Wednesday, May 20, 2015

More on prairie trails: unregulated ATVs and unmanaged access

The posters promised “22 miles of scenic trails.” That sounds nice. Where? In Saskatchewan’s beautiful Pipestone Valley, a long and winding oasis of native grass in the southeast of the province where almost all of the surrounding land is cultivated.

But this is not public land and it might be a little noisy for a quiet prairie walk anyway. The twenty-two miles of trails have been made for quads, motocross bikes and all manner of recreational vehicles. Every April five to seven hundred quads (or all terrain vehicles) gather at this stretch of the Pipestone Valley near the town of Wawota to hold a “quad rally.”

Five to seven hundred. Five quads can make a mess of a riparian area along a stream--we see it on our land every summer. If you want to see what hundreds of quads can do, take a look at this Youtube video of the Wawota Lions Quad Derby (yes, the local Lions club sponsors it as a fundraiser) held on April 25th this year.

Slide forward to 0:52 in the video and you will see a 30 second shot of the Pipestone Creek, perhaps a quarter-mile length of its vegetation and banks turned into black mud. Then take a look at the aerial shot in this second video, at the 3:48 mark after the ad is finished running (clearly these videos are getting their share of clicks).

Images like these are appalling to those who see our last small remnants of native prairie as representing some of the rarest old growth ecologies on the continent and deserving of our care and respect, but, of course, this is privately-owned land and that means here in the wild west you can do what you like with an ecosystem if the Land Titles office says you own it.

However, the Pipestone Creek itself is not private property. It is a bona fide stream with several species of fish, birds, amphibians and aquatic invertebrates, draining almost 4,000 square kilometres of Aspen Parkland prairie (most of it cultivated) into the Souris River. Our Provincial Environment Ministry and perhaps the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans have a responsibility to protect it as part of the waters we share and steward as public commons. How is that working out? Is there any regulation or policing of this kind of activity in a riparian area and the stream bed itself?

Well, apparently, the RCMP are usually on hand for the rally--not to protect the land or its non-human residents, mind you, but to protect the seven hundred people from one another.

But this year, the tenth anniversary of the Wawota event, something happened. A Saskatchewan Conservation Officer spoke to the organizers of the event and told them that they are violating conservation regulations. He let them know that he could charge them. He chose not to in the end, but now the Lions’ Club is considering its options and may cancel the rally for next year. When some of the faithful heard this, though, they launched a twitter campaign and a petition on, which has 1200 signatures. They are appealing to the Premier and the Province to save the Wawota Quad Rally.

While there is a fringe of extreme quad owners who will argue they should have a right to muck up a creek bed or native grassland because they are just having good clean fun, there are many more pragmatists even in conservation circles who will say that to minimize this kind of activity you have to keep it to a few pieces of land where the owners give their permission. Then, presumably, other places both private and public, can be protected, because all or most of the quad activity is restricted to a few sacrifice zones.

That sounds plausible, but in the real world, it is not working that way. Some of the people who go to these rallies--and there are many of them—return home to pursue their hobby on provincial Crown lands and on private farmland and pastures, spreading the ecological destruction onto new trails beyond the sacrifice zones.

unauthorized ATV users on our neighbour's land resting after they destroyed a beaver dam

This is a big unregulated problem that is only going to get worse. In Saskatchewan, somewhere between seven and eight thousand of these all-terrain vehicles are sold each year. It goes without saying that not everyone who owns a quad behaves badly, and some of the folks at the Wawota rally would no doubt be responsible ATV operators, but all it takes is a small number of yahoos to make a mess of hiking trails in our Provincial Parks, to destroy a stretch of creek bed or a hillside of native grassland on our private and Crown lands.

the garbage we collect regularly from ATV users

Farmers and hunters use quads responsibly for the most part, but they too are getting tired of seeing the damaged habitat. They will tell you their stories of disrespectful quad drivers cutting fences, chewing up trails, tearing apart beaver dams to play in the gush of water. On our pasture south of Indian Head we have had all of that. At times I have had to stand on the trail to put a halt to a local ATV poker derby with dozens of quads coming across our property.

water running out of the beaver dam after the ATVs left

Earlier this spring I heard a second hand story that came from a rancher I know from the Val Marie area. He is a member of the group of community pasture patrons who were more or less coerced into forming a grazing corporation to take over management of the Lone Tree community pasture on the Montana border.

Now this fellow is not one to complain or kick up a fuss, but he is worried. During the last seventy-some years of federal management of Lone Tree, access was controlled and no one could just drive onto the land with quads and trucks. There were clear regulations and a department to back them up, including a full time manager in residence with keen eyes for anything out of place.

As of last year, that system of oversight is gone. In early April, the rancher happened to be at Lone Tree and caught a group of men on quads who were driving over the pasture collecting antler sheds left behind by the elk and mule deer that winter there. Fire is a constant threat on grassland this far south and ranchers live in fear of a truck or quad muffler causing a big spring conflagration and eating up thousands of acres of grass.

He explained his concerns and asked them politely to not enter the pasture without permission. Their response? “We were told this isn’t a community pasture any more so those rules don’t apply.”

Unfortunately, there is some truth in that statement. The old rules protecting the pasture don’t apply. What is needed now are some new rules and government support, both for access to these lands and for ATV use in general.

Respectful and managed public access is important for all of our public lands, but if Saskatchewan’s provincial government does not wake up to see that they have responsibility for the ecological wellbeing of the 1.6 million acres of grassland being handed over to the province, we will see more unmanaged access at its worst, and the former PFRA pastures could become the latest ATV sacrifice zones.

ATVs are not going away any time soon, but we need to start licensing and regulating their use. From what I hear, the people who run the Saskatchewan ATV Association are reasonable folks who also want the Province to step in and work with stakeholders to develop a full set of guidelines, including licensing--an important first step that almost every other province in Canada took long ago.

Children and adults die on ATVs every year in this province and yet we have no rules on how these vehicles are used; streams and rivers and native prairie on Crown land and First Nations’ property (take a look at the Little Arm/Kinookimaw area by Regina Beach) are being destroyed every day and there are no serious penalties enforced, no licenses to trace when someone violates a law.

There is an opportunity here to do something good. The Conservation Officer who took a stand at the Wawota rally needs someone to back him up. And that doesn’t just have to be his department or ministry; it doesn’t just have to be conservationists and hunters. It should be all reasonable people, including all quad owners who want to see responsible and sustainable, regulated ATV use come to this Province.

Write or talk to your MLA, challenge our Provincial Cabinet members, ask them what they are going to do to licence ATVs and stop irresponsible ATV use from damaging our natural landscapes.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A conscious threshold: how to walk alone in grassland

When we walk in grassland, or in any place where the natural order of things holds a rich array of life together, the quality of our encounter can easily default to a collection of views from hilltop to valley, experiences that may linger on the skin and on the retina but go no deeper. You talk to the friends you came with, and the bubble of ordinariness that surrounds you every day follows you out onto the prairie, protecting you from the persuasions of birdsong and wind.
But then there are those other, too rare times when a walk draws you in and the world takes you down to another kind of awareness. Your friends cannot come so you go alone. The light seems different, the grass, but you too seem more and less than yourself, a hand's span, a breath's free and passing gift away from who you were when you left home.
To get there, Franciscan Richard Rohr suggests that we might try consciousness. He offers the following set of instructions, beginning by "finding or creating a conscious threshold":
Wilderness Wandering
Go to a place in nature where you can walk freely and alone, ideally some place where human impact is minimal—a forest, canyon, prairie, bog, mountain. Tell someone where you will be and how long you expect to be there. Take adequate water and clothing for the conditions.

Begin your wandering by finding or creating a conscious threshold (perhaps an arched branch overhead or a narrow passage between rocks). Here offer a voiced prayer of your intention and desire for this time. Step across the threshold quite deliberately and, on this side of your sacred boundary, speak no words, but only expect!

Let the land, plants, and creatures lead your feet and eyes. Let yourself be drawn, rather than walking with a destination or purpose in mind. If you are called to a particular place or thing, stop and be still, letting yourself be known and know, through silent communion with the Other. Before you leave, offer some gesture or token of gratitude for the gift the wild has given you.

When it is time to return to the human world, find again your threshold and cross over. But now you have learned to expect God in all things.
Richard Rohr

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Best grassland hikes for this summer

an ephemeral wetland (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
From Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” submitted to California’s “Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission” in 1960.

Summer is a good time to head out and find an expansive piece of native grassland where you can go for a long walk. If you live in places like Alberta or Montana or North Dakota (look at this web page) it is fairly easy. There are established trails on state and federal grasslands where you are welcome to hike and in some cases camp overnight.

In Saskatchewan, however, there are very few places where you are allowed to hike and camp on our publicly-owned native grassland.

On leased Crown grassland or community pastures in the province, you have to track down the manager or leaseholder to ask for permission. In most cases, they will grant the permission and let you know where you can go and where you cannot go, and how to behave while you are there.

In the case of the federal PFRA community pastures still run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, you are supposed to apply for a permit with the head office in Regina and then get the pasture manager’s signature approving your plan to enter the pasture. Once you have that, then your permit will be processed. This can take some time, but it is worth doing to get a chance to walk through these remote and often breath-taking landscapes.

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

As for the former-PFRA pastures now passing into the hands of private groups of cattle producers who are leasing the land for grazing, there is no formal process for gaining access and it remains to be seen how each pasture corporation and their managers handle public requests for recreation access or research or traditional medicine gathering.

Fortunately, and thanks to the foresight of Nature Saskatchewan and the great and wise George Ledingham, Saskatchewan does have one big and beautiful piece of publicly-owned grassland where you don’t need to ask permission to go for a walk--Grasslands National Park (GNP).

Most GNP visitors restrict themselves to the shorter trails in the West Block, which have their appeal but cannot compare to the grandeur of the landscapes you will encounter in the East Block. One of the longer and most rewarding East Block hikes is the "Butte Creek/Red Buttes Trail," which departs from the Rock Creek Campground and day use area. Here is a pdf of a pamphlet showing the campground and the start of the trail, the red trail marked "4".

(click on the image to see a larger version) the red trail marked "4" heading off in the top right corner of this image is the "Butte Creek/Red Buttes Trail"
The total distance of the hike from Rock Creek Campground is 16 km round trip. As you move through a mixture of habitats, from native grasslands to creek valleys to badlands there will be birds and a mix of native grasses and wildflowers all the way. You could well see a long billed curlew, or a prairie falcon pass overhead; ferruginous hawks and golden eagles nest in the area. If you go in June or July the characteristic prairie songbirds will sing all around you and overhead: in open grasslands you will hear Sprague's pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, Baird's sparrows, and grasshopper sparrows. As you move through the badlands, you may hear the rock wren’s improvised song echoing from butte to butte.

And when the day is over, you may know something of what Stegner was talking about: that we need such wild country, need to know it is there, and that we can travel to its edges and restore ourselves with the reassurance that comes from a “geography of hope.”

Buttes in the mist, image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

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