Nanaimo outdoor enthusiasts are in a range dispute with the Canadian military.
At issue is the safety buffer zone belonging to Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt’s Nanaimo Military Range, located on Lincoln Road off Nanaimo Lakes Road, which includes the weapons training range and a tract of land about four times the size of Westwood Lake, that encompasses much of an area known as the Westwood Ridges on the south shore of the lake.
It is illegal to trespass on any part of an active military weapons range, but the area is frequented by mountain bikers as well as hikers, trail runners and other users.
On Thursday the Canadian Armed Forces issued a press release announcing it is enforcing the boundaries of its properties against trespassers and removing any mountain biking structures by Monday, May 20, if they aren’t dismantled voluntarily by whoever created them.
The press release cited safety issues and vandalism, which included damage to fences and removal of signs marking the property boundaries.
Lt.-Cmdr. John Nethercott, CFB Esquimalt spokesman, said the range had to shut down three times in the last 12 months to remove trespassers.
But as the military cracks down, a petition and movement is brewing in Nanaimo to open the weapons range to public use.
Nethercott said the matter isn’t an issue of taking away people’s ability to enjoy themselves during their leisure time.
“This is an issue about public safety and people who see it as anything but an issue of public safety, I would submit, are not seeing this through the proper lens,” Nethercott said.
The range has been in operation since the 1920s and is used by regular military and militia and naval reserve personnel, RCMP and other government agencies that primarily train with light assault rifles and medium machine guns using 5.56mm and 7.62mm calibre ammunition and pistols.
The large area of land behind the range used as a safety buffer is called the firing template, the possible distance a bullet could travel and injure someone if it struck them.
Nethercott said the size of the range allows flexibility to train for different kinds of missions with various weapons. The military, which on the Island has the Nanaimo Military Range and Heals Range in Saanich, doesn’t want to lose that capability.
“As we develop new capabilities, maybe new types of weapons systems, if we want to use that range for doing something different, the size of the range gives us the flexibility,” Nethercott said. “What we’ve noticed is when you give something away you’re never going to get it back. As a military force, we have a responsibility to maintain a level of readiness that requires us to use ranges on a regular basis.”
The range is used any day of the week for day and night live fire training and Nethercott said he recognizes the facility is facing pressure from encroachment as Nanaimo has grown.
A petition started on Change.org is gathering signatures to keep the trails within the range boundaries open to the public and the Nanaimo Mountain Bike Club website shared in a blog post an e-mail sent to it from the CFB Esquimalt Wednesday asking the club to pass along word of the military’s intention to remove the mountain biking structures. The blog also references a formal request from CFB Esquimalt to Trailforks, a website that lists mountain bike trails, to remove mountain bike trails listed within the rifle range boundaries or face legal action. Those trails have since been removed from the site.
Dana Wacker, Nanaimo Mountain Bike Club communications director, said the petition is not the official position of the club.
“However, because we are all mountain bikers, we are encouraging people if they want to sign the petition, to do so, but beyond that, also contacting our local member of Parliament Paul Manly, to address it the most effective and appropriate manner,” said Dana Wacker, Nanaimo Mountain Bike Club communications director.
Wacker said any mountain bike structures in the area were not built by the club, which only operates and builds and maintains trails in areas where there are land-use agreements with the City of Nanaimo and forestry companies and the club doesn’t have a land-use agreement with the military. She went on to say the club does not want to see the rifle range gone and she hopes an arrangement can be found for all groups to share the area.
“It’s not about the Canadian Armed Forces and the Department of National Defence being mean. Quite the contrary. We would be callous if we disregarded what was going on,” Nethercott said. “Unfortunately, it has gone on longer than it probably should have, but now we’re trying to take that proactive action and just make sure that it’s safe for everybody.”