Nfld. & Labrador

25 years in, East Coast Trail Association wants better trail protections

The East Coast Trail is celebrating a milestone anniversary, and honouring the volunteers who make the wilderness a little more accessible.

'We're blessed in this province to have such a wonderful coastline,' says Randy Murphy

Sugarloaf Path on the East Coast Trail is a popular spot to hike, easily accessible to tourists visiting St. John's. (Submitted by Janny VanHouwelingen)

Traversing the dramatic coastlines around Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula has been easier these last couple decades, with volunteers from the East Coast Trail Association clearing and maintaining paths.

But as it celebrates its 25th anniversary, the association's president is hoping the next steps to preserving a little bit of manageable wilderness involve further protections from the provincial government.

"We're blessed in this province to have such a wonderful coastline," says Randy Murphy, with the ECTA.

"In 2001 I walked from Topsail Beach, through every community all the way down to Trepassey. I spent 23 days on the trail, and it was 23 of the best days of my life."

Ed Hayden and Robbie Hicks are among the 13 East Coast Trail Association volunteers receiving the Governor General’s Sovereign’s Medal. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Murphy and a number of other long-time volunteers are being recognized for their work at a special award ceremony at Government House in St. John's Wednesday.

It's been years of hard work, but Murphy said the payoff is worth it.

"We started out with a strong vision and a dream of building a wilderness hiking trail along the eastern edge of the Avalon Peninsula that would be world class, and here we are 25 years later, we have 336 kilometres of trail developed," he said.

"And based on a detailed survey done in 2013, we're succeeding in terms of world class. We had 15,000 hikers on the trail in 2013 and over 58 per cent of those hikers that year — 8,700 hikers — were from outside this province."

Randy Murphy is the president of the East Coast Trail Association. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Simply the best

Back in 2012, National Geographic named the East Coast Trail as one of the 10 best adventure destinations in the world — a distinction Murphy said was an honour to receive, but also, not news to the people who started the trail association back in the 1990s.

"We looked at our coastline and knew, basically, that we had a product that was different from the rest of the world," Murphy said, about what prompted the association to form.

"We had nature, we had community, we had culture, history, and people. And it's working out really well for us."

Tish Barnes enjoying the views from the summer swimming spot on the Deadman's Path of the East Coast Trail. (Submitted by Tish Barnes)

And while the trail is often pristine — as regular hikers often pick up any litter they may happen upon in their journeys — Murphy said there is still a lot of work he wants to see done.

"We've had great success in working with the towns and working with the landowners all along the trail, but it doesn't give a full measure of protection that we're looking for," Murphy said.

Recently, on Ragged Beach in Witless Bay, some residents were shocked and upset earlier this month when an excavator started work on building a retaining wall that they feared would later lead to the construction of a road.

The development was happening on a path developed by the East Coast Trail, and widened by an excavator at the site; the association had not been informed or consulted about that development.

While Murphy did not mention any specific incident or project, he said the association in general is looking to bolster rules around trailways.

"We want to know, what is the province's interest in this trail, and support for this trail? And there's no real provincial legislation in place that's affording us the level of protection we're looking for," Murphy said.

Volunteers cleared off 100 garbage bags of trash from the East Coast Trail. (Submitted by Alick Tsui)

The closest protections currently in place would be the Lands Act, Murphy said, which provides a 15-metre buffer zone for public access from the high tide water mark along the coastline.

"If you walk the East Coast Trail, you know that 15 metres sometimes doesn't even get you to the cliff edge," Murphy said.

"And if it does, it doesn't get you to walkable land. We're looking to sustain the trail long term, and we're looking for basically a better definition of what that means."

Murphy said the association isn't calling for legislation — but did add "that would be ideal" — they want to see some sort of definitive provincial policy recognizing the East Coast Trail.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from the St. John's Morning Show

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