Guest Blog: Since the announcement of the creation of two provincial parks in southwest Alberta last January, where the recreational use of off-highway vehicles will be phased out, there has been quite a heated discussion about off-highway vehicle use in wilderness areas across the province. In a previous guest blog, Myths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use, fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch discussed why these machines need to be regulated. In this blog, he explains why users of these vehicles might not understand the damage they do. The piece was first published in Nature Alberta (Fall, 2015).
Tracks and Spoor
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Text and Photos Copyright © 2015
Golden yellow aspen leaves quietly rustle in the Porcupine Hills. The noise of summer motors no longer overwhelms the breath of wind caressing the ancient Douglas Firs. Emerson wrote, “Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods”. The motorized set either has not heard, or not understood the message, drowned out as it is in the screaming of fossil-fueled piston action. Perhaps the gods of off highway vehicle (OHV) users shout to make themselves understood.
Today, on a glorious autumn day, it is the gods of nature, the ones with soft, subtle voices, who are speaking. They remind me I am in a place named by the Blackfoot for the outline of trees on ridge tops, set against an improbably big sky at the edge of endless grassland. The Porcupine Hills must have appeared like an antidote to the grasslands where, at times, it seems there is nothing to lean your eyes on.
I have the labyrinth of trails to myself, unlike the summer, and I find myself paying close attention to the stories engraved on this landscape. This thought pattern becomes a trap and instead of just looking, and enjoying the subtle shifts of emphasis, I start to ponder what I observe. Colin Fletcher, the voice of hikers says, “In beautiful places, thought can be an impediment to pleasure.”
But it’s too late for subtle appreciation as I try to make sense of the pair of women’s panties beside the trail and a few feet later a pair of men’s underwear. Modesty prevents me from providing further description of these underpinnings, especially size, but I will characterize both as “ample”.
I’m not a competent enough tracker to read whether one set of underwear was meant as bait, or a signal; perhaps it was a case of one merely reacting to the other or a spontaneous gesture by both. I’m on a well used OHV trail and, as the OHV people like to point out, this is a family sport. I just didn’t realize conception on trail side was part of it, adding erection to the cycle of traction, compaction, erosion and sedimentation. Maybe OHV is an insider code for the “occasional horizontal, vertical” bop.
Maybe those of us who use our natural quads for backcountry travel are missing something. Do the vibrations, pounding, bouncing, tension, and torsion plus the harmonic engine whine induce a hypnotic state that excites passion and brings out naked, trailside lust? Is it mixed up in display, mud-gripper tires shooting up a rooster tail of dirt and rocks to indicate fitness to breed? Part must be the ability to explore new horizons by carving deep ruts up steep slopes. Prospective mates must discern this activity as an indication of superior foraging ability. Maybe it’s the rhythmic booming, farting exhaust, a primitive tribal drum call for an elaborate mating ceremony.
That’s what I’m thinking observing the spoor of the summer motor heads. But it is difficult to stalk the elusive OHV user to understand their rituals. Maybe these artifacts weren’t part of a mating ritual- the dance with no pants- but instead an alternative headgear to filter dust from a busy trail. All the trails I walk on are layered in dust- it puffs up under my boots. At speed, with a pack of quads or trail bikes, the scenery must be blotted out. I suppose you could experience something similar in an operating gravel pit, with the gravel crusher going full bore and all the fine dust being whipped into your face- as a bonus there are no trees to collide with when control is lost.
The trails I walk are rutted, in some places ground down to bedrock. Spinning wheels have advanced the rate of geological weathering and speeded up erosion much beyond the natural scale. Again ignoring Colin Fletcher’s admonishment to stop thinking I do some cross sectional measurements of trail sections to see how far down motorized traffic has worn them.
My back of the envelope calculations shock me. On nearly flat to moderate slopes, for every four paces, up to a half a ton of soil has eroded away. On steeper slopes approximately a ton of soil has slipped down slope, again every four paces. Occasional mini-Grand Canyons have formed on the very steep hillsides where water has finished the job begun by spinning tires. Down to bedrock and unnavigable by motorized contrivance, new trails now parallel these tank traps, hastening the eventual widening of the canyons.
One of the trails extends from the road in the valley bottom to the ridge top, about 1.5 km. For a trail that rarely exceeds a meter in width something approximating 300 tons of soil has eroded away. If this was farmland the rate of erosion would galvanize action, to stop it. And this is just one of a myriad of trails crisscrossing the Porcupine Hills.
Unknowingly, people driving on these trails have created a perfect storm of erosion in the Porcupine Hills. Every trail, every rut is a conduit, a straight-line feature that captures water from snowmelt and rainfall. These linear trails are an efficient interception and collection system, hastening the pour of water downslope. In their efficiency is the problem. To decrease erosion a watershed needs water to move slowly, at a constrained pace hindered and thwarted by vegetation. That way the speed of moving water, which creates the ability to erode, is reduced and more of it seeps into the soil creating a reservoir of water for drier periods. Like slow food we need slow runoff.
While testosterone charged riders test and vie with gravity on the hill slopes they can never really win. Gravity is a formidable force, and the soil loosened by tires and aided by runoff waters finds its way downhill. Beneath me, in the valley bottom is Beaver Creek. One shouldn’t have to connect many dots to imagine where all the soil eroding from the trails is headed.
But, I suppose someone without enough sense to pick up their underwear from beside the trail probably hasn’t a grasp of the simplest principles of hydrology (like water runs downhill) or of erosion (bare soil like a bare bottom moves). Just because we have technology doesn’t imply we also have wisdom.
What should be a stream that babbles along over gravel with water clear enough to see the bottom, Beaver Creek now muddles through banks of mud; the result of former hill slopes brought low by incessant tire action. The creek, tiny at best struggles with this undue load of sediment. It is equivalent to an incredibility long line of trucks with tandem loads of dirt toiling up to dump it all into the waters of Beaver Creek every year, year after year.
Researchers have found sediment runoff from OHV activity to be 2 to 20 times higher than the natural rate from undisturbed ground, depending on slope, precipitation and intensity of vehicle use. Insidiously, cumulatively this sediment pours off bare slopes and down rutted trails past most of the passersby who are oblivious to the phenomena.
Imagine the reaction if you brought just one truck load of dirt up to Beaver Creek and dumped it into the water. You’d risk prosecution under a number of federal and provincial statutes. If someone from the Beaver Creek watershed group caught you there might be some old-fashioned western justice meted out- the type that involves no court rooms and no lawyers.
I don’t actually think any of the ranchers of the Beaver Creek watershed group would engage in vigilante justice. But it must be frustrating, even infuriating to have worked for nearly a decade on restoration and improved management of their lands to look upstream and see the public land, the Forest Reserve, treated so poorly.
Aldo Leopold, the dean of ecologists observed, in 1924 that:
“Often it is necessary for landowners along a creek to work out a unified plan, else there is danger that the lack of diligence of one owner will result merely in passing the trouble down the creek to his neighbors.”
When the upstream owner is the Alberta government wouldn’t you think a stewardship ethic would be present and there would be attempts to manage land uses to prevent excessive erosion?
The Porcupine Hills are dangerously close to turning completely into a piston head race track and obstacle course with industrial overtones of petroleum development and clear-cut logging. It’s happened over time with the acquiescence of the land manager, the Alberta Forest Service. It’s classic benign neglect and before this landscape disappears completely in a pall of dust, is swallowed up by vehicle ruts and the streams become paved with mud some reflection and rethinking are necessary.
The Porcupine Hills represent an island of undulating hills, a gentle landscape with frequent viewscapes to the prairie grasslands of the east and the mountains to the west. Although short of water the landscape lends itself to outdoor recreation; the walks are gentle, there are no mountains to fall off and the place is easy to access from several large population centers in close proximity. What the Porcupine Hills lack is a unifying plan for the future that provides basic direction. Without direction, the landscape will end up where it is currently headed- a wasteland of chronic abuse.
Like the couple responding to stimuli on trailside, leaving their underwear behind, OHV users have responded to a void in resource management in our Forest Reserves. This has proliferated beyond the capacity of the land to absorb such use. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, roads and trails and OHVs are merely a case of the pig in the parlor.
Leopold elaborated, in 1925:
“We now recognize that the pig is all right- for bacon, which we all eat. But there no doubt was a time, soon after the discovery that many pigs meant much bacon, when our ancestors assumed that because a pig was so useful an institution he should be welcomed at all times and places. And I suppose that the first ‘enthusiast’ who raised the question of limiting his distribution was construed to be uneconomic, visionary and anti-pig.”
Like the metaphor of Leopold’s pigs we can have too many trails and too many OHVs on them.
Caring for the Porcupine Hills should take us back to the basics. First, we need to protect the watershed, a priority higher than any other. We can accomplish this by first restoring, then maintaining a healthy landscape, one that is resilient to erosion, traps moisture and is composed of native plants. That goes a major ways towards securing habitat for fish and wildlife, one of the key measuring sticks of landscape health. Caring means we have to reverse the syndrome of detachment and denial, where people who foul and despoil landscapes do not think their activity affects the natural world or anyone else.
As we secure the physical place we also need to secure a place for it in our minds, maybe in our hearts. At the end of A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold wrote: “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”
We need old growth forest of the mind; a watershed of thought; an ecosystem of empathy; and, a landscape of understanding. In that place there needs to be respect and awareness for the natural world as well as a sense of limits.
We can create that place, where there is peace and quiet as an antidote to our otherwise busy, noisy lives. There we might experience the natural world and all of its treasures, benefits and glories as will future generations of enlightened citizens. We will hear the whispers of the gods. And our footprint will be fleeting.
Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.
Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at firstname.lastname@example.org