Management of Ontario Trails in Response to Environmental Change: A Narrative Policy Analysis

1.0.Study Introduction and Rationale

The complexity of the natural environment challenges both researchers and policy makers.  Research has yet to fully quantify the cause and effect relationships between human activity and environmental impact (Lee, 2011).  Policy makers have also been unable to effectively wield political and economic tools to stymie rapid environmental change (Hanna & Slocombe, 2007).  These two problems- one of understanding, the other of resource management- are interacting synergistically and need to be addressed concurrently (McDougall, et al. 2011; Nemec, et al. 2011).  In this data analysis, I will evaluate how recreational trail managers could use policy to increase the connection between human systems and the surrounding environment.

I will focus my analysis on the non-profit, charitable trail management organization known as Hike Ontario (Hike Ontario, 2007).  Established in 1974, Hike Ontario is run exclusively by volunteers, focuses on promoting recreational trails, and acts as coordinator between trail stakeholders at all levels (Hike Ontario, 2007).  My interest is in understanding how this organization plans to maintain or enhance the connection between trail users and the trail environment within the context of environmental change.  To illuminate the various dimensions of Hike Ontario policy, I will contrast its key elements with policy narratives from independent trail organizations and the Canadian government.

Although trail organizations have yet to consider the implications of environmental change, they will play a leadership role in guiding human-environment interactions into the future (Marion, 1995).  Volunteers involved in trail organizations act as teachers who can encourage people of all ages to directly interact with, and learn from, their surrounding natural environment (Chon & Shafer, 2009; Roger & Graefe, 1994).  Consequently, there is the need to apply research tools to the problem of ensuring sufficient resources are put into trail organizations and their management, education, promotion, and leadership activities (Hanna & Slocombe, 2007).  The need for this research is increasing along with the noticeable shifts to fall colors, snowfall levels, species composition, and the frequency and intensity of storm events (Hanna & Slocombe, 2007; Tomczyk, 2011).  In this article, I will cover the purpose (Section 2.0.) and questions (Section 3.0.) pivotal to my investigations on this topic.  I will also review for the reader trail-related literature (Section 4.0.) and key aspects of narrative policy methodology (Section 5.0.).  In the final two sections (Sections 6.0. and Section 7.0.), I will present the data collection and anticipated analysis methods for this research.

2.0.Purpose Statement

The purpose of this narrative analysis study will be to understand how Hike Ontario policy provides trail organizations with guidance on maintaining or enhancing the connection between trail users and the trail environment within the context of environmental change.  This study will be of benefit to individual trail users, volunteer-run hiking organizations, and resource managers across Ontario, Canada.  The policy measures of Hike Ontario will be compared to higher- and lower-level tiers of policy to better understand the interactions and outcomes of policy surrounding recreational hiking trails.  I intend to proceed with this research by evaluating the temporal, spatial, and thematic organization of trail-related policy narratives.

3.0.Research Overview and Questions

Using four documents in total, I will investigate the policy of Hike Ontario in comparison to governmental and local level initiatives.  I will first evaluate Hike Ontario’s two central policy documents, Compass 2015 and Best Practices, based on their stated methods for stimulating mutually beneficial human-environment interactions.  Compass 2015 provides an overview of the evaluation process taken by Hike Ontario to assess their internal organizational strengths and weaknesses, as well as external opportunities and threats (Hunt, 2010).  The Best Practices document gives a comprehensive review of organizational strategies for attracting and maintaining trail users and volunteers (Hike Ontario, 2007).  Together, they give an adequate representation of the external context and the internal strategies currently being undertaken by Hike Ontario to promote recreational trails.

Next, I will compare and contrast the Hike Ontario documents to the broad policies of the Canadian government and the outcomes of policy at the level of the independent trail organization.  The Ministry of Health Promotion’s (2005) Active 2010: Ontario Trails Strategy espouses important, but idealistic, methods for trail management which may be difficult to implement in practice.  For example, the document outlines innovative funding models for trail organizations which would require excessive financial and personnel resources to implement and maintain.  In the Annual Report 2010-2011 submitted to Hike Ontario (2010), independent trail organizations describe the pressure to adhere to higher-level policy in a fiscally sparse climate with limited volunteer resources.  By situating my analysis of Hike Ontario within the micro- and macro-level policy, I hope to detail any problematic contradictions in the Hike Ontario policy framework.

Based on the above, my research questions will be as follows:

  1. How do policy statements in Compass 2015 illustrate Hike Ontario’s commitment to stimulating human-environment interactions?
  2. What policy strategies are being laid out in the Best Practices report to improve human-environment interactions?
  3. How do Compass 2015 and Best Practices organize and present their policy arguments? What does this organization imply about Hike Ontario’s ability to act as coordinator between higher- and lower-level trail policies?
  4. How might government policies in Active 2010 be affecting the management of Hike Ontario? Are policies in Active 2010 convergent, or divergent, from Hike Ontario?
  5. Do on-the-ground, independent trail organizations adhere to policy strategies promoted by Hike Ontario and the Canadian government? What policy changes could be made to improve this situation?
  6. Are issues of environmental change discussed in any of the aforementioned documents?

These questions are closely linked to my research methodology of narrative analysis.  I will be juxtaposing three tiers of trail-related policy and reflecting on the implications for the interrelated concepts of management styles and human perspectives.  I want to know if the established policies of Hike Ontario will come into question when compared to other narrative stories (Roe, 1994).  The metanarrative established in the discourse between these three different policy levels will be useful for proposing alternative solutions to the distance between humans and their environment (Roe, 1994).

4.0.Literature Review

Ideas which pervade trail management policy are both theoretical and practical, although they are not always explicitly addressed in policy documents (e.g. Hike Ontario, 2007; Hike Ontario, 2010).  Theoretically, there are issues surrounding the management activities of trail organizations and the connection between trail resources and user perspectives.  Practically, there are difficulties with volunteer involvement, environmental impacts on the trails, recreational impacts on the trails, and the modeling of both.  Many of these ideas are borrowed from park management, urban planning, and thematically similar literature.

As trail management has become more complex, related policies have evolved to encompass a broad array of topics (McEwen & Ross, 1976; Wimpey & Marion, 2010).  Due to the growing number of trails and trail users on privately-owned land, trail organizations have struggled to maintain positive landowner relations and preserve entire ecosystems adjacent to the trail (Leinwand, et al. 2010; Wimpey & Marion, 2011).  Pivotal to the continuation of positive relationships amongst stakeholders and with their surrounding environment is trail user education and landscape-level conservation measures (Hannah & Slocombe, 2007).  Education can enhance the trail user’s experience as well as management initiatives; trails can educate the public about the environment, while trails are also more valued and respected by educated users (Hannah & Slocombe, 2007).  Policy within trail organizations is therefore focusing on holistic conservation measures at the level of the ecosystem as well as heightening the knowledge and understanding of trail users (Bright, 1986; Schasberger, et al. 2009).

Trail resources and human perspectives are two interconnected topics obliquely referred to in trail-related policy.  In general, resource managers are expected to understand how the attitudes of visitors affect their behaviors towards the environment (Lee, 2011).  The concept that attitudes lead to behaviors is common in the recreation and leisure literature, but has not yet been sufficiently studied with reference to trail management (Roger & Graefe, 1994; Spartz & Shaw, 2011; Spencer, 2010).  Attitudes are also affected by variables beyond the control of resource managers; for example, the individual’s ethnicity, age, and education (Raymond, et al. 2011).  Trail policy addresses these topics by suggesting that: 1) managers interpret the environment for visitors to ensure a positive reaction, and 2) trail managers monitor visitor attitudes and related behaviors over time (Hike Ontario, 2007).

However, a study on resident perceptions by Matarrita-Cascante, et al. (2010) suggests that damage to natural resources could alter the relationship between people and their surrounding environment.  Trail organizations rely on positive perceptions by trail users to ensure environmentally-beneficial behavior, obtain financial support, and recruit volunteers (Raymond, et al. 2011).  Changing trail user perceptions could disrupt this supportive relationship (Spartz & Shaw, 2011; Spencer, 2010).  In response, many trail policies are focusing on the importance of place when discussing the trail system (Hike Ontario, 2007).  Place is a term borrowed from the planning and ecology literature and indicates the degree to which an individual values or identifies with a particular environmental setting (Roger & Graefe, 1994, pp. 17).  In policy, place manifests itself as a focus on preserving the natural, historical, or cultural value of the trail for users (Hike Ontario, 2007).  Preservation of these values could be challenging in the face of environmental and recreational impacts on trails.

Environmental and recreational impacts on trails are both addressed in trail policy, as are demands for modeling these impacts and dealing with the challenges of volunteer-run organizations.  One local, Kitchener-Waterloo example of a trail organization is the Grand Valley Trails Association (GVTA).  Chauvin (1997) evaluated the organizational needs for the GVTA and determined that their over-reliance on volunteer, unpaid staff has precluded the proper preservation of resources and maintenance of landowner relations.  He recommended that the organization develop new funding models and acquire paid staff to ensure that trails are properly managed (Chauvin, 1997).  Bruyere and Rappe (2007) support Chauvin’s (1997) analysis by noting that keeping volunteers engaged and active in an organization without sufficient rewards can be challenging.  Manpower demands for trail management are high, and volunteer burnout is common (Bruyere & Rappe, 2007).  Policy on trails is addressing this issue by encouraging grant development and private-public partnerships for trail organizations (Ministry of Health Promotion [MHP], 2005).  However, obtaining sufficient personnel resources for environmental protection could be difficult.

The environmental impacts of trail usage include the introduction of exotic plant species, soil disturbance, and informal trail creation (Leinwand, et al., 2010; McDougall, et al., 2011; Nemec, et al., 2011; Olive & Marion, 2009; Wimpey & Marion, 2010; Wimpey & Marion, 2011).  Exotic plant species can travel to new locations by attaching to the bodies of hikers, cyclers, and pack animals; this is a particularly difficult problem in sensitive (e.g. mountain, littoral) environments (McDougall, et al. 2011; Nemec, et al. 2011).  These species can spread prolifically under the new conditions, thereby altering the ecosystem structure of the area and visitor’s enjoyment of the scenery (Nemec, et al. 2011).  Next, soil disturbance includes both soil compaction and soil erosion (Olive & Marion, 2009).  The causes and effects of erosion on trails are not well known, but can alter the attractiveness of the trail (Olive & Marion, 2009).  Soil compaction can expose tree roots, creating safety hazards for walkers, as well as polluting water streams by increasing runoff rates (Olive & Marion, 2009).  Informal trail creation can exacerbate any and all of the above problems, as it expands the network of trails beyond management boundaries and into more sensitive, low-use environments (Wimpey & Marion, 2011).  Trail policy refers to these issues with accepted guidelines for prevention (Hike Ontario, 2007).

Recreational impacts are of less interest to scholars in the present day, and are thus better understood through holistic modeling studies.  Many researchers interested in recreational impacts on trails seem to have been quite prolific pre-1990s (e.g. Bright, 1986; Hall & Kuss, 1989; McEwen & Ross, 1976).  These studies were undertaken as scientific endeavors in which quantifiable variables (e.g. number of users) was measured to evaluate the linear progression of environmental impacts (Bright, 1986).  However, it is increasingly being recognized that impacts are stochastic and non-linear in nature; human perceptions are also an important, but much less tangible, variable (Deluca, et al. 1998; Marion, 1995).  Consequently, researchers have shifted their focus towards modeling human-environment interactions at a broader level (Tomczyk, 2011).

Modeling can be a useful exercise for evaluating landscapes and people, and has been used in multiple post-1990 research projects (Arnberger & Eder, 2011; Arnberger, et al., 2010; Brown & Weber, 2011; Chon & Shafer, 2009; Tomczyk, 2011).  Although these studies are still post-positivist (i.e. searching for a universal truth), they acknowledge the complex, variable, and influential nature of human perspectives on environmental impacts.  Consequently, environmental landscapes and human perspectives are measured as a system, without reductionistic and post hoc analyzes (Arnberger & Eder, 2011; Chase, 2005).  For example, the articles indicate that hikers want to see distinct, natural, and well-maintained areas without crowding and litter (Arnberger & Eder, 2011; Arnberger, et al. 2010; Chon & Shafer, 2009).  The geographic locations where managers should focus their improvement efforts are often mapped, in these studies, using geographic information systems (GIS) (Brown & Weber, 2011).  Trail policy has encouraged managers to use GIS interactively with the public so that major issues can be identified and solved based on the input of those who know the situation best (Hike Ontario, 2007).

This section has illustrated how policy implicitly addresses both theoretical and practical ideas related to trail management.  Theoretically, it has been illustrated how policy should support ideas of place to ensure that trail organizations continue to be supported by trail users.  Practically, it has been shown that environmental and recreational impacts are often modeled using technologies that engage with the public.  Within this context, I will evaluate the policies of Hike Ontario.

5.0.Description of Methodology

Narrative policy analysis will be the methodology used to evaluate Hike Ontario and related policy documents.  The use of this methodology and the selected topic has implications for the stance, structure, and voice of my research.  In narrative, a researcher will analyze a series of stories for their key elements and then reorder them into a subjectively-constructed semblance of order (Ollerenshaw & Creswell, 2002).  Narrative constructionism is the particular stance associated with this form of research.  Constructionism is useful for this topic because trails are increasingly being recognized as a key element of human social organization; they connect geographically disparate locations, individuals, and stories (Sparkes & Smith, 2007; Tomczyk, 2011).  Trails are also constructed in response to human attitudes and behaviors, and contribute to ongoing human debates (Tomczyk, 2011).

The structure and voice of my research will also derive from the topic and methodology under study.  With regards to structure, I anticipate adopting Ollerenshaw and Creswell’s (2002) problem-solution framework.  This framework will allow me to focus on the issue of human-environment separation, progress through the development of various policies, and begin to explain the experiences of trail users and managers (Ollerenshaw & Creswell, 2002).  Each experience will be evaluated using elements such as characters, setting, problem, actions, and subsequent resolution (Ollerenshaw & Creswell, 2002).  In terms of voice, I intend to present the reader with key phrases drawn from the original policy text using the ‘authoritative’ voice (Chase, 2005).  This will allow the reality of the situation to appear to the reader through the data, rather than being masked behind my personal perspectives.  My central contribution will be to question the accepted practices, structures, and processes of the social context surrounding trail-related policy (Chase, 2005).  For example, I may find and question the assertion that trail management activities are effective and should continue as they currently stand.

Using the narrative analysis methodology and its associated stance, structure, and voice should allow me to reflexively explore my own biases and lenses within this topic.  Narrative analysis encourages researchers to carefully situate themselves within their broader social, cultural, and ecological contexts (Chase, 2005).  As a graduate student with an undergraduate degree in Environment and Resource Studies, Parks Option, I have been exposed to many ideas about environmental justice, local-level control, and the villainy of bureaucracy.  This could cause my perceptions and related analysis to develop an advocacy role for bottom-up initiatives in resource management.  Consequently, I may ignore or misinterpret those aspects of Hike Ontario’s policy which do not support this view.  I must therefore attempt to adequately represent the opposing arguments, which may include top-down and bureaucratic measures for resource management.

Another personal lens which I must remain cognizant of during my research is that of my sensual relationship with nature.  My interactions with nature tend to be sensual and based on emotions derived from my feelings of touch, sight, and smell.  The framework within which I think of nature is that of the complexity of human-environment interactions.  By this I mean the stochastic and synergistic environmental responses to human intervention.  Although not immediately obvious, this complexity links to the sensual experience nature provides to people.  Nature has been frequently personified in fiction as a ‘mistress’; the analogy of the lover is appropriate in the human-environment relationship.  Just as with a lover, nature is always presenting humans with unexpected, but intensely pleasing, surprises.  However, I enter into this research project with a clear idea of my methodology (including stance, structure, and voice) and my biases (advocacy perspective and sensual experiences with nature).  My personal reflections on the presence of these issues will ensure that I stay open to the data during the analysis phase of research.

6.0.Data Collection

The data for this study has been collected throughout late January and early February, 2012.  Each of the four publically-accessible policy documents presented here were found using the online Google© search engine.  The documents were downloaded onto my computer and skimmed through briefly.  About a day later, I sat down with each and took notes on their content. These notes were typed into a Microsoft Word processor and were at the broadest level possible (i.e. reproduction of headings, key quotes, notations on important bullet points, etc.).

To release my reflections on each policy from the confines of technology, I have since taken the words, terms, and phrases of interest from the four documents and recorded them onto sticky notes.  To maintain organization, the sticky notes are color-coded by document and have an associated identifying reference.  The sticky notes are in the process of being organized into a thematic collage on a large cork board.  This effort has allowed me to focus on one piece of data individually, or zoom out to study the broad picture as a whole.

7.0.Proposed Data Analysis Methods

Narrative policy analysis, in practice, consists of four steps (Roe, 1994).  I have begun to develop the first stage of this process; already, I have identified the conventional or accepted stories which dominate trail policy (Roe, 1994).  These conventional stories describe a system in which volunteer trail organizations are struggling to manage the trails with restricted fiscal and personnel resources.  In future, this situation could be worsened by the environmental changes affecting recreational trails.  Given my personal perspectives, I see this problem in the context of complex human-environment interactions and am tempted to propose solutions which remove power from higher levels of bureaucracy to those on-the-ground individuals who have emotional and sensual attachments to the environment.

However, I will have to situate my perspectives within my analysis of contrasting narratives to allow for the natural development of solutions from within the data (Roe, 1994).  I will critically review the higher-level policy statements from the Ministry of Health Promotion (2005) to evaluate the precursors to Hike Ontario’s two policy documents.  Then I will evaluate the outcomes of these policies by examining documents at the level of the individual trail organization.  A holistic examination of all of these documents should provide me with a complete metanarrative of the entire problem (Roe, 1994).  The resultant metanarrative will allow me to recast the issue under study and either confirm or challenge the status quo of trail organization’s policy (Chase, 2005; Roe, 1994).

Overall, my analysis will provide readers with an understanding of the ways in which policy is being created for a certain audience in a certain time and place; I will also try to pick apart subject positions, interpretive practices, and complexities within this topic (Chase, 2005).  This simple analysis will be extendable to human perspectives, environmental management, and complexity science more generally.


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