‘Legal monkey-wrenching’ on Western trails

One man’s guerrilla trail work aims to improve public access to public land.

 

On a bright April morning, Richard Coots parks at a trailhead of the Pacific Crest Trail in Northern California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He’s not here to hike, but to do what he calls “legal monkey-wrenching.”

Just down the road is a padlocked gate protecting an inholding owned by John and Robert Fischer Fisher, heirs to the Gap and Old Navy empire and proprietors of the McCloud Fishing Club, seven miles away. The problem, as Coots sees it, is that the gate also blocks public access to hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands surrounding the road. So for the last few years, he’s been discreetly restoring two forgotten trails nearby.

His backpack is loaded with food and supplies, and tools are lashed to his bicycle. Coots is short and powerfully built, with round, youthful features. In his green camouflage, he might be the Robin Hood of the public lands. As a law enforcement officer with U.S. Forest Service for 33 years, he practically lived along the area’s rugged trails and logging roads, pursuing backcountry marijuana growers. (Once, he physically subdued Ethan Crosby, musician David Crosby’s brother, on a grow.) After retiring in 2004, he kept haunting neglected footpaths, making them usable again. “Some people do yoga and others swim laps to stay in shape,” Coots says. “I cut trail.”

His work exists in a legal gray area, though, and is not authorized by the Forest Service, according to Carolyn Napper, ranger for the Mount Shasta and McCloud districts. Napper says her agency welcomes volunteers but oversees their work carefully. She says there’s no way to know if Coots’ work conforms to agency standards — whether he’s mindful of endangered species, for instance.

Coots simply shrugs. “I’m not down here cutting pirate trails,” he replies, pointing out that both paths appear on U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps. “I’m providing access by maintaining what the Forest Service has neglected.” 

Richard Coots takes a chainsaw to a fallen tree in California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest to maintain access to old trails.
Jeremy Miller

A century ago, the Tom Dow and Tom Neal trails brought pack trains from the Upper Sacramento River Valley to mining and logging camps along Squaw Creek and the McCloud River. Today, the area is a fisherman’s paradise, with trout streams that wend through old-growth stands of hemlock, fir and cedar. The land along the McCloud’s lower reaches is a haven for the well-heeled — Levi Strauss and William Randolph Hearst both owned plots here — but its upper watershed is almost entirely public. The only access road, however, is blocked by the Fischers' Fishers' gate.

It’s part of a larger trend: According to the Center for Western Priorities, private inholdings and roads block access to over 4 million public acres in six Western states. But Mike Jani, land manager of the Fischers' Fishers' club, says this road predates the U.S. Forest Service. Visitors are welcome to travel it by foot or bike but not by car, Jani says. Coots responds, “There’s an atmosphere of trespass beyond (the gate).”

He skirts the gate, shovel and saw blades clattering against his bike, and plunges down the road. Coots’ well-concealed camp, where he sets up a tent, is not far away. He pedals a few more miles to the end of the Tom Dow, a spur that descends into a valley from Girard Ridge, which is accessible from roads and the Pacific Crest Trail. Using the Tom Dow, you can reach the valley without encountering the gate.

Coots crosses Squaw Creek, blue and bone-chillingly cold, and slides on heavy gloves to clear a section near the McCloud property line. The scenery is low-key, with no spectacular vistas. The beauty lies in small and subtle things — the purple shimmer of orchids in a rockslide, or the elegant undulations of the streambed. “It’s just plain wild back here,” Coots says, snipping thorny limbs.

The area’s remoteness doesn’t deter marijuana growers, though. He’s found four grows in the area; in fact, there’s a 300-pound rototiller stashed in high brush just off the trail. “A few more feet on the trails back here would probably mean less of this nonsense,” he gripes, kicking the machine with a thud.

The following day, at the Tom Neal Trail, Coots uses a rock to hammer in a small wooden sign that he inscribed himself. Indistinguishable from a Forest Service trail marker, it reads “P.C.T. 6.”

The Tom Neal is better defined than the Tom Dow, but after a couple miles it grows faint and eventually is blocked by fallen trees. Coots starts up his chainsaw and heaves logs off the trail. Pretty soon, the path is cleared to where it begins its ascent to Girard Ridge. “I’m getting there,” Coots says, gazing uphill.

One can’t help asking: Why go to all the trouble? Better access means more people; Coots will no longer have the place to himself. It’s the principle that matters, he explains, the idea that public lands are no longer public if private interests can hinder access. “There are ways to protect this landscape and also the public’s right to use it,” he says.