The Ecological Impact of Rogue Trails

The Ecological Impact of Rogue Trails

June 1, 2016 by Jennifer

Rogue or “social” trails are unofficial, undesignated, user-created trails. These trails are often formed as shortcuts, or lead to an area not accessed by a designated trail. They form over time by visitors who are often unaware they are violating park policy.

Because rogue trails are not properly designed, they can often cause serious land management issues and ecological impacts. Whereas properly designed trails consider drainage patterns, trail width, vegetation characteristics, topography, and other factors, rogue trails do not. Consequently, water often becomes trapped on rogue trails, causing channelization, increased water velocity, and massive sediment movement. What starts out as an inconspicuous trail can often lead to unruly erosion gullies that require substantial time and resources to repair.

In areas where multiple rogue trails exist, closing and restoring those trails helps protect natural resources by:

  • Keeping visitors on designated trails and out of protected areas 

  • Reducing habitat fragmentation 

  • Maintaining adequate soil moisture levels on site necessary to support 
natural plant communities 

  • Creating a self-sustaining plant community that will protect the 
restored site from excessive soil erosion and provide wildlife habitat.

To close and restore rogue trails, RMFI follows a 5-step process:

  1. Decompact the trailbed: It is crucial to decompact the trailbed at least 4-6 inches when closing a rogue trail. Overuse can compact soil, which will make natural establishment of vegetation extremely slow. Freshly decompacted soil will increase the success of reseeding efforts and enhance vegetation regrowth.
  2. Bring area back to grade: This step will prevent water from continuing to downcut along the rogue trail while also helping to minimize sedimentation. Additionally, if the rogue trail is not brought back up to grade it will continue to be perceived as a trail and will attract use. Filling the old trailbed with a native soil is crucial for fully restoring the impacted area.
  3. Revegetation: Once erosion is addressed, revegetation treatments should be applied to achieve long-term slope stabilization and develop a self-sustaining, native plant community. Spreading native seed and installing erosion matting or covering with mulch is crucial to fully restoring the eroded area. Revegetation can be supplemented with transplants from the surrounding area to increase the ‘natural’ look of the restored site.
  4. Minimize the visibility of all rogue trails: As long as use continues on restored areas, erosion control and re-vegetation attempts will be unsuccessful. Physical structures, such as barriers and debris (fencing, large boulders, vegetation, timber slash, etc.) can help disguise closed trails. Visual barriers in conjunction with educational signage can substantially increase the success rate of any restoration project. Education is often an overlooked portion of restoration, but most people will not walk off-trail if they realize the damage they may be causing.
  5. Monitor and assess site:  Monitoring the site is an effective method to determine if restoration goals were achieved. This may be as simple as taking ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos to assess effectiveness of restoration treatments. For certain projects, more quantitative measures may be required.