Elaho trail plan steps ahead
By Chris Woodall
A hiking trail is one step closer to being an official path through the proposed Randy Stoltmann Wilderness Area.
The Western Canada Wilderness Committee has been promoting the 28-kilometre Elaho Trail as part of its effort to have the entire 260,000 hectares — stretching from the Upper Lillooet River in the north to Princess Louisa Inlet in the south — set aside as a protected area. A couple of pockets of the area will be protected but most of the Stoltmann Wilderness has been excluded from any protection, so far. Logging roads have been built to access some parts of the area.
The B.C. Forest Service has returned the WCWC's original proposal for the trail with a range of changes that, in most cases, the WCWC is happy to accommodate.
It is ironic, however, that by formally establishing the trail the WCWC hopes to provide hikers with a view of pristine wilderness relatively close to the Lower Mainland; yet in so doing, hikers may help destroy that purity the WCWC craves to protect.
The "Elaho Giant" — described as the third-largest Douglas fir in B.C. and some 10 metres thick at its base — is a popular stop-off along the trail. The elder statesman of the plant world has been roped off by the forest service to protect it — not from a logger armed with a chainsaw and an evil glint in his eye, but from hikers who've taken to ripping off chunks of the tree's bark as souvenirs.
As for the trail itself, it already exists in an unofficial state. The WCWC has been at work on the trail, creating pathways and log bridges over waterways.
"So many people are hiking this 'proposed' trail that it's been marked out from all the hiking feet damaging the undergrowth," observes Paul Kuster, a district manager of the B.C. Forest Service, from his office in Squamish.
Pique feature writer Paul Dillon made the same observation in his mid-October article on the Elaho trail.
"In one area north of the (Elaho) Giant, 'dozers carving a route into the area have already pulled back the dense canopy," wrote Dillon.
"But throughout our walk, and particularly in the alpine, is clear evidence of hikers who have strayed from the trail to blaze their own routes, damaging fragile heathers and exacerbating water damage that is inevitable come spring."
Juggling those conflicting interests in the Stoltmann — log it? hike it? preserve it? a mix? — is what makes a trail proposal such a detailed and drawn out process.
"By the time the forest service and WCWC can decide the best course of action, it could be redundant because the trail will already have been there and the damage done," Kuster says.
Among the concerns of the forest service of the WCWC trail plan are safety and ensuring the trail avoids super-sensitive environments such as alpine meadows.
There are also concerns that the trail not conflict with forest use by other "tenure holders": loggers and First Nations.
In some cases, logs across streams — even with guide ropes — aren't thought to be safe enough, Kuster said of recommendations that came from forest service staff walking the current trail in October.
The grade of the trail is too steep in one place where it cuts across a talus slope of boulders and large loose stones eroded from a rock face, Kuster says. A better switchback system is needed.
Parts of the trail go through wet depressions and gullies in the alpine that could accelerate erosion, damaging a delicate ecosystem, he says.
"Our recommendation is to bypass the alpine meadow and have a loop back to it," to minimize over-all foot traffic there, Kuster says.
The trail also comes within five metres of a raptor nest. Kuster wants the trail moved to avoid disturbing the nest occupants.
"And there are still some questions about traditional uses by First Nations in the area," Kuster says. The trail might disturb burial sites, petroglyphs, traditional dwelling sites and even come too close to trees held sacred for hundreds of years by local aboriginal peoples.
"The licensee (WCWC) needs to survey where these sites are, and to contact the local First Nations bands to see if these sites are significant," Kuster says.
"Their suggestions are good," says Joe Foy, WCWC campaign co-ordinator. "I was particularly happy they (the forest service) don't disagree with the trail."
But all isn't sweetness and light.
The WCWC — founded in 1980, it claims 24,000 members and an annual budget of $1.5 million.— isn't keen to give in to forest service suggestions that the Elaho Trail share the Stoltmann area with logging interests.
"We don't want to see any logging there," Foy says emphatically, noting the grizzly bear populations in the Stoltmann, the varieties of ancient Douglas firs and yellow cedars, the necklace of diamond-pure alpine lakes, and the striking physical beauty of the area.
But if the area becomes a little bit less pristine as hikers clomp through for a visit, well that's the price to pay to raise public awareness, Foy says.
"At this point in time, the Stoltmann needs people to be there to see it so they'll want to fight for it," Foy says.
That's not to say the WCWC turns a blind eye to potential hiker-caused ravages of the wilderness.
"We really push hikers to have no-trace camping," Foy explains, which includes no campfires that would leave a long-lasting fire ring on the ground, and no washing dishes in nearby creeks.
Can't the two interests co-exist?
"No. If you want to have 'big wilderness' next to you, you have to draw the line. You have to preserve big wilderness," Foy says. "We don't want to be like the United States: their forests are pretty but not like B.C. where forests are big and wild."