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 —

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Prairie Places: Kayaking Swift Current Creek at High Water


Estuary of Swift Current Creek, photo by Mike Wild, who always gravitates to
the highest spot[click to see the whole panorama]
There are some wonderful stretches of grassland in Canada. Places we go to for solace and solitude. Here is a photo story about one spot I visited, but I would love to hear from you about the prairie places you explore this summer--leave me a comment below or send me an email to I will post a list of favourite grassland places later this summer.
The weekend before Canada Day I walked part of the last stretch of Swift Current Creek meandering towards the South Saskatchewan River between Saskatchewan Landing and Beaver Flats. Friends have been telling me for years about the place, showing me pictures, describing it as a hidden wonder.
Even on google earth the landscape looks dramatic, steep hillsides and buttes tumbling down to a small underfit stream hurrying toward bigger waters.
a little riffle in the creek before the big rains came
Arriving there after a morning of birding north of the river in the Matador Provincial Community Pasture, I walked north from the last bridge on the creek. The rains of June had made the hillsides as green as postcards from Ireland. The sleepy creek had become a series of rapids running through rock gardens and standing waves worthy of a northern river. Here is a video that shows one set of rapids that got me thinking about a kayak trip.
The next day I talked to my good friend, the indomitable and always ready for an adventure Mike Wild. We decided we would do a Canada Day paddle down the creek and out onto the South Saskatchewan toward Beaver Flats. Karen agreed to come along. We borrowed all of the gear from Doug Kermode's Spirit Bear open source paddling emporium (thanks Doug!).
When we got there at 10 a.m., the creek was flowing even faster thanks to the deluge that fell on Sunday the 29th. It was the most fun I have had with a paddle in my hand for several years. Karen and Mike stayed dry but I dumped twice and went for a bit of a swim in fast water. But the water was warm and the sun shined on us all day.
Here is a string of photos from the day.

Karen suiting up for the day near the bridge east of Stewart Valley
With my white-knuckled grip on the paddle as I struggled to stay upright and aiming downstream in the rapids there was no way I could take photos of the river action, so all the shots from here on are either on shore when we stopped or at the estuary where the water was calm.

I counted seven Yellow-Breasted Chats singing along the creek, their territories evenly spread between the bridge and the estuary

I heard at least two Willow Flycatchers, another increasingly rare species that likes these
 grassland coulees

Pin cushion cactus were in bloom

Once we made it to the calm waters of the wide estuary we
 found a beach for lunch

this is a view of the estuary looking back from a hilltop that
is the corner to the river flowing east (left)

Mike took this shot as I walked to the top of this
 lower hill overlooking the estuary and river

After some exploring we headed into the river. This is Mike
mustering the courage for his dive.

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