COVID-19 prompts conservation conversation
As I pull into the trailhead of McGillivray Falls Self-guiding Trail, I’m shocked to see there is absolutely no place to park. The lot is full up, and there are cars lined all the way down the road. “Shit, again?” I ask myself out loud. This is the second or third trailhead I have hit where it’s too crowded to even get in. I curse the crowd as I whip my vehicle around and head back onto the highway, hoping to drive a little further out to a lesser-known trail.
While a packed hiking trail isn’t exactly unheard of, the pandemic has made them more commonplace. COVID-19 has brought on new crowds of outdoor adventurers like never before. Take one look at Instagram over this past summer. People can live through the app and leave feeling like an expert on the Hunt Lake Hiking Trail or like you’ve touched the turquoise-coloured water at Little Limestone Lake. While crowded trails alone don’t harm the environment, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the amount of litter on and damage to trails I’ve seen.
The amount of trash that people have scattered throughout Manitoba’s parks seemed to hit a new high this past summer and even into the slower winter months. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve opened an outhouse just to see an old coffee cup thrown inside. The shelters at the end of Hunt Lake Hiking Trail are adorned with plastic wrap and tin foil from cooking — the list goes on. Litter is nothing new, but with the increase in new hikers and park visitors, it has gotten visibly worse.
But wait – who the heck are you to judge?
Hiking, camping, fishing, and anything outdoorsy have been passions of mine for as long as I can remember. Now, I don’t consider myself an expert on all things outdoors — quite the contrary. I believe there’s always something more to learn about the wilderness and how you approach it. It’s a vast and sometimes terrifying realm of possible adventures. I believe any real outdoorsperson is continually learning; that’s half the fun. As a part of this community, I feel like it’s my responsibility to make the uninitiated aware of issues the new normal of more visitors has brought.
Litter isn’t the only issue. There’s also the fact that the government has largely mandated social distancing since March 2020. While being outside in the fresh air is excellent, I’ve seen multiple hikers huddled together under a warmup shelter. It’s either that, or they sit within spitting distance of one another while they fish the end of the trail at Bear Lake.
Hiking, at first glance, seems like a pandemic-friendly activity. Somehow it has become just another excuse for people to gather under the guise they won’t contract the coronavirus because they’re outside. What will it take for someone to toss their empty beer can in their backpack or scoot over six feet down a bench? Do we need hiking police? Because at this point, I want them.
In a way our conservation officers are hiking police. They patrol the parks checking your fishing licenses and parking passes, handing out tickets if they deem it necessary, but they can’t be around 24/7. Responsible conservation also lies on the shoulders of people who use Manitoba’s outdoor recreation spaces. I mean, for God’s sake, it’s tough to grasp the notion of people trashing an area they’re also seeking pleasure from.
Now, I could understand if someone really hated the outdoors, like really hated it. I think of them sitting in their house, tossing darts at pictures of lakes and rivers until one day they set out on a rage-fuelled outing to scatter cigarette butts and crushed up beer cans all over the trails, while spray painting “death to trees” all over the trailhead signs and spitting on the grass. I would disagree with it, but I’d understand that these actions were fuelled by a deep-seated hatred for the outdoors.
That’s not what I am seeing though. The disrespect and disregard being shown to our campgrounds and hiking trails are caused by people going out and using them because they want to. How can people want to spend time outdoors while simultaneously screwing it up any chance they get? Perhaps it’s because people are lazy. You’d think that anyone with the experience and fitness level to hike the 63-kilometre Mantario Trail would have the shred of energy it takes to hold onto a piece of trash until they got to a trash can, though.
I knew this issue was something I needed to get some insight into, from more qualified people than I to speak on the subject. Surely I wasn’t the only one noticing this stuff.
Consulting the community – seems like I was right… kind of.
Josh McFaddin is an all-around outdoorsman. He’s an advocate for all things wilderness, an extremely talented photographer and videographer, and a big part of Manitoba’s outdoor community. Take one look at his Instagram page, and you’ll see what I mean. McFaddin’s background and experience are why he has done work for Cabela’s, Ducks Unlimited, and numerous other outdoor organizations. If anyone could note the negative impacts on the outdoors this pandemic has brought on, it would be him.
“[I think] a massive surge in outdoor enthusiasts has been seen across most activities this past year,” said McFaddin.
“It’s great,” he continued. Oh, OK. Not off to a great start in validating my take on the situation, but why is it great?
“The more people who find value in these activities, the more money flows back into conservation. It will just feed right back to itself, and that is really what conservation is about.”
I was kind of confused by his optimistic point of view – it was a stark contrast to mine. I mean, he was right. The more money that gets spent on park passes or park amenities, the more money flows back into the system to help with conservation. But what about the damage and trash we’re seeing, is that not a thing?
“Oh absolutely,” he said of the increase in litter and disregard for Leave No Trace principles.
The “Leave No Trace” principles are a set of best practices that most outdoor enthusiasts abide by. On the surface level, the rules are simple, pack out what you pack in, take nothing from nature, and do your best to not disturb any area you are using. In fact, there’s a whole website dedicated to these principles that goes a little more in-depth.
McFaddin made sure to note that perhaps we shouldn’t place the blame solely on the increase in visitors.
“In any activity you will have the odd knucklehead who will ruin something for the whole group. Although they are typically few and do not come close to representing the whole, they’re always present. With the surge in users this past year there have naturally been steps missed on the educational side,” said McFaddin.
“In hunting we are seeing more poor shooting and an increase in poor gun control. In hiking and fishing there is more trash left behind. It’s easy to demonize these people but unfortunately, I think these issues are mostly due to a lack of knowledge that is normally present when someone grows up with an activity or has a quality mentor.”
In short: not all people grow up doing this stuff. Someone could be going for their first hike or camping trip in their mid-twenties and maybe not realize that blasting music through a scratchy, old Bluetooth speaker is generally frowned upon on the trails.
McFaddin made some valid points. Maybe my thinking was a little off base, but I still wasn’t convinced. I wanted to see if I could get any official word on if this increase in traffic and the challenges it presented were just all in my mind or if it really was something that people should be up in arms about.
Manitoba Conservation put me in touch with Sloan Cathcart. Cathcart is a park interpreter and could provide me with the most concrete insight into the recent park usage surge.
“There was for sure an influx of hikers and trail users this summer,” he said.
“That increase in visitors continued in winter, and has created some challenges, as many were unaware of how some trails are treated differently in the winter season.”
Cathcart is referring to the fact that in winter, many hiking trails get converted into cross-country skiing or snowshoe trails. It’s something that a lot of newcomers to the outdoors scene may not be aware of, particularly in the Birds Hill Provincial Park.
“We’ve had to aggressively promote proper trail use in the winter; the first few weeks of the season were challenging as people didn’t understand that their trails they had been hiking on in the summer were no longer available in the winter. But people are learning to respect one another and are getting into various winter sports.”
This idea of educating instead of blaming seemed to be a common thread among everyone I spoke to. But how exactly do we educate people properly? There are signs at trailheads and info online, but Cathcart suggests there is a better way.
“Peer pressure,” said Cathcart. “If you demonstrate ‘Leave No Trace’ principles and respect park spaces, your friends and family are likely to as well.”
There are educational campaigns on the go in Manitoba parks on park regulations and how to leave no trace through means such as signage, social media, and publications. There is also some form of enforcement as well by park officials and conservation officers.
“Ultimately, I feel it’s up to people themselves to model good behaviours and encourage those around them to do the same if they want to keep returning to the parks they love in the future,” said Cathcart.
The thing is, what if people don’t hold themselves to that standard and don’t follow the rules?
“There’s bound to be a few people who really do totally disregard responsible outdoor usage”, Cathcart said. But the benefits of this added traffic far outweigh the negatives. He went as far as to say that he hopes the new volume of visitors continues.
“So many people go elsewhere for vacations, whether it be out of province or out of country. It’s a shame really when there is so much to see and do here in Manitoba – and I think the pandemic has helped spur people to explore more at home,” he said.
Cathcart suggested the added time outside will aid in Manitobans’ mental health, especially during the pandemic.
Multiple studies have come out linking mental wellbeing and the outdoors. One study suggested more exposure to green space as a child had a significant association with a lower risk of psychiatric disorders into adulthood.
“Parks serve a very important role in the health of Manitobans, and I hope people continue to take advantage of their great provincial park system,” Cathcart said.
The politics of parks
Speaking of Manitoba’s provincial park system, they were quite busy in 2020, making several announcements about our parks and green spaces.
Initially, in March, there was quite an uproar surrounding a request for proposal (RFP) the government put out in regard to our parks. An RFP is basically a document put forward that announces a potential project, while soliciting bids from companies to take on said project. This lead some to believe that privatization is in the future for our parks.
The word “privatization” brings along frightening thoughts with it, such as businesses taking over and demolishing forests for developments. People were drawing comparisons to Alberta’s situation that saw the province shutting down over 100 parks and recreational spaces.
It wasn’t until later that two more announcements came, which excited the outdoor communities. The Manitoba government announced they would be spending nearly $17 million dollars on upgrades to our provincial parks. This money would be used for things like wastewater treatment, accessible beaches, and road improvements.
The second announcement brought a smile to the face of hikers everywhere. In October, the Manitoba government announced a partnership with Trails Manitoba with an investment of $7 million dollars into the “creation, maintenance and enhancement of active transportation trails across the province and within the city of Winnipeg.”
It was essentially the creation of three funds that could be used for projects providing new trail opportunities. In other words, these funds could be used to create a new trail, extend an existing one, or provide maintenance and trail beautification. Premier Brian Pallister said that he was proud of a partnership that would “ensure our trails and pathways are safer and more accessible for all users, for many generations to come.”
No matter one’s political alignment, this was an announcement the hiking community was ecstatic about.
“This announcement was a major win for the hiking community,” said Jaime Manness, owner of Hike Manitoba.
“With the increase in users of trails this past year, it was definitely a welcome announcement and one that people should be excited about,” she said.
Manness is somewhat of a hiking superstar in Manitoba. She started the brand of Hike Manitoba to help educate people on our outdoors and hiking trails. She wrote and published two books providing tips, tricks and general trail knowledge to those new hikers. She is the go-to for the pulse on anything hiking in Manitoba. She was also my final interview, my last chance to see if my grievances were valid or not.
“The pandemic has for sure gotten more people onto the trails here. Hiking is a pandemic-friendly activity and getting outside to clear your head is beneficial too,” said Manness.
But what about the increase in litter, I thought. What about the packed parking lots?
“Well, it can be frustrating for long-time users to get to the trailhead only to see it is packed to the brim, but we have to look at the overall picture, more people are getting outside than ever before and seeing just what Manitoba has to offer,” she said.
It’s only natural that there will be some bad apples in the lot of new hikers. Once people are educated on the proper ways to respect the outdoors, they tend to follow the rules, she said. It was something I had heard from every single person I had spoken to about this. Maybe it was time for me to re-evaluate my position.
It takes a big person to admit they were wrong… right?
Shortly after finishing up my final interview with Jaime, I sat back down to organize my notes. Everyone I spoke to had echoed the same type of ideas. Education on the outdoors needs to be stronger, and this extra traffic is an encouraging sign even if it does come with some downsides. It was around this time that I realized my mindset about this topic was perhaps a little jaded.
When I first considered this story, I somehow felt deep down that it was my duty to bring this subject to light. I wanted to shame these new hikers and park goers for bringing extra litter along with them and defacing our trail markers.
Whether that way of thinking stemmed from the idea that I was the perfect outdoors person who never broke any rules, or just from the frustration that I couldn’t find a parking spot at a trailhead, I can’t exactly pinpoint.
What I do know, however, is that it’s a very narrow way of thinking. Yes, there’s been a massive surge in visitors to our parks, whether in campgrounds, hiking trails, or any other green space. It’ll likely continue to be this way going forward, so I had better get used to it.
I’ve learned the odd few will break the rules, but the best way to ensure that people follow the directions is through education. While I’ll have to now settle into the fact that my secret hiking or fishing spots are no longer so secret, the fact is the pandemic has pushed more people into exploring their own backyard. These packed trailhead parking lots will likely be the new normal going forward. Despite my initial misgivings, that’s a good sign for conservation, so I’ll just park on the street.
If you’d like to learn more about properly respecting our wilderness, or perhaps even donate to outdoor education, visit the Manitoba Wildlife Federation.