What Do I Need to Know about Trail Density and Human Usage?

While we’re delighted that individuals and groups are out on trails and experiencing nature’s peace and beauty, the fact is, whether we walk, mountain bike, horseback ride, dirt bike, or ATV, there is an impact on the forest’s vegetation and wildlife.


It’s important for you to know that based on available research, MNRF believes that the trail network in The CR currently exceeds trail density thresholds for impact on wildlife and habitat. MNRF recognizes that they are taking a conservative view, but advocating for ecosystem sensitivity is their job.

We encourage any research that would define trail density and human usage impacts on unique sites similar to The CR. Here are a few common sense research findings relevant to The CR that we hold to be true until further research is conclusive.

Human Usage

  • Passive trail use is more desirable than active use in The CR. The term passive use refers to walking, hiking, jogging, wildlife viewing, and picnicking. Active use includes mountain biking, horseback riding motorized vehicle use like dirt biking and ATV-ing.

All Uses Introduce Non-native Species

  • Mountain bikes, dirt bikes, hooves, ATVs and footwear all spread non-native species in an ecosystem. Once introduced to trails, the non-native species out-compete native plants and spread away from the trail into the forest, crowding out native plants. Just as boats need a power wash when entering other lakes, a best practice is to wash your boots or your tires before hiking/riding the CR trails.

Impacts on Vegetation, Soil, Water, and Wildlife

  • All forms of recreational activity have an impact on vegetation,soil, water, and wildlife.
  • Non-aggressive mountain biking on well-designed and maintained trails can have a similar impact to that of hiking.
  • Mountain biking on flat trails has less impact than on hills, especially uphill riding.
  • The vicious cycle (no pun intended!) occurs like this: speed, turning, banking, braking, skidding and lateral wheel slippage cause rutting, especially when trails are wet. Rutting leads to muddiness, erosion, soil displacement, soil loss and then to off-trail re-routing, which damages vegetation.
  • Fat biking on snow has limited environmental impacts due to use on frozen ground; the greatest impacts occur during shoulder seasons when riding damages muddy trails
  • Horseback riding and dirt biking have more negative impacts, causing soil erosion, soil loss, structural change, and loss of fauna and flora due to habitat destruction.
  • ATVs and horse cause significantly greater ecological damage.
  • The initial trail construction stage has the most impact on vegetation and soil.
  • When trails cross or run close to streams, soil, nutrients and pathogenic organisms enter the water and can smother fish eggs, hurt organisms, and produce algal blooms that deplete oxygen in the water.
  • Wildlife flees from trails when disturbed, leaving prime feeding areas. In colder months, fleeing takes needed energy when food is scarce. Wildlife learns to associate people with food, and returns to sites in search of food scraps, crumbs, and even plastics.

The above research findings are from Canadian, American and Australian studies conducted between 2007 and 2016. While none of these studies took place in a conservation reserve specifically similar to The CR with its unique Carolinian habitat, they provide a baseline understanding of the impacts of recreational trails in the woods. We hope to see recreational impact research conducted at the St Williams Conservation Reserve.