaronCharacters #4 - Mark Holt