Plants affected by foot traffic on trails

Hikers heading out onto the trails for the summer should watch where they’re walking. A new ALES study found that the plants growing around trails are negatively affected by foot traffic.

ALES researcher Ellen Macdonald of the Department of Renewable Resources, her colleague adjunct professor, Joyce Gould and graduate student Varina Crisfield looked at trails in Whitehorse Provincial Park, south of Hinton.

The researchers surveyed the alpine plants, taking stock of their different types and quantity. They also measured, among other things, soil compaction around the trails and the amount of disturbed soil and gravel.

They found that hiking trails not only have fewer plants, but very different kinds. They also found the areas bordering the trails showed signs of plant disturbance up to five metres away, indicating that the foot traffic has a wider impact than just where the paths are.

Macdonald says the most interesting results came when they compared the trails to naturally disturbed areas. These areas, which look like hiking trails, have few plants and a lot of gravel because of frost damage.

They found that hiking trails were very different than naturally disturbed areas. Hiking trails have plants growing where they naturally wouldn’t, resulting in a decline of the plant species you would normally find.

In a natural alpine area, plant species benefit each other by creating a better microclimate to grow in. The loss of one species changes these microclimates, which then negatively affects other plants, causing a decline in plant cover and number of species.

Macdonald says their findings suggest it will take a very long time for these trails to recover and will require active restoration efforts to do so.

But Macdonald doesn’t want people to stop hiking.

“You know, I love hiking, it’s a way for people to enjoy nature. I think closing trails that are really damaged or temporarily closing trails so they can recover is a good idea. And hikers have to hike responsibly. Stay on the trails!”

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