Heavy machinery constructing a new trail in the north end of Beacon Hill Park in November and December, 2008 repeatedly cut across the meadow, leaving ruts, depressions, muddy tracks, compacted soil and crushed vegetation. Instead of driving across the meadow to transport each load of soil and gravel, the front-end loader could have stayed within the footprint of the new path. All tracks and compaction of soil would have occurred in the path itself, leaving the meadow undamaged. The photo above shows a portion of the trail during construction. The main trail runs south from Southgate Street past a new Mayors Grove sign erected in the centre of the meadow to the central playground.
More new trails--intended to help preserve native plants--are planned in the most productive, sensitive native plant areas in the park. If the Parks Department repeats the same destructive methods, scores of native plants--including rare orchids and rare Prairie violets--will be wiped out. There are important lessons to learn from this first trail building project and there is time to adopt better procedures before construction of the next trail. This article describes how the damage was done in the north end and how damage can be avoided in future trail constructions.
The photos above show vegetation turned to mud as soil was compressed on routes used repeatedly by machinery. Soil compression has serious short and long term impacts for Garry oak meadow plants. Though growth is not visible above ground until spring, seeds, bulbs and acorns begin sending out roots in fall and winter. The new underground growth is fragile, easily broken by the weight of vehicles and machinery. Rich surface soils are more easily compressed in fall and winter because they are wet. The weight of vehicles squeezes water out and closes off air spaces in the soil required by plant roots. In the decades required for natural processes to re-open air spaces, weeds adapted to harsher conditions move in and erosion carries the soil away. Multiple depressions seen in the photo below left were made as machines took other shortcuts across the meadow. The photo below right shows more equipment tracks parallel to the new trail.
There was always a clear alternative to prevent damage: machines could stay on the path route itself. On November 28, Manager of Construction and Natural Systems Todd Stewardson announced he had arranged that solution. Stewardson explained that when he was informed of meadow damage, he went to the site to discuss better procedures with the workers. It was agreed the front-end loader would stay on the new path and would no longer cut across the meadow. That change would add a few more hours to the project, but he told the crew that was acceptable. The loader kept to the pathway and did no further damage. Unfortunately, the improvement was temporary.
Natural areas are not like other construction sites. In developed areas, lawns damaged by machines can be easily repaired with seed or new rolls of turf. That is not true for native plants. Extra care and extra time are required during every stage of construction in natural areas because damage to valuable native plants is permanent. The two photos below illustrate that damage over time. On the left are tracks of a huge semi-trailer chip truck which drove from Heywood Avenue across the meadow to the central playground in October, 2003. The photo below right was taken seven months later; camas did not regrow in the truck tracks. That location, southeast of Mayors Grove, is one of the areas in which a new trail is planned.
Stewardson's excellent solution to avoid further damage while removing topsoil did not extend to the next construction stage, delivering tons of gravel. A gravel truck, too wide to fit onto the path, replaced the front-end loader. Stewardson was alerted on December 8, but this time his response was that others were responsible for on-site supervision, not him, and workers had his "full support." The use of the first gravel truck continued. An even larger dump truck, shown below left, arrived on December 12. The crew laid down plywood sheets to protect the north edge of the path, a good step, before backing in to unload mounds of gravel next to the Mayors Grove sign, below right. That method spilled gravel well beyond the width of the new path.
The photos below show damage made by the first gravel truck traveling along the path. Though that truck was too wide for the path, no protective plywood sheets were placed under the wheels. The heavy truck left a five metre wide section of mud and smashed vegetation on the west side of the new path, shown below left. The same gravel truck cut across the meadow from the path to Arbutus Way, making new depressions and tracks; one of the truck shortcuts is shown below right.
Park construction often happens in fall and winter when native vegetation is not visible. It is imperative, therefore, that native plant specialists help select the best routes for new trails. Selecting the best trail locations is crucial to avoid damaging adjacent areas and also because soil removed from the path routes will contain native plant seeds, roots and bulbs. Without proper consultation, workers could unintentionally haul away rare and endangered plants. Workers and supervisors must be trained to follow the new procedures and do so consistently at each stage of the project.
Construction equipment damage in natural areas is part of a larger problem. Many other workers routinely drive through natural areas, too. For decades, staff have casually driven vehicles, large and small, across the meadows of Beacon Hill Park when performing regular maintenance, installing picnic tables, benches and signs and as handy shortcuts during daily work. Though not intentional, staff vehicle damage of all kinds is constant, real and cumulative. Changing those patterns and attitudes will be difficult.
Camas and other native wildflowers in the park are remnants of an ancient ecosystem identified as valuable heritage landscapes in the Beacon Hill Park Heritage Landscape Management Plan. Verdant meadows were in place when James Douglas first visited in 1842; before that, the meadows were cultivated by First Nations for a thousand years or more. It is the duty of the city to better protect these fragile, valuable heritage landscapes.