The road to hell is paved with good intentions, so the saying goes. And some derivation of ‘loving our parks to death’ has graced headlines across our country for decades – maybe just for its hyperbole and ability to catch readers’ attention; but also accurately because concentrated overuse of our natural resources can be downright deadly to the lands and wildlife we say we love so much. But the United States is not unique in this sentiment – that we’re loving our lands to death – it is felt everywhere across the globe. For example, researchers in Poland set out to look at the human impacts of trail use on plant life and soil erosion in Gorce National Park. Their goal was to develop a better understanding of trail use degradation in hopes that this knowledge would aid in the future conservation of fragile lands.
Hiking, horse-riding and cycling are some of the most popular sports in Poland. In 2006 alone, there were over six million visits to mountain parks, yet there are only 750 miles of trail. This means that the trail systems are overused which leads to loss of vegetation cover and changes in plant community structure. Add to this the fact that many people create impromptu trail systems, be it due to muddiness or over-crowding, and this results in further damage to the local flora systems.
The researchers hypothesized that a screening tool to predict trail locations more sensitive to degradation and overuse would help park managers develop more effective sustainable management plans. Their model included the development of new trails; plans for managing existing trail networks; and to the ability to map connections to private properties surrounding the parks in order to ease impact.
The researchers found that several factors needed to be considered when assessing damage and sustainability. In vegetated areas, trampling both damages and removes plants, and results in trail widening and soil exposition. Susceptibility to erosion is a hazard often associated with deforested lands. Steep slopes in the area, when impacted by high rainfall, can greatly affect crop and forest production. Slope, trail grade, alignment and positioning are all factors that can potentially result in ecosystem degradation. And finally, the climate needs to be considered as both the amount of rainfall and degree of solar energy can have significant affects on plant life and exacerbate the detriments brought on by human impacts.
While the researchers concur that it is nearly impossible to document all impacts from human use on public lands, and further that competing user goals make it more difficult to determine how to conserve them, they found that their qualitative assessment was still valid. It showed how lands are changing due to natural and human causes; and provided a foundation upon which conservation-based longitudinal studies could be built. By using GIS to understand the spatial distribution of trail use and outside impacts, new conservation tools can be built to help shoulder the burden the lands currently carry.