Some readers might recall back in 1992 a federal government entity called the Trans Canada Trail (TCT) was created. It’s noble goal was to establish a trail system that would cross Canada from west to east with various branches to other parts of the country. Since then most of the route has been completed in eastern Canada using already existing trails; smaller distances also made the process relatively easy. It was a different story in much of the west where outside of urban centres long-distances are a big and costly challenge. The push is now on to complete the trail by 2017, the 150th anniversary of confederation, that’s a fair goal but seems unlikely being big gaps remain particularly in Alberta. There is lots of enthusiasm and hope to see it completed but it always boils down to funding the creation or rehabilitation of trails. In times of fiscal restraint trail development is well down the government’s priority list. The groups involved have created foundations and charitable arms to raise funds but its not enough.
The national trail concept got off to rocky start back in the 90’s just after the TCT was created. In the usual Ottawa approach the federal government of the day decided to create a national agency to create the trail. The first thing it did was to provide the agency with bureaucrats, power and money – that’s a sure-fire recipe for bureaucratic mischief, abuse of power and empire building. To make it worse, for political purposes, the head office was located in faraway Montreal even though most of the undeveloped trail network was in the west. That guaranteed a focus on developing trails in the east first. But it also guaranteed that trail issues in the far flung west would be bungled with the usual eastern political ignorance, some would say arrogance. Luckily that was later resolved.
Soon after the TCT was established Canadian railways donated hundreds of miles of abandoned railway rights of way in western Canada to the organization. It was a stroke of genius and luck as it potentially created almost instant trails over large areas. One would assume that the TCT would have created a process to quickly utilize this ready-made trail system, but alas they chose first to pick a fight with adjacent land owners. In the typical eastern federal bureaucratic approach they sent legal letters to landowners adjacent to their newly acquired rights of way that made various demands, restrictions and threats (depending on how you interpreted the letter) on using or crossing their land. That infuriated the land owners affected particularly in light of over a hundred years of harmonious cooperation with the former railway company owners. At first the TCT as expected would not back down – which only made it worse. After a few years of acrimony and stagnation an agreement was reached that provincial trail development agencies would take over responsibility. The TCT was delegated to providing oversight and development grants.
In Alberta the lead trail development agency is Alberta Trail Net and it tries its best with a limited budget – the problem always is the same - big distances. Railway right of ways remain a viable way to expand the network, but there is concern that they won’t be well utilized because many are seen as remote. I suggest that approach is self-defeating; the plan should be that if you build them they will come. Rails to trails projects in eastern Canada, BC and parts of the US have shown that once the trail is built to biking standards, bike tourism seems to develop. In many of those locations much of the trail use is by non- local residents, and that is only common sense. It’s an approach we need in Alberta. Part of the problem may be a perception who the biking community is and how to serve their needs. At present the tourist industry sees mountain bikers as their focus and rightly so – millions of dollars are spent by countless thousands of young folks roaring recklessly down mountain sides at ski resorts in the summer. A whole industry has grown up in many small towns to service that sector of bikers, but a large segment has been ignored. There are legions of bikers that prefer a more sedate and safer style of bicycle touring, and railway lines converted to bicycle trails serves that part of the market. More next time including how pipelines can lead the way.