Bike and Pedestrian Trail Eclipses Ecological Integrity in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

If you haven’t been to the Long Beach Unit of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve lately, this is what you’ll be greeted with.

This 5m wide slash through the forest and running parallel to Highway 4 is the beginning of construction of a bike and pedestrian trail. When completed, it will become a part of the regional trail system being developed by the communities of Tofino and Ucluelet.

Initially, it was to be completed by the spring of this year (2018) at an estimated cost of $17.7million. But I’ve heard that there were serious budget over-runs and as a consequence the completion date has been pushed out to 2020.

It’s unclear as to how this trail and the one in Jasper and Banff National Parks came to be in the 2016 federal budget. There had been no prior public consultation nor were these projects identified in the respective park management plans.

I’ve heard it suggested that they could well have originated within the executive ranks of Parks Canada itself. How could this be, you might wonder. Well, it goes back to when Conservatives were in power between 2006 and 2016. There’s so much I could say about how terribly cruel the cuts to Parks Canada staff and budget were during this time, but that will be the subject of another blog.

In the meantime, let me share with you a plausible explanation that was given to me as to why the executives of the agency could be proponents of further development in the national parks, such as these bike and pedestrian trails. Because they and many other senior managers are carry-overs from the Harper government which elevated visitor use over ecological integrity.

If true, as I suspect it is, then this also explains why the initial route for the trail was kept secret from park staff responsible for the protection and maintenance of ecological integrity. I don’t know how they eventually came to see it, but when they did, what they saw froze their blood. Someone had drawn the proposed trail cutting through known wildlife dening sites and critical corridors, not to mention severely fragmenting the Long Beach Unit even further by following the coast line.

Fortunately park staff were able to eventually convince the chief engineer responsible for the project to settle for an alignment closer to Highway 4. This route, they argued, would have less adverse impact on the ecological integrity of the park.

Even so, some 1,200 – 1,500 trees were to be cut down over the winter of 2016 and into the summer of 2017 in the process of creating a 25km long, 5m wide right of way through the park reserve.

A parking lot at the base of Radar Hill, currently used for log storage, has been enlarged. I’ve heard that it will serve as the main access point to the trail in the park reserve.

Parks Canada has pledged to take a number of steps to minimize current and future impacts, but there’s no getting around this fact: the trail further reduces critical wildlife habitat while giving greater access to the park reserve. In other words, visitor use takes precedence over ecological integrity.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to a bike and pedestrian trail linking Tofino and Ucluelet with the park reserve and each other. It is urgently needed. I’ve witnessed first-hand the increase in cyclists and hikers on Highway 4 in the park. There’s no shoulder to speak of and there’s lots of blind curves and hills, making the situation extremely dangerous.

I accept that to build this trail, some habitat needed to be destroyed; but I firmly believe that a much less expensive and less ecologically destructive route would’ve been to simply widen the highway and put a concrete meridian between the trail and the vehicle traffic. Sure, it’s not as aesthetically pleasing, but either putting ecological integrity first means something or it doesn’t. If it means anything, it must mean putting tight controls on human use. Otherwise, bit by bit, increment by increment, we will see our national parks continue to become mere shadows of their former wild selves.