The newsletter of AMERICAN TRAILS -- SPRING 1997

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Recreation and Wildlife: Two views on the great trails debate

These two articles appeared in the High Country Report of the High Country Citizens' Alliance.

A new scourge on the landscape?

Gary Sprung

Environmental activists have long discussed the importance of enlisting the recreation industry to our causes. But if we choose to consider recreation a blight on the land, this goal will be impossible.

Clearly recreation has environmental impacts. So do most human activities. The important considerations are the scale and degree, and to what ends. We need to maintain perspective on these problems.

Recreation impacts are more like livestock grazing and less like mining. Recreation is dispersed, with low impact by individual users, while mining impacts are intense but limited in geographic scope. But that dispersal itself causes humanity to further encroach into landscapes. How bad is that?

We should not jump to a conclusion. Can we really answer the question, "How bad is that?" Our scientific understanding of the impacts of recreation is young. Irreversibility may be a key criterion. Mine damage is permanent, but if recreation users cease to use an area, their impacts may substantially diminish immediately.

However, recreation impacts may not be politically reversible. When recreationists begin to enjy an area, it's unlikely that land managers will later kick them out. Fossil Ridge as a Wilderness Study Area grew increasingly popular to motorcyclists during the prolonged controversy over its designation. Their political clout eventually resulted in compromise, allowing them in one area, prohibiting them in another.

Some contend that trails, like roads, fragment roadless lands; that trails degrade soil, plants and water; that trails act as conduits for weeds and opportunistic animals. A recent study in City of Boulder open space indicates that birds avoid trails. But we need to maintain perspective. A narrow, natural pathway seems far less impactful than a road. While there may be similarities in the impacts, the degree is much different. The impacts of trails come with a benefit. They keep travelers off of sensitive soils and plants, concentrating use into a narrow corridor, leaving the remainder less trammeled.

A general attack on trails suggests that no human use of wild lands is acceptable. This essentially becomes an attack on humanity itself, which is unwise for a political movement. Environmentalists need popularity and credibility. Attacking even these most minimal of developments is not likely to improve our popularity.

Some environmentalists focus on mechanized recreation as particularly damaging to the environment. Motors do allow humans to go further, and faster, than non-mechanized recreation. Certainly motorized recreation has caused great damage to some ecosystems, such as the California desert. But motorized recreationists are not alone in having impacts; hikers and horses also impact the environment. Hikers and equestrians are more likely to leave the trail than cyclists, and horses often introduce invasive weeds. That Boulder study looked at a hiking trail, where bicycles and motors are banned. We need improved rules and education to minimize impacts and eliminate off-trail uses.

Comparing the impacts of differing recreationists requires subtle and complex analysis. We need better scientific information to avoid alienating major potential constituencies.

Some people use alleged impacts to the environment to cover a deeper motivation: the desire to use landscapes without the intrusion of other people. That is a social impact, and a political issue, not a biological impact on the non-human world. I do not enjoy the sound of motors, nor the smell of fumes when a motorcycle whizzes by. But my feelings are my feelings, and the real impacts to the environment are something else.

Our public lands belong to all Americans. We all have a right to use the land, but that right is conditioned by our impacts to the land and other people. While the environmental community rightly chooses to focus on the impacts, we should not forget the right. We need to acknowledge the legitimacy of mechanized uses in some places and circumstances. We need to think in greys instead of blacks and whites. When we maintain that the distribution of uses is out of balance, we must acknowledge that balance includes a place for our opponents.

We especially need to think about broadening our constituency. Mountain biking is the fastest growing use of the backcountry and it does bring along environmental and social impacts. Yet, a substantial majority of mountain bikers support protection and responsible use. Mountain bicyclists could prove to be for the environment what backpackers became in the 1960s and 70s, the core foundation for expansion of environmental ethics. We can create a constructive, creative approach to turn challenge into opportunity.

Gary Sprung served as president and executive director of the High Country Citizens' Alliance for eight years. He currently edits the IMBA Trail News for the International Mountain Bicycling Assn. and serves on the Town Council of Crested Butte, Colorado.


A deeper ecology of trails

by Dennis Hall

"When we try to pick out something by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." &endash;John Muir

Trails, like the ecology of the natural world, are connected. That's what trails do: they connect places. Wildlife trails connect bedding places with watering or breeding places. Humans first used trails to connect with wildlife places, then to connect back to the dinner place. Trails, by their nature, follow the most efficient way to get someplace, looping into other trails, connecting among themselves, threading the landscape.

Wildlife trails are quiet travelways, dynamic and changing, often disappearing then reforming. They are benign. Human trails usually become distinct and more permanent with intensity of use and purpose of destination. Our trails have complemented our evolution from two-legged tromping to 18-wheel interstate transportation of goods and services. Trails lead from one civilized point to another, imposing a civilizing effect on wilderness, which by all rights and by definition, is the antithesis of civilization. Human trails are not always benign.

Our vast western public lands require trails to cover great distances, to accomplish more efficient loops, and to serve a hierarchy of uses. Trails often develop from simple foot access trails into vehicle trails. This hierarchy complicates our understanding of the effects of trails on our natural environment. One person quietly walking on a single-track has less effect on wildlife than a person walking with a dog. A horseback rider has a another effect, a mountain biker yet a different effect, and a motorcycle or all-terrain-vehicle still another.

Intensified human use of trails often precludes wildlife use of areas proximate to the trail. When animals exhibit "aversion behavior," they are responding to the civilizing influence of trails: They are staying away from them. Studies show many birds avoid heavily frequented trails. Radio monitors show increased heartbeats in elk as humans pass nearby on a trail. Animals learn that trails often convey humans, and humans, by and large, are dangerous to wildlife.

Many species such as ever-diminishing populations of amphibians and many small mammals, don't simply avoid trails, they flat-out won't cross them. If animals will not cross trails to breed, they cannot successfully continue the evolutionary course mandated for them by nature. Human trails create impacts on wildlife habitat, as well as on wildlife itself.

We humans don't like public trails leading through our front yards or living rooms, and wild animals respond similarly.

Trails fragment large blocks of uninterrupted habitat creating biogeographic islands, the boundaries of which&emdash;trails&emdash;are avoided by apprehensive wildlife. Trails create edges of habitat on either side where non-native or exotic organisms usurp energy and nutrients needed by native organisms. Exotic seeds are transported into the existing ecosystem by the trail, carried and deposited by hiking boots, pets, horses, and bicycle and vehicle tires. As exotics proliferate, they penetrate from trail edges into interior habitat, unfairly competing with native species.

It is important to remember that humans, and our trail recreation needs, are part of the ecosystem, too. But uses of existing trails and consideration of new trail construction are evaluated with a built-in anthropocentric bias. Should a trail be designated exclusively for hiking, or should its allowed uses include motorized or other vehicular travel? Should a trail be allowed to dead-end somewhere, or should it be extended to create a loop? Is a trail important for getting someplace, or does it exist solely for recreation? Once we begin to use a place, for whatever reasons and under whatever auspices&emdash;political or customary&emdash;we generally continue to do so.

Trail construction and use should be considered from a biocentric point of view, specifically including humans as part, but only part, of the equation. Instead of continually expanding our influence into wild habitat before we know as many of the consequences as possible, we should exercise conservative restraint. This perspective is apolitical and is not a popularity contest. For too long we have thought in terms of how our actions can hurt or benefit humans, with little thought to what effect we have on other inhabitants of our Earth. That thinking has led us to the extreme pass in which we now find ourselves.

Humans generally resent being granted no more consideration than our animal relatives, and that is the arrogant paradigm that must change. Thought and actions that don't address and foster that change are part of the environmental problem and beg no solutions. From a biocentric point of view, there is but one constituency.

Dennis Hall is president of High Country Citizens' Alliance. He initiated and coordinates HCCA's Gunnison Basin Biodiversity Project, and writes for the Crested Butte (Colorado) Chronicle and Pilot. For more information on HCCA: P O Box 1066, Crested Butte CO 81224; (970) 349-7104.