With great weather and spectacular colours, hikers are rushing this fall to the most popular trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park to get the best views.
But Parks Canada staff say people need to stay on the beaten path when it comes to visiting the Skyline Trail.
"If one person walks off the boardwalk because you're keen and we want to explore, it doesn't seem like it's causing any harm to walk on the vegetation, but people have to remember that the Skyline [attracts] about 50,000 people hiking that trail every year," said Anne Claude Pepin, a resource management officer with Highlands National Park.
"So imagine, even if half the people wander off the boardwalk, that's 25,000 people walking on those fragile ecosystems"
Pepin said the area is one of two coastal heathlands in the park and is home to rare species of subarctic vegetation. The more that people walk on these areas, the more that root systems get exposed to the harsh coastal weather conditions. That leads to further degradation and even erosion.
Efforts to keep hikers on path
Since 2019, Parks Canada has been trying to rehabilitate areas around the Skyline Trail, where visitors have strayed from the path and forged unofficial trails, some going well beyond the established boardwalk.
However, despite replanting vegetation, putting up more signs and increasing patrols by park wardens, many people still choose to wander away from the boardwalk and gravel paths.
"What we're seeing is more and more visitors, [and] it's their first time in a national park, period. Many are still learning about the regulations that are in place to protect these places," said Kelly Deveux, acting park superintendent.
Deveux said wardens try to focus on education and awareness, but they are able to issue fines to hikers who break the rules.
Violating the restricted area order that's meant to protect the heathland surrounding the boardwalk could result in the fines between $283 and $25,000.
Study launched with MUN
As the popularity of the trail continues to grow, Parks Canada has partnered with the Memorial University of Newfoundland to conduct a study into why people stray from the boardwalk and what can be done to mitigate the impacts.
The study includes surveying visitors and asking those who stepped off the trail if they knew they were breaking the rules, if they cared, and what sort of measures they'd like to see put in place to protect the area.
The study will be used to determine next steps for Parks Canada. Deveux said there are many options Parks Canada uses in other areas that could be considered, such as reservation systems, shuttles, and increasing the infrastructure at the trail.
The results of the study are expected in early 2022.
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