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Unauthorized mountain-bike trails threaten fragile ecosystems

Concerns include vegetation loss, safety, erosion, water quality, and wildlife impacts

The signs are everywhere: posted ribbons; fallen trees chainsawed; scrape marks of metal on rock; and rutted mountain-bike tracks in delicate wildflower meadows.

On the exposed rocky slopes of Mount Richards in North Cowichan there are municipal signs, too: “Unauthorized trail building is prohibited….Please stop this activity.”

And yet it continues in the absence of enforcement.

Robbie Priestley, a naturalist and Chemainus resident familiar with Mount Richards, says the municipality has informed him it lacks the resources to patrol the trails.

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Sign posted by North Cowichan / Robbie Priestley amongst the wildflowers on Mt. Richards

A wider educational campaign of “awareness and cooperation” is needed, including making bikers appreciate the fragility of some ecosystems, Priestley says. “There are certain areas that are more sensitive than others.”

Mountain biking is a hugely popular and growing sport — especially in North Cowichan, where the municipality continues to expand its network of authorized trails along with associated infrastructure including parking lots.

The insatiable appetite for new trails leads some mountain-biking enthusiasts to act on their own, with the potential to do environmental harm.

Even on authorized trails in the Six Mountains of North Cowichan environmental damage can be evident, including exposed tree roots.

Rogue trails are not unique to the Six Mountains.

Nanaimo has also recently raised the issue, saying the destruction is getting worse. (https://bit.ly/3a1V5wd)

And the BC government has warned of stiff penalties for illegal trail building on Crown land. (https://bit.ly/3t7Syr8)

The International Mountain Biking Association confirms that impacts from mountain biking can include vegetation loss, erosion, water quality problems, and disruption of wildlife. But the association also argues that hiking can have similar impacts and that trails properly located and constructed “can handle a variety of users without damaging the environment.”

Municipal forester Shaun Mason confirmed that North Cowichan lacks the resources to fully monitor the problem of unauthorized trail building, but does work with the Cowichan Trails Stewardship Society to address the issue.

He added that the trails that do exist on Mount Richards are not sanctioned by North Cowichan. Municipal signs warning against such activity are often taken down in short order.

The plan is to start a trail sanctioning process on Mount Richards in 2023, “which as per the Parks and Trails Master Plan, will be equine and hiking only. Once trails are reviewed and sanctioned, the trail network will be activity managed and monitored which should help stop any continued illegal trail building.”

Vicki Holman, executive-director of the Cowichan Trails Stewardship Society, says her 400-member organization has a contract with the municipality covering Mount Tzouhalem and Maple Mountain and is working on sanctioning some trails on Mount Prevost.

Mount Richards falls outside the society’s purview. “We don’t go there and monitor what’s going on in terms of unauthorized trail building,” she says.

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Logging on private land on Mt. Richards / Following an unauthorized mountain bike trail on Mt Richards

The society reports unauthorized trails to the municipality and may deactivate a trail or work with a trail builder to ensure the job is done properly.

In addition to damaging ecosystems, unauthorized trails can pose safety issues where they cross hiking trails, Holman said. Trails also require proper construction and drainage.

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The beginnings of an unauthorized trail on Mt. Tzouhalem

The slopes of Mount Richards contain some of the finest wildflower meadows in the Six Mountains.

Vibrant bursts of colour — sea blush, spring gold, camas, buttercups, dwarf rose, larkspur — ignite the mossy outcrops and thin stands of arbutus and Garry oak.

Priestley, who has a background in software development, moved here from Squamish in 2018. He soon began hiking the slopes of Mount Richards on a regular basis to revel in the peace and solitude.

“I was magnetically attracted to this area,” he says. “On a personal level, I feel very strongly for this place.”

More recently, however, he’s been troubled by the discovery of new mountain bike trails making inroads into the meadows. Some of them are the result of logging on private lands further below on the mountain that is destroying part of the old trail system.

“I wouldn’t be as worried if I thought this was the end of it,” Priestley says. “But I know it’s just going to continue until a decade goes by and all of these meadows are criss-crossed with mountain bike trails.

“To me, this is a big potential impact.”

— Environmental journalist Larry Pynn is a hiker and mountain biker living in Maple Bay. (June 4, 2022)

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