Going Off the Beaten Path…Towards Disaster

Going off trail is really the natural state of things, and something humans have done since human existence. Other animals do the same, and some even have trails of there own. Now there are now 7+ billion humans, over 27 billion domesticated animals worldwide, and 240 million pets (in the US). I’m uncertain on the fraction of that number that can we afford the luxury of roaming off beaten paths. A recent film, “Off the Beaten Path,” sparked many serious questions in my mind about going off trail. It’s not too big of a surprise that the sponsors are bike companies, and that the film production company is called “first tracks.” Thankfully, I think this name mostly reflects a connection to snow, but it can be quite bad in other contexts. I personally do this frequently in order to find a way to consolidate human traffic, and as a means to a positive end, mainly protecting habitat from getting widely trampled. Although just how “first” or lasting an impact is questionable. It’s not as if the freedom to roam, and trails themselves don’t weigh heavy on my mind.

My concerns are many:

To be blunt, I really don’t care for some of what I saw in the trailer. Going “off trail” is a potential natural resource issue (or disaster) with implications beyond someone just having fun, especially if a lot of users start doing this. I’m not sure what type of environmental or conservation message this film sends (yet*), but the trailer shows a few instances that don’t appear apropos. We don’t need to add fuel to the go-anywhere mentality of some dirt bikes, and ATVs (or peak baggers for that matter etc.). “Leave No Trace” means just that, not “leave a track/footprint” in some instances, and sometimes things much worse than tracks/footprints:

-disrupting biological soil crusts (especially crusts in more arid soils– areas especially prone to human passage given the space between plants)
-crushing germinating plant life
-providing disturbance for non-native invasive species opportunism
-human dispersal of invasive plants and animals to currently pristine areas (e.g. New Zealand mud snail)
-leaving disruptive human scents
-disturbing the beds and particularly the banks of streams
-compacting soils
-disturbing stream algae and diatoms (although the effect is probably small as they often reproduce very rapidly)
-crushing benthic macro invertebrates
-potentially transferring pathogens (mainly the extreme disaster being caused by the deadly chytrid fungus) from one mesic area to another (i.e. stream to stream, or lake to stream etc.)
-potentially starting social trails in some instances (especially urban/suburban areas that are already stressed with poor human to open space ratios and off trail elitism. Riding or snow shoeing in thin snow or freeze-thaw conditions off trail may have a more lasting impact towards the formation of social trail permanence)
-and lastly the shear nerve of promoting human pleasure and privilege as if it is OK to interrupt or disturb the daily goings on of any number of critters trying to eat, sleep, reproduce, and perhaps play themselves, or just make it in life

I’m a little concerned about the implications of the film, and currently see it as being “off” the mark when it comes to human impact (tires or bushwhacking boots just the same). I am extremely interested to see if the film discusses any of the red flags raised above, or which ones it steers clear of confronting.

*After seeing the trailer and writing the above^, I finally saw the film. It was very well done, and for the most part, except for a few seconds, didn’t appear to “bust the crust” or appear too far “off the path.” A big focus did indeed turn out to be about snow. Suffice it to say I was very relieved. However, the film never mentioned the concerns above, and I’m not sure it had to given what was shown, but a short PSA would have been nice for those that think going anywhere they can is harmless. It’s bad enough countless films and ads show mountain bikers displacing soil by skidding or sliding to throw up sprays. I’ve seen that behavior emulated, and some trail segments blown out. I’d hate to see  similar issues caused by roaming anywhere or all over ‘off the beaten path.’ That said, I think the title bothers me the most, but under that cover it’s not all bad.

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