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News Article

Database focus: impact of hiking on trails and environment

New paper examines assessment of hiking trails

Walking holidays are often advertised as a low-impact, environmentally responsible type of recreation and tourism. But anyone that has walked a popular hiking trail in a mountain area can see the degradation that can be produced by high numbers of walkers in a fragile environment. A large number of papers on the database look at the environmental impact of activities such as hiking, camping and mountain biking, and a paper by Mende and Newsome added to the database this week is the latest to examine the assessment and monitoring of trail degradation.

Mende and Newsome say that no standard system for the assessment and monitoring of trail degradation has yet been introduced worldwide, and they apply a method similar to one developed in the USA to assess walking trails in an Australian national park, in order to evaluate the method's suitability as an international system for assessment and monitoring. Results indicate that the method is well suited to a variety of trails, and provides an efficient system, although the method becomes more resource intensive when used for trails longer than 5 kilometres in length. The method provided detailed trail profiles describing selected environmental variables, degradation problems and maintenance.

A number of studies have looked at the impact of hiking on trails. In Slovakia, Hudecova (2004) determined that a trail was severely impacted by heavy usage, with a large part of the surface having no vegetation. The path had widened, and the most common surface was compacted soil and basal rock. Some precautions to minimize excessive damage are suggested.

Lynn and Brown (2003) in Canada examined how trail erosion and degradation impacted hikers enjoyment of their experience in natural areas. Recreational use impact had a negative impact on the hiking experience, with litter, tree and plant damage, and fire rings having the most negative effects. Widening and erosion of trails had a moderate impact on the experience, while muddiness had least effect.

Factors affecting erosion of mountain trails were investigated in Japan by Yoda and Watanabe (2000). Trail depth became deeper in snowy vegetated areas (covered by shrub trees or snowy bed community vegetation) than in wind-beaten bare ground areas. The existence and timing of runoff from snowmelt seemed to be important to differential erosion, and trail slope also contributed to erosion. The authors report that installing ropes along trails helped to mitigate erosion by making hikers stay on the trail. In China, Deng et al. (2003) found that visitor usage on trails in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is proportionate to trampling impacts, with the two most used trails (Yellowstone Village Trail and Gold Whip Stream Trail) having the highest values in Soil Impact Index (SII) and highest rate of scarred trees. The paper proposes management strategies for improving the park's visitor and environmental management.

The effects of trampling on vegetation, and the rate of recovery of vegetation, is an area that has seen extensive research. Cole and Bayfield, from the US Forest Service, reported on standard experimental procedures in 1993. A protocol based on extensive trials and discussion in the USA and UK, that can be applied in a wide range of vegetation types, was developed to provide information on both damage to vegetation in response to short-duration trampling and subsequent recovery over a one-year period.

Longer-term monitoring of trampling impact on alpine vegetation is reported by Hartley (2000) in a Rocky Mountain Research Station publication that has many papers on the environmental impact of outdoor recreation. Hartley states that vegetation cover recovered in 19 to 25 years when trampled 15 times per week for six weeks in 1967 compared to 25 to 30 years where trampled 50 times per week. It is suggested that the long-term consequences of human trampling on dry meadow vegetation cannot be assessed from short-term observations.

In contrast to the differential recovery from different trampling intensities reported by Hartley, Kuss and Hall (1991) found in New Hampshire over a five-year period that recolonization of impacted areas that received 100 trampling passes as measured by plant cover, dominant indices, floristic dissimilarity, and species diversity was similar to areas receiving four and eight times more trampling, despite major differences in soil penetration resistance. These data suggest limited use delivered at one time can be as damaging as increasing levels of use delivered over time. Cole and Monz (2002) also found in Wyoming that low levels of trampling caused substantial reductions in vegetation cover and height, with rates of change decreasing as trampling intensity increased. Different plant communities had varying degrees of resilience to trampling, as also reported in Belgium by Roovers et al. (2004).

Apart from the effects on vegetation and on the enjoyment of hikers along a trail, at its most severe level, erosion caused by hiking can cause a visual scar on the landscape that creates an eyesore even for those viewing from miles away. In such cases, remedial measures may require construction of artificial surfaces, adding drainage ditches and features to prevent water running down the trail causing further erosion, or closure of the path and construction of alternatives that take a less visually obtrusive line. This has been done on the Scottish mountain Schiehallion, now owned by conservation organization the John Muir Trust, which has realigned the main path to the summit onto an older and more sustainable line and is now in the third year of healing the scar caused by the former trail.

Searching the database for "trampling and vegetation" currently returns 150 bibliographic records covering all aspects of recreational impacts, effects on soil and vegetation, methods of determining impact of hikers, and recovery of vegetation. Searching for "hiking and environmental impact" returns 40 records, including a selection on other types of environmental impact. The search "trails and (erosion or degradation)" currently finds 129 records, including a selection on the impact of horse-riding and cycling as well as hiking.

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • David Simpson
  • Date
  • 20 October 2006
  • Subject(s)
  • General Leisure and Recreation