Visitors to scenic Cape Breton trail endanger fragile habitat
Parks Canada is working to restore the area at the iconic Skyline Trail
Visitors to one of Cape Breton's most popular trails are destroying a fragile habitat.
More than 50,000 people walk the Skyline Trail in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park each year, according to Parks Canada.
A boardwalk at the end of the trail leads to a stunning cliff-top view of the island's western coastline.
But many visitors are stepping off the boardwalk and onto some fragile and endangered plants.
"And when people trample and walk over those plants, basically it kills them and exposes the roots," said Anne-Claude Pépin, the acting resource conservation manager for Parks Canada.
Pépin said the area around the boardwalk comprises coastal heathland barrens, one of only two such areas in the park.
She said vegetation on the barrens includes bearberries, blueberries and juniper. It's also a habitat for bees.
Pépin said the boardwalk was originally built to keep visitors off the plants.
But she said as people ventured off and created their own "unofficial" trails, more people followed.
The damage was exacerbated by wind and rain erosion, she said.
Parks Canada is now trying to restore the 500 square metres that's been damaged.
Pépin said officials are working with a student from a lab at Saint Mary's University in Halifax which specializes in restoring coastal barren ecosystems.
The work to date includes adding sterilized top soil, sowing seeds and transplanting some plants.
She said it will take years to fully restore the area.
"But if people keep going past the boardwalk, that won't work," said Pépin.
In the meantime, she said, the park will put up more signs, and staff will speak with visitors to explain the importance of staying on the boardwalk.
With files from CBC Cape Breton's Mainstreet