Thursday, July 24, 2014

No more dozing trails across our buttes

Is this the right tool for making a trail up the side of a prairie butte in Grasslands National Park? (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)
National parks and trails--the two go together like water and fish, or chocolate and ice cream, right? Well, not always. The trail building urge can go awry, especially now that the feds have cut our national parks service down to a skeleton staff and adopted an agenda of commercialization. Sure those parks are nice with all of that wild stuff, but how do we harness it to the Economy?

Within the leadership of Parks Canada, there seems to be a new push toward finding untapped markets for the parks by appealing to visitors in ways that may conflict with the original mandate of ecological protection. Making parks more accessible sounds good--who would not support accessibility--but at what cost to the integrity of the land and its natural communities?

At Canada's one and only national park in the mixed grass ecozone, Saskatchewan's Grasslands National Park, access to spectacular landscapes has never been an issue for any able-bodied person with shoes and a desire to see what the next hilltop brings. But not everyone likes to walk over such open grassland and along eroded buttes far from the TransCanada highway, so the numbers of hikers have been relatively low. You are often alone as you walk to the top of a butte to imagine the prairie running south to the Texas panhandle as it once did. And that solitude is a large part of the park's distinctive appeal, part of what brings a certain kind of visitor back again and again.

Even with low pressure from hikers, though, some of the game trails along the buttes in the West Block of the park are widening a bit. So the park did some public consultation to see what people would want for trails and then started building them a couple of years ago.

No concerns were raised until this year, when loyal park hikers were shocked to find a "Z"-shaped gash from a new trail that was started late last fall on the side of the iconic 70 Mile Butte.

Here is a photo taken by folks who live in the area and visit the park often.

new switchback scar up one side of 70-mile butte (image courtesy of Friends of the Buttes)

Some of these people moved to the area because they found something in Grasslands National Park that they had never experienced before. The bond they feel with the park, and its landscapes, solitude, and ecology, should be welcomed by Parks Canada to help guide decisions made on matters such as how to increase visitation and build trails.

Some of them do recall participating in the public consultation on trails, and making it clear that any new trails should be carefully and sensitively constructed with the ecology and the aesthetic integrity of the landscapes guiding all decisions.

And yet, this is the kind of trail that was built across one of their most picturesque and beloved buttes.

the trail was cut so deep into the side of the butte that chunks of soil and grass are now slumping onto the trail from above (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)

In frustration and fear that more trails may be bulldozed into other buttes, people who love GNP have formed a group they call “Friends of the Buttes” to help voice their concerns to the public and to the park.

The park officials have met with representatives of the group and respectfully noted all concerns, reassuring them that the scars will heal and that a trail always looks bad when it is raw.

However, one trail building professional who has seen the photos says that two things appear to have gone wrong on 70 Mile Butte—first, the trail was sited badly, and second, the wrong tool was used. To make the trail, Parks Canada used a trail dozer, essentially a reduced bulldozer. Not only the wrong tool, but in the hands of someone who is not an experienced trail builder it can cause a lot of damage that will be hard to heal. As well, they seem also to have created a berm that is channeling water in ways that increased erosion during the wet spring and early summer. Chunks of the butte’s crumbly soil are sliding down onto the trail with every significant rain.

Biologists outside the park system are worried that the wide and deep gouge caused by the dozer will bring in invasive weeds, such as sweet clover, which is already taking over large patches of native grass along bladed trails in the park and in low-lying areas.

If you love Grasslands NP too, read the Friends of the Buttes appeal shown below and write a letter to the MPs indicated to express your concerns. Letters do help. We have to convince Parks Canada that more trails are not a good idea (particularly in the more remote East Block), and are not needed at all in an open grassland landscape with low numbers of hikers.

If increasing traffic makes a trail necessary some day then spend some money to let the professionals do it in ways that will minimize the destruction and protect against erosion and invasive species. We have all walked alpine meadows in parks where the trail is two boots wide and there are no weeds on its edges. With the damage already done to 70-Mile Butte, we should ask for a commitment to ensure that invasive plants will not be allowed to encroach. The butte is habitat for at least three endangered species (the Mormon Metalmark butterfly, the Yellow-bellied Racer snake, and the Short-horned Lizard) so the park has a duty to restore the integrity of the ecology for these and other species.

This one story of degradation and mismanagement at Grasslands is but one example of what is happening to Canada's national parks system from coast to coast as the Harper government continues to slash the budgets of anything to do with environmental protection and science. Don't wait for Harper to be ousted at the polls; act now by letting your voice be heard.

Friends of the Buttes is keeping a visual and anecdotal record of how the new trails in the Buttes of Grasslands National Park with the intention of bringing pressure on Parks Canada to address the issue of poorly planned and executed trails cut through the buttes in the west block of Grasslands National Park.
We want to track how the trails “heal” or degrade, and to let people know what is happening to these exception features in the park.
VISITORS: these trails are being in your name. They are built on the understanding that this is WHAT YOU WANT. That is is what will bring you here, and entice you to return.
If these trails concern you, THE PARK IS LISTENING. The addresses of those to whom you can express your concerns are listed at the bottom of this column.
If this page can be spread far and wide, so much the better. We would like the park to know that people are watching the trail development with interest, and that people are not liking what they see.
If anyone has a story to tell about their experience of the buttes, why they use them, what attracts them to the buttes, please feel to contribute that here.
GNP is currently planning on developing a multi-use trail (mountain bikes) in the north buttes. IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT? What price do the buttes themselves have to pay to allow you this luxury?
The buttes are an iconic feature of Grasslands. It is hard to imagine why they cannot be an embodiment of the parks professed mandate to protect and conserve the wild prairie. Leave one place in peace.
Any member of this group can add members. Any member can post to the group.
If visitors to the buttes would like to have their voices heard, please write to:
Minister of the Environment
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6
JEFF ANDERSON, Vice-President, Operations, Western and Northern Canada, Parks Canada Agency, 1300 – 635 8 Ave SW, Calgary, AB T2P 3M3 —
IRENE LEGATT, Acting Field Unit Superintendent at Grasslands National Park, Val Marie, S0N 2T0 —


  1. Truly, truly sad. It is too obvious that the person "in charge", has no idea what they are in charge of or how to manage it - or even worse they don't really care. Since it is green, they may have been birds nesting, some endangered species growing, something that might have twigged their antenna - like their own mandates regarding endangered species.

  2. I feel like the councils really need to listen to what people are saying, it's the public who are going to be enjoying these parks after all!

  3. Just finished spending a few days in the West Block. My second visit to this spectacular area of the Great Plains. I found these dozed trails to be a very unpleasant way to experience the grasslands. Walking the whole length with gravel under the feet creates a sense of separation from the grasslands; an unnatural experience. I found myself wandering off the trail to feel the grass; to climb a ridge for a better view of things big and small, near and far. To experience an intimacy with the land.

    Fortunately, not all the trails have been ruined in this way.


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