A recurring question…

We’ve been asked (more than once) “Why does GaLTT build boardwalks everywhere? Why not leave the trails in a more natural state?”

Most of us—and that includes the GaLTT Board and committees—do prefer more natural trails. But boardwalks aren’t built for the convenience of people or to keep them from getting their feet muddy! They’re built to protect ecosystems.

When a lot of people walk trails there’s harm done to the environment:

  • damage done to the root systems of trees through soil compaction can kill them
  • trail widening (when people try to get around mud/puddles) kills adjacent plants
  • trail widening plus compaction of earth turns trails into seasonal creek beds, resulting in runoff and erosion (and more fallen trees) instead of water absorption

Boardwalks are built to save people from loving nature to death—literally.

When (and where) does GaLTT build boardwalks?

We build them on trails that see enough usage for there to be a risk of environmental damage from overuse. As of the end of 2023 GaLTT had built 564 m of boardwalk.

We build boardwalks when we are asked to by a public agency such as the Islands Trust Conservancy (ITC) or Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN); in those cases the agency covers the cost of materials and GaLTT provides volunteer labour. On trail licences on private land or Right-Of-Ways (ROWs) held by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) GaLTT assesses the need for infrastructure to mitigate against environmental damage and make trails sustainable for community use, and bears all associated costs. On ROWs we pay for permit fees as well as materials.

The most concentrated construction (162 m) has been in the S’ul-hween X’pey (Elder Cedar) Nature Reserve, where GaLTT is a co-holder of the conservation covenant. The rest is spread around the island. To date about 200 m have been built on MoTI ROWs.

Boardwalk construction can help mitigate environmental harm even when there is still off-boardwalk use. The pictures below show the same location in S’ul-hween X’pey. Before the boardwalk was built this section of trail seasonally turned into a giant lake, and the damage done by people making new trails to get around it was very obvious.

The photo shows a messy, muddy informal trail through ferns, with extensive exposed roots. In the background you can see the edge of a giant puddle.
A giant puddle extends to about three times the width of a trail. You can see trodden areas in the vegetation where people have tried to walk around it.

Now cyclists and some walkers still use the trail adjacent to the boardwalk in dry seasons, but the overall environmental impact is much less. The trails avoiding the “lake” no longer exist and vegetation has a better chance of growing back in summer.

The photo shows a boardwalk along a trail, with a narrow path to the side.

Why do we install mesh?

Wet wood can get very slippery, especially as it begins to age and grow algae. (Just ask the GaLTT member who broke a leg on a backpacking trip because they stepped on a slippery “tree cookie” placed as a stepping stone in a mudhole.)

Why not just ask people to use the right gear?

As a trail user everyone can help prevent the need for boardwalks and other kinds of mitigation measures that are designed to prevent environmental degradation. The solution is simple: choose which trails you walk according to the season and their condition, and (please) don’t walk or ride a trail if doing so will cause damage.

But the fact that a solution to a problem exists doesn’t mean the problem is solved: most walkers do not choose to walk through the middle of puddles. People don’t always make the best choices, even if they know that their actions could cause problems. One of the earliest boardwalks built in S’ul-hween X’pey (though not by GaLTT) is the one surrounding the Elder Cedar itself. A big reason it exists is that people consistently ignored signage asking people not to approach the tree because heavy traffic would harm it, and repeatedly threw away the sign.

GaLTT can’t control what people do, but we can help lessen the impact of trail users’ activities. And so we build boardwalks.

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