Saturday, August 27, 2011

Following the tracks: Trails in Parks or Protected Areas

British Columbia has approximately 13% of its area protected in parks. Most parks are forested. Some of the largest episodes of civil disobedience in Canada have centered around the use of forests in BC and the effort of the environmental movement to save forests in parks. Public perceptions about stewardship of forests have been polarized and distorted. Once a forest has been "saved" as a protected area, the battle has been won and we think that nature will look after everything with little stewardship effort or expenditure on our part. Since we have saved a considerable area of forest in parks, the timber producing forests are damned and even the environmental movement has been almost silent on the need to improve forest stewardship on these lands.

In the polarized disputes over forest land use, the environmental movement strives for the moral high ground on the green side while the forest sector does the same on the economic side. The truth is that our stewardship of all forests including parks could be better. The gap is filled with more than a little hypocrisy. Through the public relations efforts of both government and forest corporations we convince ourselves that we are giving good stewardship to our timber producing forests. Since we have already got a bit of a halo for the large area of BC that we have protected in parks we are even more ready to be convinced that our stewardship of protected areas is top notch.

If you go to a Provincial Park you can easily be convinced. This year we are celebrating the centennial of the start of BC's park system. The warm glow will continue as you approach the park by road because it usually will have nice signs and a parking lot that is attractive. The first stretch of trail may exhibit excellent maintenance. If you are fortunate enough not to be impeded by the modern malady of excess body weight and are given to walk a couple of kilometers into the park, trail quality and maintenance can deteriorate rather quickly. Trails in parks seldom have ditches and cross drainage. The location of a sustainable trail requires more reconnaissance and fitting to the landscape than a road. The location of some park trails is poor and maintenance is non existent is some cases.

Public funding for our parks is being reduced rather than increased. Stewardship is accomplished by a few BC Government Parks bureaucrats who oversee contracts to a few private parks facility operators. Beyond keeping up appearances near the parking lot, stewardship is at a derelict level. Most jurisdictions with parks in North America have some minimum standards for trails in protected areas. These standards encompass the location and grade of the trail, quality and safety of the tread or surface of the path. The purpose of a park or protected area is to conserve natural conditions and biodiversity and a trail is human built structure that involves removal of a small area of the natural condition. The best solution to this conundrum is to have some quality forest engineering in the location and construction of the trail. A good trail is less likely to erode and cause greater loss of productive area. Preparation of a safe walking surface or tread on the trail by following the four by four rule which means trying to keep rocks larger than four inches out of the top four inches of the trail surface material. This will reduce tripping and falling by 90% and users stay on the trail path rather than widen the trail when trying to negotiate tripping hazards.

Cash strapped BC Parks bureaucrats have managed to develop a simple, easy to understand, wrong trail classification to reduce the angst of their inability to maintain stable safe trails. The minimum standard of trail is "back country trail classification". It seems to be the daydream of some ecologist with little forest engineering or trail experience and the idea that the back country trail is something barely constructed that lightly winds its way across the landscape. On the ground, it comes to reality as a poorly located trail that is prone to erosion. Low effort and standards of construction usually see light fine materials being cast to the side, leaving projecting tripping hazards in the path. As foot traffic negotiates these obstacles, the trail widens and removes additional natural area from the park. Reconstruction of these trails to bring them to a safe standard poses problems because valuable fine soil materials have been lost.

The photo above is a trail in a BC Park classified as a back country trail. Unlike many trails of this type this trail is in excellent condition. It has a walking surface or tread of sorted sandy gravel material with no projecting rock tripping hazards. Lush vegetation comes right up to the edge of the trail and there is minimal impingement on the natural conditions. It is an approach to a small bridge culvert over an area prone to flooding. The trail is raised above the ground surface and contained on both sides by a row of rocks, a trail technique sometimes known as a turnpike.

The trail in the photo and the bridge culvert was reconstructed by two volunteers two days before the photo was taken. They have volunteer agreements with BC Parks and fill a needed stewardship gap. The existing rotten and unsafe wooden bridge culvert at the site was replaced by a more permanent structure supplied out of the pockets of the volunteers.

If you are a BC resident, most of BC's forests are your forests. If we we took more interest in our forests and got involved in the stewardship, we could raise the standard. Communities also should take more interest in the stewardship of their surrounding landscapes. We could do much better at stewardship of our timber producing forests and parks. Get involved, its your economy,your environment and your freedom to roam and enjoy.

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