Posted by: karlrobinstevenson | September 1, 2016

Flagging or Trails?


Flagging or Trails?

Last fall, (September 16, 2015) the Vancouver Island Section of the Alpine Club of Canada sent out an e-mail which expressed some thoughts which are opposite to my own beliefs about how to lessen and contain human impact in Strathcona Park.

The portion of the e-mail which concerns me is as follows, with no changes or corrections by me:

Dear All,

As a result of concerns raised by a member  and  correspondence with  Andy Smith, the Strathcona Area Supervisor for BC Parks , we discussed flagging trails at our executive meeting on September 14th 2015 and I was asked to write a letter to all members setting out  the policy of BC Parks and our policy with regard to flagging.

A brief summary of BC Parks policy is as follows:

1.  Unless specifically authorised  no flagging should be left in BC Parks. It is considered as littering and is contrary to the Park Act and Regulations.

2.  Temporary use is permissible for safety purposes provided it is removed on the way out.

3.  The reason for the policy is that permanent flagging is essentially supporting a new trail which requires consideration of  the long term impact on the park whilst having visitors find their own way reduces the impact as there is less soil compaction and less vegetation disturbance as the same path is not followed over and over again.

I hope it’s unnecessary for me to state that my intent is not to criticize the Alpine Club, but I’ll state it anyway: I have the utmost respect for the Alpine Club, which I think is an extremely good organization.

Obviously, the intent of the e-mail is good: to lessen the effects of human impact on Strathcona Park, but my thoughts go in a different direction from the thoughts expressed in the e-mail.  First, I think that focussing on flagging directs our attention away from the real problem, which I believe is actually the cause of flagging in the first place.  In my view, the real problem in the park isn’t flagging, but the lack of a good, comprehensive trail system.  As more people use the park, this problem naturally becomes more acute.  One result of the lack of good trails is that more and more park users are forced to “find their own way,” with flagging being one result.  Another result is that several trails often appear where only one is needed, with a consequent doubling or tripling (or more) of human impact.

In past years (starting in the 1960s with the Marble Plateau Trail and people like Syd Watts who had extensive knowledge and experience of Strathcona Park) I’ve helped reconnoitre and build quite a number of trails in the park.  In my mind, the single greatest purpose of those trails was (and is) to limit and contain human impact.  Many of these trails have been limiting and containing human impact for more than 50 years.  They’ve been doing this cheaply, efficiently, and unobtrusively, 24 hours a day, without supervision, by simply channelling people into following the same path.  This is the least harmful method of allowing people to experience the beauties of Strathcona Park.  It effectively contains human impact (soil compaction and vegetative disturbance) to the very limited area of the trail.  If the trail is intelligently sited and constructed it works for any number of people, over and over again, virtually forever.

“Finding our own way,” spreading our impact and creating many trails instead of one, is not a solution where human impact is concerned.  It’s an obvious problem, which only grows larger and increasingly more visible as more people use our parks.  There are already many areas in Strathcona Park where this is sadly evident.  We need to contain our impact, not spread it.  Good, easy to follow trails do this very well.  Strathcona Park desperately needs a good system of  trails to contain and limit human impact.  With good trails, the flagging “problem” won’t exist.  This can clearly be seen in the park wherever there are adequate trails.

In addition to what I’ve already said about trails, I think it’s critical that trails are planned, laid out, and constructed by people with adequate experience and knowledge of the unique conditions of weather, terrain, vegetation, et cetera, in Strathcona Park.  Without this experience and knowledge, trails can easily create as many problems (erosion, et cetera) as they solve.  The badly eroded trails on the Forbidden Plateau and the trail to Bedwell Lake are obvious examples.  The Marble Plateau Trail (planned, laid out, and built by volunteers) is an example of a trail which has suffered almost no erosion or other maintenance problems for more than 50 years.  The trail to Arnica Lake also seems to be holding up well, with minimal maintenance.  I believe these examples (and others), both good and bad, should be studied closely  to determine why some trails in Strathcona Park hold up over time, and others break down, often relatively quickly.  This only makes sense and would hopefully result in fewer mistakes, like those found in the plateau and around Bedwell Lake.  Incidentally, we might look to the elk for some useful tips. They’ve been using the same trails (following the same paths, over and over again) in the park for thousands of years with virtually no erosion damage.

With proper planning, and with the use of volunteers and the knowledge of people with years of actual experience in the park, I believe a good, comprehensive trail system could be created for amazingly little money.  This would be nothing new for Strathcona, it would merely be a continuation of what volunteers have done cheaply and efficiently for the park in the past.

So far, for more than a century, governments have been very poor stewards of Strathcona Park, with haphazard, thoughtless, and lacklustre attempts at “management” including mining, logging, and damming.  I believe it’s now time for some real thinking about how to care for the park we love.  Chasing after flagging is probably not harmful in itself, but it does essentially nothing toward solving any of the much more real problems facing the park.  Like many other human impacts upon the park (campfires, for instance, that are still visible in the alpine after almost 100 years), flagging is impossible to police.  Controlling such human impacts depends upon people themselves being taught how to properly care for this wonderful natural gift which governments have been neglecting and abusing for so many years.  This would mean (in conjunction with practical initiatives such as planning and making good trails) creating and implementing more educational opportunities like the interpretive programs and hikes already being conducted by volunteers from the Strathcona Wilderness Institute.

I believe it’s time to create and implement a very different way to administer Strathcona Park than the administrative model which has been so destructive to the park in the past.  It’s time to invent a new system which really works for the benefit of the park and the people who care for it.  I believe it’s time for those of us who actually know Strathcona Park to have a major role in the planning and decision making for a better future for the park we love.  One concrete, practical way to begin would be by creating a good, comprehensive trail system, which the park so badly needs.


PS  Sorry, the photos above should have been here, but computer ineptitude got in my way.  The first three photos are of  the trail from Arnica Lake to the Golden Hinde which was created at no cost with virtually no planning by people travelling to the Golden Hinde by the simplest, most sensible route.  Initially there was flagging, which kept everyone on pretty much the same path.  Where there weren’t sufficient ribbons, people followed several different paths, creating more trails and impacting more soil and vegetation than necessary.  Thankfully, the differing paths were kept to a minimum.  The ribbons are now mostly gone but the path remains, with no erosion or other problems worth mentioning.

Contrast the first three photos with the second three: one from the Forbidden Plateau, two from the trail to Bedwell Lake.  These trails were poorly sited and very costly to build, and the Forbidden Plateau Trails were further impacted for many years by commercial horse use.  The Bedwell Lake Trail required dangerous metal staircases which the snow destroyed, and  the trail quickly developed massive erosion problems which are increasing more rapidly every year.

Park users themselves, simply by confining their impact to one path, and not “finding their own way” (or many ways as happens when paths are inadequately marked or not marked at all) have obviously done a much better job at no cost with basically no planning.  With some intelligent planning, things could be even better.  Obviously the park would be much better off if a system was in place which welcomed knowledgeable park users into the planning and construction process instead of placing bureaucratic hurdles in their way, as is now the case.

Trails (and other park systems) don’t need to be poorly planned and constructed, and they don’t need to be hugely expensive.  What’s needed is a park system which welcomes knowledgeable park users into the planning and construction process.  Such a system would require some reconstruction of the provincial park management system, and even some important reconstruction of the BC Park Act, but it would certainly result in better, more sensibly managed provincial parks.

If anyone is interested in working to create a better provincial park management system, please let me know.  I believe it’s worth discussing, at least.






















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