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Illegal trailblazing as negotiation tool?

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Kimberly Hirai | Sep 01, 2011 05:00 AM

If you build it, the federal land agencies will include it.

That's what Montana mountain biking enthusiast Ron Cron counted on when he embarked on a three-day, illegal trail-making frenzy in the Flathead National Forest in May 2009, complete with  jumps and other technical features.

Illegal trail Rachel Ford JamesCron was caught and slapped with a misdemeanor and a $300 fine. He now has a volunteer trail maintenance agreement to improve Beardance, Crane Creek and Phillips trails. But the Swan View Coalition, a nonprofit public lands and wildlife conservation group in Western Montana, alleges U.S. Forest Service officials are looking the other way on some of Cron's "overzealous" volunteer maintenance, which has included natural obstacles like elevated logs or log ramps,  technical mountain biker favorites.

Illegal trail building is ubiquitous on Western public lands, plaguing forests in California, Colorado and Utah, according to Forest Service officials. Finding ways to keep perpetrators from making their own way is difficult, and the feds often end up pulling some illegal paths – from mountain bike trails to four-wheeling routes -- into their management plans because they enhance  designated routes or provide outdoor recreation opportunities. The trouble is, that’s what trail builders like.

Cron's original violation was inspired by Freedom Riders, a film (unrelated to the civil rights movement) about a group of mountain bikers who built illegal trails in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and eventually fostered a working relationship with the Forest Service to build legal ones. Now he hopes a sustained relationship with the Forest Service will buy him support for a series of "freeride" trails in the same area.

So in hopes of curbing "bootleg" trails altogether, federal agencies have begun to build  “flow trails” -- one-way mountain biking routes with banked turns and jumps, which take design cues from illegal trails. Officials hope that isolating mountain bikers – so they can barrel down luges unimpeded -- could also alleviate run-ins with hikers and horseback riders. Such trails already exist in California, Oregon and Utah.

In Sun Valley, Idaho, a team tried to satisfy biker fever this June by building Punchline and Forbidden Fruit, two flow trails specifically designed to meet the gravity defying needs of mountain bikers with stellar, technical jumps and other features. The project was a collaboration of agencies, including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Ketchum Ranger District, International Mountain Biking Association and its trail consulting program, Trail Solutions. One more will be built on nearby Mount Baldy, after gaining Forest Service and BLM approval.

But no pioneering project is perfect, and this one has a costly price tag: Flow trails cost triple what managers would need to construct a regular hiking trail. Some estimates pin the price at as much as $30,000 per mile. Not to mention that construction equipment used to build the trails stands out like a sore thumb in the natural areas where they're located. Still, most flow trails are financed with grants and recreation fees – so at least taxpayers aren’t footing the bill.

And the new approach has seen success. Forest Service managers in the Lake Tahoe Basin say the number of miles of unauthorized trails being built is down since construction started on 10 miles of flow trails to give bikers more trail access.

However, whether the trails will ultimately curb adrenaline junkies' desire to ride off the beaten path, to relieve the boredom of familiarity or escape crowded public paths, isn’t clear.

Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy Flickr user Rachel Ford James.

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Sep 01, 2011 01:02 PM
At least for some mountain bikers, no, this probably won't change a thing. I suspect, that for a subset, the sheer illegality is part of the thrill.
JAY Jurkowitsch
JAY Jurkowitsch
Sep 01, 2011 01:09 PM
 Unfortunately, and as the article mentioned, this illegal technique is also used by dirtbikers, ATV'ers and such.... Illegal is Illegal - if they want to be co-operative, have them change the regs. with the local land management - not just break the laws!!
  In S.E. WY - this kind of blackmail has resulted in vigilant citizen Erasing the illegal trails - boulders moved, large logs dragged onto path and other things.... This is actually LEGAL and allowed by the Land managers!!
Shana Payne
Shana Payne Subscriber
Sep 01, 2011 06:28 PM
Before I start my little bit of a rant (I apologize in advance), to give you a bit of background, I spent several years teaching sustainable trail building to state park rangers in my home state, mountain bikers, hikers, and other user groups, as well as devoted my final project for my Masters Certificate in Sustainability to creating an evaluation tool for measuring trail sustainability. I also happen to be an avid mountain biker, hiker, climber, paddler, and general outdoor loving woman. In other words, this is an important issue to me.

“Flow trail,” as you refer to it, doesn't necessarily cost more to build than a hiking trail. Sustainable trail costs more to build than cutting trail randomly through the woods.
One reason it may cost more to build sustainable trail is land managers often bring in a trail professional to ensure the trail is designed to minimize erosion, while at the same time ensuring the trail has good flow and meets the needs of the user group(s) intending to use that trail (and the needs of the land manager as well). There are some differences in the needs between user groups (and even different skill levels and interests within those user groups), but they are fairly minimal compared to the general requirements to minimize erosion. I could give some examples, but I am trying to avoid writing an essay here. Point is, in general (unless you start getting into major trail structures for free-riders), the needs of mountain bikers, hikers, and equestrians, when it comes to how to build the trail in a sustainable way, really aren’t different enough to cause a major cost variance.

The other reason it generally costs more to build sustainable trail is because of the way you build the trail, such as bench cutting the trail into the side of a hill in order to allow water to flow across the trail and minimize erosion of the soil on and around the trail. This can be done by machinery and finished by hand (which costs money for equipment and man hours) or can be done completely with hand tools (which costs higher labor – i.e. money). The $30k per mile you came across should take into account volunteer hours, equipment and tools, design time, mapping, signage, materials, etc – and is probably still a pretty high estimate for most trails. From certain estimates (and some personal experience leading many, many work days over the past several years), if it takes one volunteer hour to complete 10 feet of properly bench cut trail, and there are 5280 feet in a mile, that means it takes 528 volunteer hours to build a mile of bench cut trail. At $12/hour, let’s say, that’s $6336.00.

You might not actually PAY that out in cash, but it’s still taken into account – especially for grants where they often require a certain % match (via volunteer hours, materials, other donations, etc) to donated funds. That’s in addition to design time, tools, etc. You may also have to armor creek crossings, areas with wet springs, etc, build retaining walls, bridges, and so on to protect sensitive areas and to minimize erosion on switchbacks. This takes a LOT more time – and money than bench cutting on its own. One trail I worked on, we were required by state parks to hire an engineer to design a bridge to cross a big drainage area. No doubt that cost thousands of dollars on top of the probably overboard $60k metal bridge they put in for an area maybe 15 feet wide. There might also be expenses for naturalists, archeologists, and other professionals to ensure the trail won’t affect endangered species or culturally sensitive areas. I could go on and on with examples.

The point I am trying to make, is it’s not as simple as saying a “flow trail” costs more money. There are so many factors that need to be taken into account when you are building trail in a sustainable way. One reason these mountain bike trails are getting built this way is that organizations like the International Mountain Bicycling Association have done a fabulous job promoting and educating mountain bikers (as well as land managers and other user groups) on how to build sustainable trail. IMBA stepped up because mountain bikers were the new kids on the block and were getting a bad rap for eroding trails (mostly from other users not too keen to share the trails with bikes to start with). Mountain bikers started losing access to their favorite places to ride, so IMBA set out to prove that it wasn’t the bike – it was the design and construction of the trails. As any hiker can attest, we hike trails all the time that are in horrible shape. Straight up the hill, eroded messes, mud holes, social trails because the trail failed to take us to that really cool spot, rotting bridges, precarious water crossings, and so on. These aren’t because mountain bikers are riding the trails – it’s because the trails weren’t designed and built in a sustainable way.

ANY trail should be built to these standards – not just ones being used by mountain bikers. Several recent studies have shown that mountain bikers and hikers cause about the same amount of degradation and erosion to the trail (I would be happy to pass along links to these studies). Equestrians come in quite a bit higher than the other two groups, but if the trail is built properly, degradation from any of these user groups can be kept to a reasonable minimum. If it’s built right to begin with, you minimize the environmental impacts, maximize the user experience, minimize user conflicts, and minimize future maintenance. This, in turn, saves the land management money going forward. As a side note, this is only addressing non-motorized trail use. Motorized trail users like ATV-ers are a whole different cup of tea.

Oh, and getting back to the point of the article, I don't agree with building illegal trail. In my opinion, the better way to gain access is to organize as a group and approach the land manager in a positive and professional way. The reason the illegal trails are working in certain cases is because the land managers are starting to realize there is a huge demand for mountain bike trail. However, there are better ways to get the same point across. If showing that you and 150 of your fellow mountain bike friends want to ride trail and are willing to volunteer to build and maintain it doesn't work with a land manager, then an illegal trail probably won't either. Plus it's no fun to put in all that time and effort just to have the trail you put your sweat and tears into closed once they discover it.
Bill Gore
Bill Gore Subscriber
Sep 01, 2011 08:11 PM
I've done some trail work for the USFS in Arizona and Idaho. My impression of the mountain biking crowd is that they are the pushy tip of the spear. Behind them are hordes of ATV'ers, motocross, jet-powered unicyclists, rhinoceros pack trains, you name it. Humor aside, I have seen 80 to 100 year old venerable hiking trails torn to shreds. Mountain bike volunteers then appear and the water bars become banked turns. How convenient. The problem is cultural-everyone wants more, more more. Dedicated biking trails are simply not enough in this selfish age. Then there's the problem of using motorized equipment in wilderness areas to build biking trails. Heck, hotshots aren't even allowed to use chainsaws in these areas. In my humble opinion, land managers should treat all activity activists with the same disdain: promote recreational uses that are low-profile, low-impact and consistent with historical uses and values.

Ron  Cron
Ron Cron Subscriber
Sep 08, 2011 05:54 PM
Hello, my name is Ron Cron. I am surprised that neither me or the Forest Service was contacted about this one-sided story. The Swan View Coalition's front man Keith Hammer provided the information for this story and he makes his own facts. I recommend contacting the Forest Service to get the "true" story. You can do this by calling (406)-837-7509, or send an email to Rich Kehr (District Ranger) rkehr@fs.fed.us; or Andrew Johnson (Recreation Director) andrewjohnson@fs.fed.us: or Joy Sather (Trails Director) jsather02@fs.fed.us or Chip Weber (Forest Supervisor) cweber@fs.fed.us

This way you can get the whole story. Not this lopsided inaccurate piece of propaganda. Or you can contact me and get my side of the story @ (406)-261-6161

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