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Effects of trails on vegetation

Jake Kittaka, Connor Einertson, Kyle Whistler, and Jason Kirchhoff
Conservation Biology class, BIO 345, Biology Department, DePauw University
Fall semester 2015

Hiking and recreational trails can cause soil loss, erosion, compaction, and trampling of vegetation.  The goal of our study was to assess how trails in the DePauw Nature Park affect the surrounding environment.  We investigated the correlation between frequency of trail use and effects on vegetation and soil. 

We hypothesized that there would be a correlation between frequency of trail use and effects on vegetation and soil adjacent to the trail. 

We selected four trail segments in the park:  Rail Trail (L1), Woodland Trail (W4), and Connector Trails (C1 and C4).  A trail camera was installed at the beginning of each trail segment to measure trail use for two weeks.  We set up eight pairs of 3 x 3 meter plots; each pair consisted of a “near” plot (less than 0.5 meter from the trail edge) and “far” plot (over 15 meters from the trail edge).  We counted the number of trees, measured tree diameters, and estimated the percent cover of ground vegetation within each plot.  We used a soil penetrometer to measure soil compaction at a distance of 0.5 meter, 3 meters, and 18 meters from each trail segment.

The Rail Trail and Woodland Trail were most frequently used; use of these two trails was 5 to 10 times higher than the Connector Trails.  There was no correlation between frequency of trail use and vegetation or soil measurements.  We found several differences between “near” and “far” plots; “near” plots had fewer trees, higher percent cover of ground vegetation, and higher soil compaction than “far” plots. 

We did not find a correlation between frequency of trail use and effects on vegetation or soil, but we observed edge effects based on our comparison of “near” and “far” plots.  Some of the differences may be caused by trail maintenance, including use of a large mower along the edge of the trails.  Potentially negative effects on surrounding vegetation and soil could be reduced by reducing the frequency of trail maintenance, including mowing.  Further research is recommended to specifically understand the cause of observed edge effects in the park.