The impacts of trail infrastructure on vegetation and soils: Current literature and future directions

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Ballantyne, Mark
Pickering, Catherine Marina
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Reflecting the popularity of nature-based activities such as hiking and mountain biking, there are thousands of kilometres of recreational trails worldwide traversing a range of natural areas. These trails have environmental impacts on soils and vegetation, but where has there been research, what impacts have been found and how were they measured? Using a systematic quantitative literature review methodology, we assessed the impacts of trails on vegetation and soils, highlighting what is known, but also key knowledge gaps. Of the 59 original research papers identified on this topic that have been published in English language peer-reviewed academic journals, most were for research conducted in protected areas (71%), with few from developing countries (17%) or threatened ecosystems (14%). The research is concentrated in a few habitats and biodiversity hotspots, mainly temperate woodland, alpine grassland and Mediterranean habitats, often in the USA (32%) or Australia (20%). Most examined formal trails, with just 15% examining informal trails and 11% assessing both types. Nearly all papers report the results of observational surveys (90%), collecting quantitative data (66%) with 24% using geographic information systems. There was an emphasis on assessing trail impacts at a local scale, either on the trail itself and/or over short gradients away from the trail edge. Many assessed changes in composition and to some degree, structure, of vegetation and soils with the most common impacts documented including reduced vegetation cover, changes in plant species composition, trail widening, soil loss and soil compaction. There were 14 papers assessing how these local impacts can accumulate at the landscape scale. Few papers assessed differences in impacts among trails (7 papers), changes in impacts over time (4), species-specific responses (3) and only one assessed effects on plant community functioning. This review provides evidence that there are key research gaps including assessing informal trails, comparing trail types, landscape and temporal scale impacts, functional responses and impacts on threatened ecosystems/species. A more diverse geographic spread of research is also required including in regions experiencing rapid growth in tourism and recreation.

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Journal of Environmental Management

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© 2015 Elsevier. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Licence ( which permits unrestricted, non-commercial use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, providing that the work is properly cited.

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Environmental management

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