Local officials knew the Sproatt Alpine Trail Network would be busy even before the opening of the highly anticipated Lord of the Squirrels and Into the Mystic trails last summer. But even they couldn't have anticipated exactly how popular the area would become with hikers and bikers alike.
"Certainly we knew there was a pent-up demand for access to the backcountry, and in particular for access into the alpine, but the numbers have been overwhelming," noted Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.
Between Aug. 4 and Oct. 12, 2017, the municipality counted approximately 6,200 visits into the area, including one day in August when 455 ascents were recorded.
"The use exploded the moment it was open," said Craig Mackenzie, president of the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association (WORCA), which built part of the network, including the Lord of the Squirrels trail.
The network's popularity speaks not only to its effective design, but also to a prior lack of access for mountain bikers looking to get into the high alpine. "The concept behind going up Sproatt was to get more high-alpine access available in the valley, and it's exceeded it," Mackenzie added.
But with the surge in use, combined with the $400,000 earmarked in this year's municipal budget for the building of additional trails in the Sproatt Rainbow Trail Development Plan, Whistler's environmental charity is concerned over the possible impact on one of the resort's most sensitive ecosystems.
"In the valley, we've seen official trails provide access to areas and then unofficial trails pop up all around them. So, when we've got these longer recovery times in the alpine, and some of the behaviours we've seen in the valley, one of the major concerns we have is: Will people stick to the trails?" voiced Claire Ruddy, head of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE).
Whistler's high alpine is a key habitat area for several plant and animal species, including the pika and the threatened local grizzly bear population, Ruddy explained. Climate change has only exacerbated the impacts on local flora and fauna, species that "live a kind of precarious life" in the sensitive alpine environment.
This summer, the municipality will install a ranger on Sproatt, in addition to the ranger that's been working at the 21 Mile Creek watershed for the past two seasons, that will serve in a variety of roles, including educating trail users on best practices and enforcing local regulations.
"Those rangers are really acting as ambassadors for the municipality's alpine trails," said Wilhelm-Morden.
Ruddy applauded the initiative, but questioned whether a single ranger would have much influence on such a large and diverse group of trail users. Also, given the potential harm that hundreds of additional users could bring to the area, she would like to see more invested into educating user groups before they arrive in the alpine.
"The RMOW is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the alpine trails, but we're not seeing proportional investment to ensure people act as positive stewards of those environments," said Ruddy, highlighting how, for instance, many users might not know they should clean their bike tires and hiking boots before entering the alpine to prevent the spread of invasive species.
"Education needs to be ongoing, it needs to be engaging, and it needs to connect with a huge diversity of user groups. So it takes investment, and we weren't seeing that in the budget," she added.
Ruddy's concern speaks to what she sees as a larger issue with how the municipality vets and plans recreational infrastructure.
"There's this kind of siloed approach to planning," she said, noting how there's little information sharing, officially, between municipal committees such as the Trails Planning Working Group (TPWG), the Forest and Wildland Advisory Committee, and the Recreation and Leisure Advisory Committee.
Ruddy also said that AWARE had pushed to be a member of the TPWG, but was initially told it was a closed group, despite representation by other local organizations, such as WORCA, the Cheakamus Community Forest and the Alpine Club of Canada's Whistler chapter. She said AWARE was eventually permitted to sit in on the bi-annual meetings as an observer, before being granted full membership status last fall.
Wilhelm-Morden said she was unsure why AWARE would not have been part of the group, adding that, "it seems unusual that they would not have been allowed to speak. Perhaps the thinking was that the environmental concerns were taken care of, so to speak, by the other members of the working group."