Parks reaffirms commitment to backcountry trails

Portal Creek (pictured here) is one of two trails used to access the Tonquin Valley. The Tonquin Valley is one of several backcountry trails that are high on the priority list to be fixed and repaired. P. Clarke photo.

Some of Jasper’s most beloved backcountry trails will get some much needed repairs over the next few years.

The Skyline, Tonquin and Brazeau Loop trails, as well as backcountry areas on Maligne Lake, are all high on the priority list to be fix and repaired.

“We consider backcountry trails to be as important as front country trails,” said Alan Fehr, Jasper National Park’s superintendent.

“We have a lot of assets in Parks Canada and a lot of them were built 40, 50, 60 years ago, maybe longer, and they are in need of repair or maintenance and in some cases replacement.”

He said Parks Canada is currently in the process of drafting a trail maintenance plan. The plan will include a list of priorities for high-use trails, like the Skyline Trail, which is at the top of the list.

According to Fehr, priorities along the Skyline Trail include improving the human waste system and replacing some bridges.

Other backcountry trails that will see improvement over the coming years include Fiddle River, Jacques Lake and the Fryatt, among others.

“The Skyline is going to get the attention first and then hopefully over the next two or three years I would like to get to all of them and at least get to the critical features,” said Fehr.

“There are some trails, such as the Athabasca Pass, that may not get as much attention as something like the Skyline Trail, but what we will be doing is setting a service standard for that trail so that people that are going out on it know what to expect.”

He made no promises about whether Parks Canada would replace the suspension bridge across the Athabasca River that washed away during a flood in 2014.

“It’s going to be put in the prioritizing exercise and like I mentioned, places like the Skyline, Fryatt, Tonquin, those areas are going to get the attention first. If it turns out that area is a popular area, is a high priority for us, we would definitely replace bridges like that,” said Fehr.

He said the issue isn’t the size of the bridge; it’s about whether it’s a well-used trail and if there are other concerns at play, such as ecological integrity or engineering issues.

His comments come nearly four months after the Fitzhugh published a story about Jasper’s crumbling backcountry infrastructure.

“I think you have to look at western society as a whole. This is not a Parks Canada issue, this is a situation that cities, provinces and countries are all dealing with,” Fehr said about the Park’s infrastructure.

He said a lot of infrastructure was built following the Second World War and is now reaching the end of its life.

“That’s pretty evident if you look from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Ensuring that you’ve got the salaries and the capital budget to maintain things, whether it’s a backcountry trail, a sewage system, a water treatment plant, is often a challenge.”

“Parks Canada recognized that a number of years ago and the government of Canada recognized that, that’s why we got the largest investment in Parks Canada in 100 years to deal with what they call deferred maintenance.”

In 2014, the federal government announced it would invest $2.8 billion to support infrastructure improvements to heritage, tourism, waterway and highway assets located within national historic sites, national parks, and national marine conservation areas across Canada.

According to Fehr, there are no plans to reopen any of the park’s decommissioned trails.

“At this point we’re going to be focusing on the top five or 10 trails so it’s unlikely in the near future we would be bringing back those trails to operation,” he said.

During the interview he said Parks Canada hasn’t made a decision yet whether it will allow volunteer groups, such as the Jasper Trail Alliance, to help maintain backcountry trails.

“As we work through the development of this trail maintenance plan that’s something we’re going to look at,” said Fehr.

Loni Klettl, a volunteer leader with the Jasper Trail Alliance (JTA), urged Parks Canada to move quickly on its plans and emphasized that volunteer groups can be part of the solution.

“Organized volunteer groups such as the JTA are absolutely crucial for the survival and resurrection of backcountry trails in JNP. There has been decades of neglect, this park is huge and maintenance boxes have to start getting checked off, right now,” wrote Klettl.

She said volunteer groups can help by filling in the gaps, such as sightline clearing, brushing and fixing small drainage issues, while trail crews build structures, repair rotten corduroy and operate machinery.

She added volunteer groups are a feasible solution that will compliment Parks Canada’s work while also allowing people to connect with nature.

While Parks Canada decides whether to let volunteer groups help, Fehr said Parks will continue to use private contractors when necessary.

“Whenever there is a project we always look at what resources are on hand and also what the project is so we try to pick the approach that’s going to be the most cost effective dollar wise and makes good use of labour, equipment and monetary resources that we have,” said Fehr, pointing to the Lake Annette Trail, which was paved by contractors last summer.

“When there is certain types of expertise that we need then we would contract that kind of thing out if we don’t have it available in house.”

As for the Parks’ trail crew, he said he expects to have three crews this summer, the same as last year. A crew usually consists of three to five people.

“Having a trail crew that is seasoned and has some expertise can be very effective because we can move them around as we need to … when you’re working with contractors you don’t have that same level of flexibility.”

With a renewed focus on the Park’s backcountry trail system Fehr urged residents to get outside and make use of the trails.

“Parks Canada is not walking away from the backcountry and we’re going to ensure that we have the infrastructure that allows people to have a good experience.”



Article Source: Jasper Fitzhugh

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