Shuswap Trail Alliance takes path to success

Throughout the Shuswap region, trails meander through inspirational settings, undulating up and down geographic features while guiding users by expansive views, refreshing creeks and beautiful tree stands.

They've become a huge draw for outdoor enthusiasts from Western Canada and beyond. And sometimes, the experience is so transformative it leaves users wondering just who to thank.

A good place to begin is the Shuswap Trail Alliance.

There's an art to building a trail network, as experts in the field will tell you. And some of the best in the province, if not the country, are involved in the alliance.

"We feel that a great trail beckons you onwards," said Carmen Massey, a Shuswap Trail Alliance director.

"It's the stories and the experiences that . . . really make the trail. A trail's only as good as the experiences people have on it."

The secret to the alliance's success is a grassroots approach that recruits hikers to become the monitors of environmental impact and trail integrity.

"It's kind of like being a naturalist with a purpose," said alliance co-ordinator Phil McIntyre-Paul.

Founded eight years ago, the group now oversees a vast region from Malakwa to North Shuswap, Falcon, Chase and Enderby, covering large swaths of Crown Land, three B.C. parks and four municipalities.

Alliance organizers say they couldn't do it without collaborating with each region's authorities and the infinite enthusiasm of trail users.

"The reality is there's not enough park rangers, there's not enough Crown land (staff). They don't have enough people on the ground to monitor the condition of the trails," said Massey.

"There always have been trail stewards, now we've created a more formal stewardship program."

The group's founders also determined that while trails connected geographically throughout the
region, they didn't necessarily connect politically. If streamlined, efforts could be more effective.

Working together enabled the leveraging of government grants for the creation of a recognizable, destination trails system.

The collaborative approach has now engaged more than 200 host partners, organizations and businesses, and clocked more than 5,000 hours of volunteer time valued at $84,000.

It has led to more than 70 projects and more than 70 kilometres of new trails impacting 12 communities throughout the Shuswap.

It all adds up to an estimated $1.2 million in community assets and untold amounts in tourism dollars.

And it all began with humble dreams of a hut-to-hut system.

But the dreamers soon realized they were putting the cart before the horse by overlooking all the existing yet unmanaged and even unknown hiking routes.

They found that huge reward could be achieved with little effort simply by installing proper signage.

"In Salmon Arm there have been wonderful trails that were built to connect the city through the trees and they've been there for years and years and years, but we just started finding them and people were saying, 'Oh that was a great new trail you built!' " said Massey.

"It was amazing, just simply signage."

Then came a chat with a local First Nations band that would change their course entirely.

"(The Secwepemc leaders) their reaction was, 'You guys have a whole bunch of trails already. Why don't you take care of the ones you have?' " said Massey.

They pointed to examples of trails causing erosion and environmental degradation, especially at locations such as creek crossings.

"So that was a wake-up call for us. That's mostly where the stewardship program sprung out of - we have to really take good care of the systems we have, not just cut more trails in," said Massey.

That stewardship program and an environmental trail screening protocol is now in the process of revolutionizing the way trail networks are built and maintained.

It's so innovative, in fact, that the provincial government is using the alliance's work as a template.

Biologists Jeremy Ayotte and Rachael Blotting, along with Shuswap Trail Alliance naturalist John Coffey, developed the original environmental trail screening process.

The tool relied on a series of linked computer data tables for shared information.

"The idea is to understand the potential impacts increased recreational use might have on local ecological communities, and make appropriate choices to limit those impacts," said Ayotte.

The provincial recreation sites and trails office recently asked the alliance to adapt the tool for a pilot study in other parts of B.C.

Now a new version of the program will take that technology one step further by using a collaborative software platform "giving trail developers and stakeholders a step-by-step digital trail to collect and share critical information in a user-friendly and intuitive manner," according to publisher and designer, Louise Wallace, of Mediability Corporate Communications.

The alliance is also focused on building new greenways and holds workshops imparting the wisdom of planners before a shovel even hits the ground.

"A trail is a line of focused impact," said Jim Maybee, who has worked with the Shuswap Trail Alliance for eight years designing and building some of the region's best-known trails.

"Its design has to be approached with respect - for the environment and those who will use it."

Together, the workshop team stresses concepts ranging from understanding erosion and water flow, best practices in construction, trail safety, user psychology and long-term maintenance needs.

"By adopting natural shape to our trails, we create less intrusive lines in the landscape, engage people more fully in the natural environment, and solve issues like water erosion," said Maybee.

That's the fun part. There's also a lot of bureaucracy involved, said Massey.

"People have had this historical attitude that, 'I'm just going to hack a trail through here.' We say, 'No, there's a lot of people with a lot of interest and you wouldn't just hack a trail through your neighbour's backyard.' "

The group advises people to do their research - landowner, jurisdictional authority, First Nation stakes, watershed protection and provincial application process if not on private land.

"We don't want to just build a bunch of trails that are illegal and have to be removed," said Massey. "That's a lot of energy."

Check out the Shuswap Trail Alliance's regional online trail guide at www.shuswaptrails.com.

To register for the group's annual trail design and build workshop on April 19 and 20 go to www.shuswaptrailalliance.com.

Organizers are also looking for volunteer stewards interested in helping to test the revised tool on local trails. To join the steward network, call 250-832-0102 or email trailreport@shuswaptrails.com.

spaillard@kamloopsnews.ca

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Carmen Massey talks about the ideal trail: