These routes were made for walking

Published on July 24, 2014
Hikers on the East Coast Trail. — Telegram file photo

Nature Newfoundland and Labrador (NatureNL) is following, with interest and considerable concern, media reports on the introduction and commercialization of mountain biking on the East Coast Trail (ECT).

NatureNL is this province’s premier naturalist group. For almost five decades we have exercised our mandate, as taken from our memorandum of association:  

 “(a) To provide an association for persons interested in the natural environment of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador for the purpose of fostering among the members and the public, awareness, understanding and appreciation of these natural surroundings and of man’s place in them.

“(b) To provide a voice for the presentation of the ecological point of view

on matters of conservation, natural resource management and resource use.

“(c) To encourage the development of environmental attitudes towards sustaining the quality of the environment of this province as the keystone of its invaluable resource heritage.”

There are several kindred groups in the province, perhaps most notably, the East Coast Trail Association (ECTA).

From its inception, the East Coast Trail has been a wilderness trail system, designed to have as low an environmental impact as possible. ECTA recognized that hikers want to enjoy a natural, pristine environment where they can get away from pavements, buildings and other man-made intrusions.

Hikers want to enjoy the natural world undisturbed, the animals and plants,

the sea and land.  With that in mind, trail hardening has been minimized, done to protect the land and waters from the hiker, not to protect the hiker.

Paths have been cut just a metre wide and most of the treadway is the forest or barrens floor. Little of our ground is mineral soil, most is peat which does not stand up to heavy use.

Stepping stones are frequently used in wet areas and boardwalks over the numerous bogs are two side-by-side six- or eight-inch planks.

Contrast that with the degree of hardening done by the Grand Concourse with its four- or five-foot wide boardwalks and thick, wide layer of rock and gravel fill even over mineral soil.

Or the Rails-to-Trails, the old Bullet route with a roadbed originally designed to support laden trains.  

Clearly the ECT paths are not designed or built for bicycles, let alone for multi-use, including motorized vehicles.

Quick strolls along an active ATV route and a path of the ECT would confirm that the ECT is not designed, not hardened and not of the width required. Few of the ECT paths could safely accommodate mountain bikes; the paths are too narrow, and wet areas, stepping stones, stairs, boardwalks and boulder fields present barriers.

Additionally, with our friable soils, linear grooves cut by tires would result in accelerated erosion of the trailbed.

ECTA has a government issued “Licence to Occupy No. E116109” — in effect a permit for an Avalon coastal hiking trail.

That licence to occupy specifically excludes use of all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles but is silent on bicycles. Recent suggestions that the ECT become or be designated a multi-use trail is certainly contrary to the licence to occupy.

As a wilderness/adventure hiking trail network the ECT has won national and international recognition. Tourists from other provinces and countries visit here, in part, to hike on our trail. Hikers from Europe and as far away as New Zealand have come specifically to hike it.

The National Geographic Society has rated the trail as one of the world’s top hiking trails. Would the hikers still come from afar and would National Geographic still rank the trail so highly if it is degraded by inappropriate use and user groups?

The ECT initially was a strictly volunteer effort, with dozens of enthusiastic women, men and children gathering on weekends to clear and to reopen traditional coastal paths, preserving Newfoundlanders’ traditional right of  access to our coastline.

Volunteers remain a critical component, annually providing countless hours for governance, planning, route selection, trail assessment for maintenance and, very importantly, fundraising. How long would the members continue their volunteer contributions if they see the departments of Tourism and Environment permitting, and apparently encouraging, the conversion of our jewel of a hiking trail into just another muddy quagmire like the existing hundreds of kilometres of ATV or multi-use trail?

Will the numerous hiking trails throughout the province also become multi-use? Who will explain that to the local volunteer hikers who worked long and hard to build those trails? We are not opposed to mountain bike trails but the mountain biking community should develop their own paths, not commandeer existing hiking paths.

It is time our hiking trails, and other properly built and managed trails, received legislative protection equivalent to a linear provincial park.  Threats to the trails’ continued existence should cease.  They are a valuable resource for all in this lovely province, and NatureNL members and other hikers want to return to the quiet contemplation of nature in a natural, pristine environment along the ECT.

Allan R. Stein,

Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s

on behalf of Nature Newfoundland

and Labrador