Volunteers work on building the new Razor's Edge Connector Trail. Photo courtesy of Friends of Kananaskis

Volunteers take on more trail work in Alberta parks

But groups faced costly new requirements.

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Struck with a pandemic-size case of cabin fever, Albertans are taking to the trails more than ever, looking to nature for escape from the ennui of public health restrictions.

When we flock to these outdoor spaces, many of us take for granted the hours of planning, hard work and year-round maintenance required to sustain the trails we love to hike and explore. They don’t just happen, in the wild. Trees fall, ruts form and wooden bridges turn rickety and dangerous. To add to these issues, as recreational visitors, we inevitably leave something behind.

Like exhausted parents, hundreds of volunteers spend thousands of hours clearing and maintaining the integrity of the trails. They tidy up after us and ensure we have the ability to safely explore our province’s natural areas. Just like parenting, it is a labour of love.

Many of the trail stewards have been volunteering their time for years, even decades. Most started off as casual groups of well-meaning nature lovers doing their part, getting together on weekends to go out to these natural areas with shovels and chainsaws.

Things changed in 2017, after a trail volunteer was killed by a falling tree at Bragg Creek. There was an immediate stop-work order to all trail-related volunteer groups across Alberta.

“It was a wake-up call,” said Conrad Schiebel, president of Bragg Creek Trails, one of many non-profit volunteer organizations maintaining trails for Alberta Parks.

Volunteer groups doing trail maintenance were unable to return to work until a myriad of costly requirements were met.

The volunteers are expected to behave as government employees.

Conrad Schiebel,

President, Bragg Creek Trails

The province didn’t have the resources to be on site and oversee the safety of the work being done by the trail volunteers, so the volunteers were required to assume that responsibility.

The Bragg Creek accident was the impetus for change.

Province requires long list of new expenses

All volunteer groups doing trail work had to become legally incorporated entities (usually non-profits) and assume all responsibility for supervising their own volunteers. Only then could they resume trail maintenance activities.

This meant adhering to Occupational Health and Safety legislation, providing proper training for volunteers, securing insurance and purchasing their own tools and heavy equipment.

All associated costs became the responsibility of these groups, creating the need for massive fundraising efforts.

In essence, the well-meaning nature lovers had to pay for a long list of expenses before they were allowed to volunteer their time again.

“The volunteers are expected to behave as government employees,” said Shiebel. “We are ambassadors for the parks.” Last year, Bragg Creek Trails volunteers put in 8,300 hours of work in trail maintenance, administration and fundraising for tools and heavy equipment.

These changes were made official by way of cooperating agreements between the province and each volunteer group. (Bragg Creek Trails, for example, signed its agreement in March 2019.) The agreements include a clause requiring both sides to uphold the reputation of the other.

In other words, no government-bashing.

One of the groups interviewed didn’t even want the name of their park published, for fear of government reprisals if there was any negative fallout from this article.

“The spirit of cooperation is very important in the relationship between our group and Alberta Parks,” said one volunteer. “We don’t want to jeopardize that.”

Some of this apprehension springs from the recent controversies like the closure of provincial parks, and allowing coal mining in once-protected areas. Volunteers don’t want to be associated with any backlash against the province.

In 2020, volunteerism in parks surged

Regardless of these contentious issues, trail volunteers feel a strong sense of pride for their trails. They follow the agreement to keep doing the work they love.

“At the end of the day, we just want to be able to help,” said Nancy Ouimet, executive director for the Friends of Kananaskis.

“I’ve been astounded at the number of people, existing and new volunteers who signed up last year—over 300 new volunteers signed up and wanted to give back to Kananaskis in 2020. That’s our most successful year on record. There were more trail sessions than ever before. Volunteers put in 3,043 hours improving Kananaskis trails.”

People have more time, other motivations since the pandemic began. They cherish these outdoor spaces.

Nancy Ouimet,

Executive Director, Friends of Kananskis

Annual education for volunteers doing trail work is a higher priority than ever. Volunteers are trained to ensure activities are performed in the safest manner possible. There has been increased responsibility this season with the added precautions around the pandemic.

“We really strive to improve communication among the trail groups, sharing training manuals to minimize reinventing the wheel,” Ouimet said, “and this higher standard has created more of a culture of health and safety for the trail volunteers.”

These cooperating agreements with the trail volunteer groups are one of many cost-cutting initiatives for Alberta Parks, such as placing many parks under third-party management, something parks and environment minister Jason Nixon introduced in 2020.

“Volunteers have helped keep Alberta’s parks and public land beautiful, accessible and enjoyable for nearly 100 years,” said Nixon in an emailed statement.

“Supporting the health and safety of volunteers who do trail maintenance and other vital work in our parks and public land is our top priority. Volunteer organizations work closely with us to meet safety requirements and ensure their volunteers go home safe and sound at the end of the day.”

Some volunteer groups now run campgrounds

These types of partnerships are ideal for the province, with some of the non-profits taking over not only trail maintenance, but the entire management of natural areas, including the administration of campgrounds. Alberta Parks recently created a video campaign highlighting the work of volunteer trail maintenance groups, like this one for the Friends of Switzer.

As much as the volunteers love what they do, the work comes with challenges.

“The trail system is heavily used, especially right now with everything that’s going on with COVID and the economy,” said Schiebel. “Not adhering to the signage and park etiquette results in added stress and strain on the volunteers and damage to the trail system.”

Recently, Bragg Creek has fielded complaints around animal concerns, like horseback riding on trails not designated as such, and out-of-control dogs in the off-leash areas. Schiebel notes that many parks post etiquette documents to help the public preserve these natural spaces, especially during a year when park usage is at an all-time high.

Lack of adequate parking is also an issue. Many parking lots were designed during an era with fewer visitors and cars.

In Kananaskis, Nancy Ouimet has seen a change in volunteerism.

“More people have reached out than in previous years,” she said. “There has been a new wave, outside of our core group of Kananaskis volunteers. People have more time, other motivations since the pandemic began. They cherish these outdoor spaces.”

Ouimet encourages those who want to give back to participate in the betterment of Alberta parks and protected areas by volunteering or donating.

“We are continuously seeking out projects that can add value to our trail systems.”

Heidi Klaassen is a born-and-raised Calgary writer of fiction and non-fiction. She works for the Alexandra Writers’ Centre Society and her eco-friendly label, Hekkal & Hyde. She lives in Calgary with her husband, sons and rescue chihuahuas.

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