Friday, 29 August 2014 05:29

Trail development in Grasslands Nat. Park creates controversy

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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A hike to the top of 70 Mile Butte, one of the highest points in Grasslands National Park (GNP), is considered to be a must-do event for visitors, but the development of a new trail on this butte has been creating growing controversy over the past few months.


The development of a new five-kilometre trail on 70 Mile Butte started in the fall of 2013 and the work is still taking place.
In 2011, officials with GNP started the development of a two-kilometre trail loop on Eagle Butte. This work has been completed, with the exception of the installation of some outstanding items such as markers and a trail bench.
Irene LeGatt, GNP acting field unit superintendent, is confident these trail developments have been taking place in an appropriate manner through careful planning and analysis that involved wildlife, vegetation, cultural resources and trail specialists.
“We did a very rigorous environmental review for these trails,” she emphasized.
Eagle Butte trail is a 1.5-metre wide double track trail where people can walk side by side and the 70 Mile Butte trail is designed to be a single track trail that will be approximately 0.75 metres wide.
“Many of the experts walked the proposed trail, suggested changes or suggested that we move it a bit here, a bit there, just as an example, and so modifications were made to the trail design to help mitigate any of the impacts on the resources,” she said. “So there were a lot of studies and a lot of consultation that was done on the trail and recommendations. I’m not saying that 100 per cent of everyone’s recommendations were always adopted, but we really did do a very thorough analysis of the plan.”
According to LeGatt, the GNP identified a clear need for well-designed, sustainable trails in these highly-visited areas of the park to address concerns over potential environmental impacts and to improve the visitor experience by providing people with a proper trail to walk on.
“The 70 Mile Butte and Eagle Butte are iconic features in the park, so they receive a lot of visitation,” she said. “We were finding that a sustainable trail was necessary because without designed and well-planned sustainable trails, visitors were creating their own trails. For instance, in the 70 Mile Butte area, unplanned trails were sort of going everywhere and they were causing erosion and soil compaction, impacts to rare plants, and leading to further erosion.”
She indicated there will not be stricter rules to ensure visitors stay on the new trails.
“We would not enforce that people had to stay on the trail in the sense that we would prohibit people from not using the trail, but we would highly recommend that they would use the trail,” she said.
The trail development uses a bench cut design by cutting soil from a slope. The soil is then used to form a hardened, slightly sloped pathway below the cut. Mechanical equipment such as a mini excavator and trail dozer and various hand tools are used. LeGatt said the use of mechanical equipment was included in the environmental assessment and this machinery is designed for trail building.
“It is used by trail building companies in the United States and is highly recommended,” she noted.
For two residents of nearby Val Marie the zigzag path of the new trail on 70 Mile Butte and the use of heavy equipment was a cause of real concern.
Pamela Woodland and Catherine Macaulay decided to highlight their concerns over the potential environmental impacts of the trail development through a Facebook group called Friends of the Buttes.
“Catherine and I went for a walk up 70 Mile together and we were both aghast at what we saw and really concerned about the implications of it because it came to our attention that there was a plan to build yet one more trail in that region,” Woodland said. “We felt we had to draw attention to what was going on because if there was any way it could possibly be stopped to have any further trail development, we had to give that a go. So we started the Facebook page because that was the only thing we could think of to reach out to a wider audience without realizing it would actually be as effective a tool as it was.”
The Facebook group has grown to more than 180 members.
According to Macaulay, there is interest from a variety of people. Some have visited the park and others have an interest in conservation issues.
“It struck a chord with a lot of people who appreciate wild spaces and believe they should be preserved,” she said.
She considers the trails on Eagle Butte and 70 Mile Butte to be out of place in this sensitive prairie landscape and more appropriate to an urban park.
“I think any trail construction has to be done in a sensitive manner and has to be done recognizing the intrinsic value and beauty of the prairie landscape and what is happening now is these trails impose themselves upon a landscape where they’re not at home,” she said.
Woodland is concerned about the use of heavy machinery and a “very heavy, fast, hard hand” to create a trail on the highly-erodible surface of 70 Mile Butte.
“Cutting into a very vulnerable material like that is just going to make that whole slope more vulnerable to even quicker erosion than would just ordinarily take place over time,” she said. “So now it’s crumbling and it’s crumbling fast. It’s also putting species at risk. … There’s no way those machines will stop in time to keep from crushing whatever creatures are on the trail at the time.”
Macaulay added the removal of large portions of natural ground cover will be an opportunity for invasive plant species to get a foothold.
“So we’re certainly not against trails, period, full stop, but I think the trail has to match the landscape and in this case it doesn’t and it’s a shame,” she said.
Woodland is worried the bench cut is widening due to erosion and efforts to clear out the erosion.
“So the park is going to be in a position now of having to continually clear up the debris that the slope itself is going to create in the process of trying to re-establish its natural angle of repose,” she said.
According to LeGatt, there was some erosion over the winter months and due to heavy rain in the spring.
The resumption of construction was also delayed due to the emergency protection order prohibitions for the endangered greater sage grouse, which came into effect in February 2014.
“The design, once all of the mitigations and all of the work have been completed, I do believe will address the erosion problem,” she said. “As with any trail, there is always some maintenance that needs to happen and this trail will be no different but it has been designed and it is being built as a sustainable trail that will require very minimum maintenance.”
She noted the impact of the trail appears to be more severe during the construction period, but the finished trail will not have the same visual impact.
“We appreciate that the trail in its current state does have a very powerful impact, but it is still under construction,” she said. “That is not what the final state will look like and we have already received good comments from visitors that have appreciated the trail because it allowed them to go to the top of 70 Mile Butte where without a trail that would not have been possible for them.”
The GNPC is still committed to the development of trails in the park in accordance with its approved management plan, but the implications of the emergency protection order for greater sage grouse must still be evaluated.
“Our priority right now is to work on the 70 Mile Butte trail and that analysis is something that we will do starting this winter or fall,” she said.
They will also consider feedback on this trail when they look at future trail development in the park.
“We always want to learn how we can do better and it’s always an evolving process,” she said. “It’s always looking to improve what we do and so definitely we would also take into consideration in our planning the comments and the feedback that we’re receiving now.”
LeGatt referred to the federal government’s National Conservation Plan that was launched in May to create a more co-ordinated conservation approach across the country.
“One of the key points is connecting Canadians with nature and fostering an appreciation for nature and we do feel that sustainable trails are a method by which we can do that,” she said.
Woodland and Macaulay have a number of priorities.
They are hoping the park will develop and implement a rehabilitation and re-vegetation plan for the 70 Mile Butte trail as soon as possible, and that there will be no further trail development in the buttes.
“You’re not going to have a view if you build another trail up north butte and that’s what we want to stop is any further trail building in the buttes,” Woodland said. “They have their two visitor experience trails now, that’s enough.”
They will also continue to raise their concerns and make more people aware about the issue of trail development in the park.
“We certainly will continue to encourage wider discussion from even more people all the time,” Macaulay said. “I mean, two of us sitting here in Val Marie are not going to make much of a difference, no matter how cranky we are, but I think the more people post on Facebook or write letters to the senior management or whoever, surely something has to have an impact at some point.”

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