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  • Writer's picture Lorna Visser

Tough talk about roads (and our fight to de-motorize one)

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

Roads. We don't think about them much. We take them for granted as we whizz around in our vehicles. But did you ever think about roads' polluting and deadly impact?

First of all, there's the outright mortality: we've all felt badly seeing a dead deer or a squished snake or some other unfortunate animal lying dead on a road. But we push on and quickly erase that unpleasantness from our minds.

Wild animals that live near roads don't have that luxury -- and it's not just outright mortality (getting hit and killed). Roads' impacts are much more insidious: the cumulative effect of noise and dust and toxic exhaust fumes, for starters. And the particles shed from our vehicles: tire wear, droplets of toxic antifreeze and windshield washer fluid, particulates from diesel fuel... all settling on the road surface and washing down into surrounding watercourses with each rainfall and snow melt. Add to that the road surface itself gradually wearing away, shedding toxic asphalt and paint. Collectively it's a toxic slurry of relentless runoff, year after year, polluting our rivers and streams.

But roads' worst and most enduring impact is habitat disturbance. The traffic on roads adds up to a cumulative, persistent disturbance to wildlife and the fragmentation of their habitat. Research shows that sensitive wildlife such as grizzly bears, especially mothers with cubs, will avoid roads that have even an infrequent amount of use (one study showed mother grizzly bears avoiding roads if they had more than 5 vehicle passages in an hour).

When you think of the tentacle-like spread of roads across the landscape as we humans push ever deeper into what little wilderness remains on this planet, you have a disaster for sensitive wildlife.

As an ecological conservation organization, the Valhalla Foundation for Ecology has been a voice for the de-motorization of certain roads. Because of that, we have experienced a fair bit of push-back from people who love roads -- particularly what they see as "their" back-country roads. On these roads, usually gravel or dirt, people sit in or on machines such as jeeps, side-by-sides, all-terrain vehicles, gators, dirt-bikes... the list of motorized off-road vehicles goes on... to drive through beautiful natural habitat. In the process, they degrade the very thing they go there to experience.

Destroying the things we love seems to be one of the dichotomies of the human presence on this planet. But it's got to stop. We need to stop polluting with the burning of fossil fuels in recreational toys, e.g. blasting around on jet-skis or snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles. But, back to roads....


Time for a radical rethink about roads

Those back-country roads: they may not be paved but they pack a wallop in terms of degrading and fragmenting habitat for endangered and sensitive critters.

Here's our story about a battle to get rid of a back-country road in the Kootenay region of BC. In the aerial-view photo shown below, the road in question is a recreational rail-trail (grey dotted line) that runs through a marsh ecosystem where we have a nature sanctuary. Yeah, you heard that right: a road through a marsh.

Findings of at-risk species mean motors don't belong

“Creating a sanctuary for wildlife within an ecosystem that includes a well-used public recreation trail (the rail-trail shown above) has not been easy,” said VFE Chairperson and Registered Professional Biologist Wayne McCrory. “Although most people have been overwhelmingly supportive of our work, there were some still driving on the trail even after we achieved a non-motorized designation. This finally stopped when physical barriers (bollards, posts set in concrete) were installed.”

Located along the boundary of the Valhalla Foundation for Ecology's Snk'mip Marsh Sanctuary, this recreational trail has for decades been a favoured ATV road. It would not be uncommon for a string of six or more ATVs go by, goosing their engines for extra loudness, drowning out birdsong, churning up dust, spreading seeds from invasive plants, and leaving in their wake a dusty pall of lingering exhaust. And woe betide any wildlife that interfered with their fun.

ATV riders traversing marsh
ATV riders traversing a wetland area

Drivers on roads don't like to be stopped or inconvenienced by pesky nature. On part of the trail network north of our nature sanctuary, a beaver built a dam that flooded part of the trail. That beaver was shot, its rotting body found laying on the dam it had created in a wetland, with the dam partially dismantled in order to drain the water from the trail. A culprit was never prosecuted but what is clear is that beaver activity had flooded a portion of what local ATV riders' consider "their" road. (Photo above shows the area in question, after the dam had been broken up.)

Purchasing a powerful, noisy, polluting off-road machine seems to provide some with a massive entitlement mentality, expressed as: "I pay my taxes so I can ride wherever I want" (the implication being, anywhere on Crown Land). Once that machine is between their legs and the throttle in hand, look out beavers.

The VFE's McCrory notes that in addition to concerns about the many sensitive amphibian and reptile species that migrate across roads and trails, or live in specialized micro-habitats along their verges, there is also a bald eagle nest directly above the trail segment that runs through the marsh ecosystem. Many bird species will abandon their nests, even with young in them, if they are frightened away by persistent or repetitive noise or disturbance.

Endangered salamanders
Endangered salamanders living beside a recreational trail
“Given the sensitivity of the ecosystem at Snk’mip, we didn't have a choice but to fight for that segment of trail to be strictly non-motorized. So many at-risk species and migratory birds rely on the marsh and the surrounding wetland watershed.”

Recently the VFE conducted a year-long monitoring study and found, in additional to many plants, insects and animals that use the marsh as their protected home area, two at-risk-of-extinction species: Western Painted Turtle and the very rare Coeur d’Alene Salamander. These were found on the verges of the trail in question. Add to that proven use by bats (as aerial corridors for night-time insect feeding), grizzly bears, black bears, cougar, and deer (all sighted on the VFE's trail cameras) and you have a very special component of the overall watershed.

Driving on roads = dead things

Another consideration is that animals use roads, too. Scientists call this "least-cost path," while a layperson would rightly observe that animals will take the simplest route to get from A to B. If there's a road available for them to use and it's the least-cost path for them to travel, they'll use it to get to where they need to be.

dead snake held by biologist
Biologist holds up a juvenile Western Racer killed on a road

This can lead to a staggering rate of mortality for amphibians and reptiles as they cross roads or use them to get to their food or water sources. Here, snake biologist Mike Sarell holds up a dead snake killed on a secondary roadway near his home in Oliver, BC.

This was just one of many. On the day we visited, the roadside was littered with dead snakes. We made stop after stop to examine each one before Mike gently tossed its lifeless body into the ditch where it would would at least provide a few bites of sustenance for a scavenger.

With relentless road mortality, the services these beautiful reptiles provide -- controlling vermin such as rats and mice and being a food species for other animals such as raptors -- are being gradually, inexorably extinguished.

And before you mountain bikers and road cyclists get feeling too superior, Mike notes that cyclists also run over snakes, salamanders, and other small creatures -- anything foolish enough to venture onto the trails and pathways in their habitat. Cyclists tearing around on 'rad' trails are not looking at the ground directly ahead of their tires, at speed it's easy to overlook something small and camouflaged. Running over a two-foot-long, skinny, juvenile garter snake makes barely a bump. Yet another beautiful creature lost, neither noticed nor mourned.

Given the explosive growth of extreme-sports culture including mountain biking, with mountain biking promoted in BC's provincial parks and government support for recreation clubs and trail societies building unregulated, 'gnarly' bike trails helter-skelter in the back-country, garter snakes definitely have things to worry about.

"As these trails continue to expand into the wilds we will see significant declines in some species," says biologist Sarell.

BC government loathe to challenge off-road-vehicle lobby, until we threatened to sue

Back to the roadway beside our nature sanctuary: for decades it was open to any conceivable use so motorized drivers made frequent use of it. People in everything from motorhomes, to giant trucks pulling even gianter campers, to VW buses, ranged the trail and parked along the wide spots in the trail. They camped for free wherever they liked (and crapped with abandon in the surrounding woods). Add that disturbance to that of the ATVs and other off-road vehicles blasting through there and you had a considerable negative disturbance to wildlife.

Fed up with the noise and dust and pollution (and human shit), many hikers and birdwatchers and people who simply cared about nature wanted the trail designated as non-motorized: for hiking and bicycling only. But the BC government -- after years of expensive community consultation processes and a referendum that clearly showed local people wanted the trail non-motorized -- cratered to pressure from the motorized-use lobby. BC government agency Recreation Sites & Trails BC declared our trail through the marsh would be "multi-use" (a.k.a. same-ol' same-ol' motorized use allowed).

"Any development of public land should be done on a science-first basis and should not be susceptible to undue influence from motorized lobbying groups. We expect our government agencies to be fair and impartial when making decisions about public lands. From what we experienced, we cannot say that of this project,” McCrory said.

After this years-long battle with what we frankly view as a government "captive agency" (Recreation Sites & Trails BC) staunchly maintaining that trail need to be multi-use and therefore motorized (to appease the motorized-use lobby) we fought back. Hard. And although we finally prevailed and had this particular trail designation changed to non-motorized, human-powered recreation only (people walking or riding bicycles), it turns out people don't give up roads easily.

Getting that designation changed took a concerted effort. After exhausting all the 'nice,' collaborative methods -- writing letters to officials, answering surveys, attending community meetings, writing letters to our local newspaper, presenting our concerns over and over to committees and consultants and bureaucrats -- all to no avail, we finally decided to play hardball. The trail designation was changed to non-motorized only when our organization made it clear it was prepared to sue the local recreation groups that promoted or acquiesced to the government's motorized-use plan.

What's noteworthy is how cleverly RSTBC hid behind a hand-picked local citizens committee they formed to push through the motorized-trail plan. The committee members themselves actually did very little, all work was done by a government-paid consultant who took his marching orders from RSTBC. But when legal action needed to be taken, those clubs would have had to take the fall -- a clever ruse to protect the government agency that was actually calling the shots.

Our legal challenge was based on the Nuisance Act and hinged on a private landowner’s right to use property for its designated purpose (in this case as a nature preserve) which may not be infringed upon by neighbouring uses that intrude (in this case the presence of loud, polluting motorized vehicles which would negatively affect the ecological functioning of the nature preserve).

The documents were ready for filing in the Supreme Court of BC, complete with voluminous proof of the destructive effect the motorized road was having on our nature sanctuary. Materials prepared by biologist McCrory to support the lawsuit included a comprehensive review of scientific studies which showed significant, and cumulatively negative, impacts from off-road vehicles such as ATVs, trail bikes, side-by-sides, Jeeps and all motorized vehicles. At risk were sensitive species including birds, amphibians, and reptiles.

Notices of our intention to sue were sent to the key players... and suddenly the government had a change of heart: non-moto trail it was to be.

So, we won. After the years-long battle with the motorized-use lobby, which in our experience has way too much influence over government agencies, we prevailed and this particular trail designation was changed to non-motorized: human-powered recreation only (people walking or riding bicycles). But what a toll that battle took! So much money spent on lawyers, thousands of hours of our volunteer time, bad air between us and the locals on the trail committee... all to fight a road that clearly should never have been allowed through such a fragile ecosystem in the first place.

Meeting about motorized use of trails
Biologists meet with government officials to explain motorized use risks
They were warned but they didn't listen

All of this was explained early on, in spades, to the people making decisions within government agency Recreation Sites and Trails BC. We met with a group of them on site in April of 2018 and spent a day showing them what was at stake. In the photo at left, VFE director Wayne McCrory explains our concerns to government officials on site, all of us standing right on the recreational trail in question.

They listened -- the two biologists from the Environment Branch saying very little, looking awkward and pained. Unswayed, the Recreation Officer from RSTBC flatly declared that his motorized-use designation for the trail would stand. His best offer to placate us? "How about I put in a 10/km/hour speed limit on this section?" he said. "Put up a few signs asking people to go slow."

"And how would that be enforced?" I shot back. "Are you going to stand here with a radar gun 24/7, monitoring the speed of the vehicles going past?" Replied the government official: "oh no, that wouldn't be my problem, that would be Enforcement's problem."

Here's all you need to know about Enforcement: it's a completely unrelated arm of government that hasn't been seen or heard in these parts for decades. There is zero routine monitoring of back-country abuses and that agency's already-stretched staff certainly aren't going to be traffic cops. Enforcement is based on a complaint model that's largely ineffective (the government's Conservation Officers and Natural Resource Officers investigate only if a formal complaint is made).

Regardless of designation, experience has proven that you have to keep drivers off trails with physical barriers such as large rocks and bollards (posts set in concrete). Otherwise, the bad apples will continue to drive on the trail no matter how many polite signs are put up.

VFE Director showing the marsh
VFE Director shows the marsh to a government biologist
How wrong they were

"Given how threatened wetlands are, common sense would tell any observer that a marsh and its environs need to be kept safe for sensitive wildlife. Yet we had these government officials scoff at this, claiming there was nothing special about the trail segment through the marsh," said Visser.

"The results of our ecological monitoring study -- finding rare and threatened species very near the trail -- certainly proves how wrong they were. Now, just months after the bollards were installed, we're observing increased amphibian abundance along the trail now that trucks and ATVs aren't driving there any more. (For more information on the year-long ecological monitoring study conducted by VFE's biologist, see the post "We're thrilled! At-risk critters found at our nature sanctuary.")

Independent study confirms roads are the major threat to amphibians and reptiles

An independent case study, written by biologist Jared Hobbs and commissioned by the Wilderness Committee and the Sierra Club of BC, found that logging is the biggest contributing factor for the decline of southern mountain caribou and spotted owls in British Columbia. And for amphibians and reptiles, roads were of the greatest concern.

The study used eleven threat categories developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to assess whether or not these threats are addressed in provincial law. Findings show that multiple IUCN threats are not being considered through provincial or federal legal measures. They also highlight that the federal Species-at-risk Act (SARA) does not have automatic legal authority on provincial crown land, which makes up 94 per cent of the land base, and that no provincial legislation is designed specifically to protect critical habitat.

From the study: "When it comes to both the reptile case study... and the amphibian study.... the report found that transportation and service corridors (roads, highways and railways) are the main cause for population declines. Shockingly, there are no legal mechanisms to protect these animals from highways or roads, as the Highway Act does not mention environmental values within its legislation."

"Even though the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is responsible for planning and managing the upkeep of the province’s entire public road network, the report found no specific provisions for managing impacts on wildlife. This means no legal requirement exists to avoid or assess harm to species at risk from roads and highways."

“The vast majority of threats driving wildlife decline in B.C. are not being addressed, mitigated or even considered in law,” said Charlotte Dawe, conservation and policy campaigner for the Wilderness Committee. “Since B.C. does not have a stand-alone law to protect species at risk on non-federal land, wildlife are being driven to extinction from things like logging, oil and gas, and highways, all of which do not have policies that adequately consider their impacts to species at risk.”

We humans have a lot to reckon with in terms of personal mobility, use of back-country toys like ATVs, and our cumulative use of roads. Next time, think twice about jumping into your car for a nonessential errand. And it's time to make all off-road vehicles a thing of the past. The pollution they leave in their wake and their massive disturbance to delicate and dangerously fragmented ecosystems can be tolerated no more. The frogs will thank you.

(Written by Valhalla Foundation director Lorna Visser, clearly not a fan of roads)

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