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Sharing the Trail: A Case Study in Conflict

Conflict isn’t a word that many of us associate with spending time in the great outdoors. When we decide to hit the trails one of the biggest motivating factors is to have some time away from the stress of modern living and the hassles that go along with too much time spent in crowded cities, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other people. Occasionally, however, our experience can fall short. From time to time you run into someone on the trail doing something that goes against what you expect when you strap on your snowshoes and zip up your jacket. Land managers call this recreational user group conflict and it is more common that you expect.

DSCF1475There are many reasons why a person might choose to spend time in the wilderness. For some of us, the goal is to distress and listen to the birds on a peaceful hike around a quiet trail. For others, the goal is personal challenge and pushing one’s self to the physical limit. Others still might take to the trails looking for excitement and adventure.

There is no right or wrong reason to go exploring, but some of these drivers obviously have a hard time co-existing. A group of excited teenagers coming down from the summit of a mountain, laughing and cheering in the aftermath of their accomplishment might negatively impact the experience of someone on the same trail looking for peace and quiet. It is an inescapable problem that land management strategies often attempt to address to enhance the experience of everyone who uses a protected area.

One of the most common forms of conflict takes place between motorized and non-motorized users of a space for almost exactly the reasons described above. Few things are more exciting than jumping on a snowmobile and riding as fast as possible through a fresh snowfall. It gets your blood pumping and can be a whole lot of fun. Unfortunately, it is also loud and potentially dangerous. It is easy to ruin a person’s day who is out for a few hours on their snowshoes or cross-country skis if you accidentally almost run them over at a bend in the trail.

DSCF1485Parks Canada managers of Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site in Canada’s Yukon territory know this problem all too well. Since the trail was made more accessible in the 1970s they have been facing the problem of growing use from both motorized and non-motorized users. An obvious solution to the problem might seem to be sectioning the park off into areas for each group to use but forcing snowmobilers out of a place they have been enjoying since before access roads were even built is enough to make the problem worse and alienate a loyal group of people to love the park as much as the next person, albeit for their own reasons.

It’s a classic case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Leave use of the park unrestricted and you risk losing the support of non-motorized users who feel the park should be a natural sanctuary free of noise and safe for everyone. Restrict use and you risk angering a vocal and active group of motorized users. Running a National Park is clearly not as easy as it seems.

It was with these thoughts in mind that managers of the Chilkoot Trail adopted a new management plan for the winter of 1997. The most contentious strategy implemented was the idea of non-motorized weekends. Since the management plan was adopted, every third weekend of each winter has been devoted solely to non-motorized use of the park. Instead of electing to separate users in space, they chose to separate them in time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is often said that the mark of any good compromise is for everyone to leave the bargaining table feeling a little disappointed. By that measure it is hard to say whether or not Parks Canada has been successful. Over time, the different users have adapted to the management plan in their own ways. Patterns of use have shifted to new areas of the park and satisfaction among visitors remains very high. At the same time, some motorized users have begun to feel that the park is gradually trying to box them out. On the flip side, a minority of non-motorized users feel that the park isn’t doing enough to eliminate motorized use, which they see as damaging to the landscape.

The problem with situations like this one is that even a good management plan will never feel like a complete success. While it might be the case that for every hundred people to visit the park, only one will have a complaint and be angry enough to take it to the park’s head office; but those are the only people the management staff get to interact with. While Parks Canada has conducted multiple surveys over the years to measure satisfaction with the management plan, the same ends up being true. The responses that stand out are the one’s given by the least satisfied users. The satisfied majority get overpowered by the disappointed few.

For that reason, it is important for the average user understand the challenges that go along with managing a park and to bring back the time-tested practice of trail etiquette. The best way to ensure that everyone has a positive memory of their time outdoors is to be considerate of others and friendly to one another. This seems to be the case for the majority of users at Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site. Each winter hundreds of skiers take part in the annual Buckwheat Ski Classic race and even greater numbers turn out to celebrate Easter weekend in campers and tents alike.

In the end, it is impossible to make everyone happy but the responsibility falls on us, the users, as much as it does the management staff. Try to put yourself in the shoes of other users and do what you can to make their experience enjoyable. Maybe even go the extra mile and thank a parks employee for the great work they do. There will always be a few bad apples that try to put a negative spin on things, but they don’t need to be the only ones that have their voices heard.

One thought on “Sharing the Trail: A Case Study in Conflict

  1. This is a great article, Steve. Extremely informative while getting to the essence of the matter. This article can help a lot of around the world see how to move forward toward successful mediations involving use of trails.

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