Illegal trailblazing as negotiation tool?


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.

Cron 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.

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