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Posted: May 21, 2014

Plenty of disgust and questions during Koocanusa cleanup

By Ian Cobb/e-KNOW

Little did he know when he was first elected to office 14 years ago that he would end up being a garbage-man as well as a legislator.

Area B Director Heath Slee
Area B Director Heath Slee

Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) Electoral Area B Director Heath Slee has made it is his mission to find some semblance of control to the rampant misuse of the Crown land around Lake Koocanusa, shortly after being first elected.

This past Victoria Day long weekend was, sadly, a normal one for Slee who spent three days patrolling the myriad of unofficial camp sites and squatters’ hollow, keeping an eye out, reporting wayward activity and constantly cleaning up.

He organized an impromptu cleanup Tuesday, May 20, after having already filled 2.5 pickup trucks with garbage.

Additionally, Koocanusa Campsite and Marina owner Bob Cutts, family and staff filled a full-size garbage bin on Sunday.

Slee, Koocanusa Campsite and Marina’s Bob, Evelyn and Dano Cutts, and about 20 other area residents and elected officials converged on the ‘Sandpits’ area, which accommodated about 100 to 200 rowdy weekend campers, Tuesday afternoon and another couple of pickup trucks were filled with trash of all forms and foulness.

District of Elkford Mayor Dean McKerracher was close enough to the action that he could see and hear it.

“It was the usual Alberta rodeo at the Kooc,” he stated in a return email to Slee May 19. “As you know I have a camp just across the road from the boat launch, or better known as free camping at the sand pit. As it is every weekend and especially long weekends, there were hundreds of people camping, which I don’t mind if they are respectful. As usual dirt bikes, quads and large trucks tore up the landscape all night, as well as loud music until 6 a.m. and chain saws cutting down good trees beside the fire pits at two or three in the morning. I might be getting old and grumpy but enough is enough. If Alberta can close the bush on long weekends why can’t we? This is my 19th year at this same camp site and it is getting worse every weekend. I will do what ever I can to help this group solve this ever increasing problem,” McKerracher stated.

Along with contacting fellow RDEK directors, Slee included Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett and Kootenay-Columbia MP David Wilks in his weekend updates, which included photos that can be seen below.

Bennett said the province is aware of the problem and steps are being taken to try and find a remedy.

“The planning initiative I have underway now with CBT (Columbia Basin Trust), the province, Ktunuxa and the RDEK has this problem in its sights. Kindy Gosal is leading a discussion on how we can create a recreationist focused management plan where we have people on the ground to help with compliance and enforcement of provincial and local government rules, garbage pick up, management of camping, etc.,” Bennett said.

Slee started informing officials about the carnage on Sunday.

“This afternoon I took a tour of the Koocanusa shoreline just north of Kikomun bridge. As most folks are aware, Victoria Day weekend is the ‘breakout’ weekend of the summer, and I was appalled at the level of disregard for the landscape, and disrespect for local residents. For a moment I thought I was standing in the middle of central landfill, the only difference being there was no equipment in place to bury the litter,” he stated, offering an invitation to come see firsthand, and help cleanup.

While Bennett and Wilks are stuck in Victoria and Ottawa respectively, several locally elected officials rallied to Slee, including McKerracher, City of Cranbrook Councillor Bob Whetham and his wife Gretchen and some RDEK staff.

The cleanup, Slee said, was “a great opportunity for folks to see firsthand what local residents in the area are having to deal with and cleanup after during the summer months. Sadly, it’s a poor reflection on our neighbors to the east. This has been an ongoing problem that continues to grow, and needs to be addressed.”

Like most things in local government, a solution will require financial resources that are not available.

“The challenge in the past has been insufficient resources. CBT has agreed to consider some annual funding to help our region pull this together. We’re going to need everyone rowing together on this one,” Slee said.

The ongoing ignorant behavior and complete lack of respect from many of these ‘campers’ has Slee at wit’s end.

“I can’t understand the thinking of these people,” he said during a break in the cleanup yesterday.

Standing on the other side of a seven-foot by five-foot pile of trash, McKerracher pulled up a sodden but otherwise new-looking tent and stated shock at such waste.

The wooded area on a shoulder of land overlooking the new marina and Lake Koocanusa would make for a glorious camping spot but now it looked like the aftermath of a battle. Perfectly good lawn chairs were left lying around, along with the usual beer cases, food wrappers, tent pegs, tents, hunks and blobs of food, a litany of small plastic and paper bits and most disgusting of all, numerous locations were inundated with human feces. Every here and there a green tree or shrubs were felled.

For folks in the Columbia Valley – think of Sunshine Ranch or Lake Enid for the scale of the mess and carnage.

And like that area, “We have to rely on the good-heartedness of locals” to clean up the mess, McKerracher said.

“People are frustrated; they’ve had enough of this,” Slee said.

The incident that seemed to spike Slee’s concerns over the weekend was an abandoned fire he found still burning in the Flagstone area.

“They just left it; there wasn’t a soul there,” he said

While there are numerous sites along the east and west side of Lake Koocanusa where visitors are regularly appearing, with loud music, off-road vehicle use and careless behavior evident at each site, the Sand Pit location was the focus of the Tuesday afternoon cleanup, attended by several members of the local media, including e-KNOW.

“This is a postage stamp” compared to the scale of events ongoing around the lake, remarked Evelyn Cutts, former City of Fernie Mayor.

McKerracher suggested police are afraid to enter such sites as Sandpit when there are large crowds. It wouldn’t take much for a riot to ensue, he said.

Slee is quick to defend law enforcement officials such as BC Conservation Officer Service members, provincial resource officers and the RCMP.

“They are doing the best they can with the resources that they have,” he said. “But some level of enforcement needs to follow. The officers have to follow the offenders, in my opinion.”

Slee added he heard from a provincial ministry official who suggested they had already cleaned up about 50 truckloads of trash from sites around the lake.

City of Fernie Mayor Mary Giuliano, responding to photographs circulated by Slee, stated the behavior is “unbelievable disrespect for our land. We can no longer sit by and allow this to happen again and again. There has to be a way that all levels of government can work together to find ways to stop this even if it means closing some areas to the public.”

Village of Canal Flats Mayor Ute Juras also saw the photos and her reaction, in a return e-mail to Slee noted, “That is absolutely disgusting and completely unacceptable!”

Electoral Area A Director Mike Sosnowski added, “This is absolutely disgusting. This is the result of no enforcement and that has to change.”

During the cleanup a wide variety of ‘solutions’ were shared by participants, ranging from controlled entry and exit to certain areas, to fees to use Crown land to outright banning of use.

All the regional directors agreed that “enough is enough” and residents need some respite from the wild west behavior occurring around the lake, including, according to several witnesses, numerous fights and blatant drug dealing.

The disrespect shown to the land, blending from Crown to private along the lakeshores, has also got to stop, Slee said, noting the fragile grasslands that are being torn to shreds by off-road vehicles and abuse of private property.

Please click on image to enlarge and to begin self-directed slide show.

Photos by Heath Slee and Ian Cobb/e-KNOW

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