Who's trashing the most popular park in Bozeman?


Mary Vant Hull, 85 years old and still kicking -- or make that, kicking butt with her frank conversation -- is showing me the degradation of Bozeman's most popular park, on a bluff overlooking the whole city, when a sudden storm comes out of nowhere and blasts us. It's July 16, but the temperature plummets to around 60°F, the wind grows so loud it's difficult to talk, and then raindrops pelt us. The raindrops are so big it seems I can feel each one individually. Ahh Montana weather.

Mary -- I refer to her informally because she's a friend -- flips up the hood on her jacket and we keep on walking. I can hear her breaths getting labored and her pace is slower than the last time we walked together. She confesses that lately she's also having trouble keeping her balance. But she's a long-time champion of this place -- Peets Hill, also called Burke Park -- so she's making the effort to help me write this.

"Rogue trails!" Mary says with disgust. It's her term for the countless impromptu trails we're looking at, the traces of thousands of off-leash dogs, mountain bikers and hikers cutting across the park's narrow stretch of sagebrush, tallgrass and wildflowers. There's no need for any person or dog to make a rogue trail here because this city park is a linear strip about a mile long, and an official non-rogue trail, wide and graveled, runs the whole length of it, with several official side trails and official access points. "It's a shame, a real shame," Mary laments. "But I don't have the energy to yell at people anymore."

I'm thinking: Maybe I can do some yelling for you now, Mary. The problem here, and the powerful interest groups, can be found in many New West places, mostly on federal land that's not in cities. I've decided to write about what's happening here, as an example of the wider problem. It's not the worst example -- far from it -- but the trend here isn't good. It's also an indication of the kind of community Bozeman has become. And Mary's dedication to this place is both singular and a positive example of various champions like her around the West.

The day before Mary and I talked and walked together, the sun was shining and I'd walked Peets Hill by myself, taking photos of the damage. I'll place a few of the photos throughout this blog post, to give you a sense of the problem. But it's like taking a photo of the Grand Canyon -- no photo can portray this whole reality. In each photo, in addition to the obvious rogue trails, there are more rogue trails that are not fully established yet so they're more difficult to discern. The rogue trails parallel the official trails and veer off in all directions.

Peets Hill is Bozeman's equivalent of New York City's Central Park or San Francisco's Golden Gate park or the downtown creek park in Boulder, Colorado. A local family, the Burkes, realized how valuable the land would be to the public and gave the city a great deal in 1993, selling roughly 37 acres for roughly one-third of the $1 million a developer had offered. In a subsequent deal the family sold another two acres to the city. The local Gallatin Valley Land Trust coordinated the deals and helps the city parks agency develop and maintain the official trails. Federal funding has also been tapped. As Bozeman has grown into a city of 40,000, Peets Hill (named for a farmer who preceeded the Burkes) now gets more than 100,000 human visits each year, and more than 50,000 dog visits.

I hike Peets Hill often, sometimes with my dog and sometimes by myself, and sometimes I ride my bike here. It's a wonderful convenient public place, with views of seven mountain ranges along with the views of the historic downtown and city neighborhoods and the institutional architecture of Montana State University. The official trails connect to the new city library and other parks and trails. The sunsets and storms on Peets Hill are great year-round, and sometimes as the sun sinks to the west you can turn east and watch the full moon rise. In springtime the wildflowers explode and in summer the tallgrass rises chest-high in some spots. I'd noticed the proliferation of rogue trails, erasing more and more plants over time, and I'd imagined a future in which all of Peets Hill would be pounded down to bare dirt and weeds. I'd guessed that mountain bikers are the main culprits, because the rogue trails look like bike trails. So I began my research by talking with bike advocates.

Will Robertson, author of a guidebook to Montana bike trails, told me he wasn't aware of problems on Peets Hill because he mostly rides in the mountains, but in general, "Any high-traffic area like that will always have 'user-created trails.' It happens everywhere." Kirk Ahlberg, president of the Gallatin Valley Bicycle Club, which has about 400 dues-paying members, said he's noticed the user-created trails on Peets Hill, but he wasn't sure how many were created by bikers. "We can't stop Bozeman from growing. We'll keep getting more and more people who want to move here to enjoy the outdoors," he said. "We have to figure out how to grow in smart ways."

Then I reached Gary Vodehnal, the key Gallatin Valley Land Trust staffer for Peets Hill maintenance and development. He has college degrees in wildlife management, resource conservation and land reclamation, and he has experience working for federal agencies. He uses the polite term "social trails" for those that are not official, and he surprised me with his take on the problem. "When Mary Vant Hull complained about the problem (years ago), we sent out observers who would spend hours on Peets Hill. We discovered that more than 90 percent of the social trails were being made by dogs. They create their own diverse trail system. I was astonished when I figured it out." He mentioned how Snowfill Park, created on another side of town more recently simply by planting grass on 37 acres that had been a wheatfield, is also a popular leash-free park. "I've had people tell me, 'I moved to Bozeman because of Snowfill Park'" -- meaning, dog lovers relocate to communities that have leash-free parks.

Vodehnal worries about the increasing number of rogue trails on Peets Hill, where the plant community is much more diverse and fragile than Snowfill Park. "All those dogs going off-trail, over time -- it adds up to an incredible impact. It's difficult when dogs are allowed to roam. But the dog people really don't want to give that up." He used another term: "dog people power," adding, "I don't have a good answer for you."

Then I reached Tom White, head of the city parks agency. He also said, "I don't have an answer for it. We've tried in the past to block those social trails (with branches and other obstacles), and in a day all the stuff is gone -- people just throw it down the hill. It's just loved to death up there." He added, the "secondary" social trails paralleling the official trails make some sense, because mountain bikers can ride the secondaries with less chance of colliding with people walking with or without dogs. But beyond the secondary social trails, many other social trails "wander into nowhere or have no rhyme or reason."

The Bozeman parks agency has only seven full-time staffers, and no rangers or enforcers, and only roughly $70,000 per year for installing signs and applying herbicides and so on, to cover 60 miles of trails and more than 400 acres of parks, including sports fields. "We run an extremely lean (agency)," said White, who grew up in Colorado's urban Front Range where cities the size of Bozeman have parks agencies with "three times the staff and funding we have." Jackson, Wyoming's top resort town, is much smaller than Bozeman and has far more recreation facilities, White said. He cited Bozeman's lone outdoor public swimming pool as another example of the funding problem: The pool was built in 1939 and leaks 10,000 gallons of water per day yet people are reluctant to spend taxpayer money on a new pool. City voters have approved new property taxes for a parks and trails bond to raise $15 million to buy more land, but White worries that his agency won't have funding to actually maintain more parks and trails. That's something else I've noticed in my 19 years in Bozeman: While this is a pretty affluent conservation-minded community, there isn't a lot of government money for many good causes. Ahh Montana politics.

I'm not sure I agree with the observers who found that mountain bikers are relatively innocent, not blazing many rogue trails. Anyway, the Peets Hill problem surfaces regularly in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, especially on the letters page. Back in 2004, one angry Peets Hill user complained in a letter: "Dogs and mountain bikers are destroying the once gorgeous place. I remember the pleasure I felt 10 years ago in running through the newly dedicated Burke Park. The lush ridgeline smelled strongly of sage, reminding me of the luxuriant northern range of Yellowstone Park. It was a little piece of aboriginal prairie from buffalo days. ... Not anymore. Burke Park has turned into an eroded eyesore. Mountain bikers use it as a motocross playground, ripping innumerable gashes every which way. A tidal wave of dogs has torn up the grass and degraded the once healthy sagebrush stands into sad embattled islands. Some places are so denuded they resemble a gravel quarry. It is no longer lush and luxuriant. Dismal is more like it. ... I mourn the destruction of this once lovely park. Perhaps it is already too late." (Note in photo below, the little dog trotting on the rogue trail next to its master jogging on the official trail.)

I reached Mary Vant Hull toward the end of my research, because she'd changed her phone number and the old number was still ringing, ringing, ringing with no indication she had a new number. I tracked her down at her house, which is modest, and began the talk at her kitchen table, surrounded by her Peets Hill files, which contain many old news clippings, documents and photos of damaged vegetation. It's always a pleasure to be with her: She has pale blue eyes that contrast with her silver hair, and her voice is somehow chirpy yet tough, accented by frequent hand gestures and laughter about how the world works and how she fits in or shakes things up.

To receive me at her kitchen table, Mary is dressed in a blue-and-white plaid shirt, blue sweat pants, blue socks and jogging shoes. Her wristwatch appears huge and styled for a man. She is snacking on squares of mint chocolate, and mentions that she still grinds her own wheat to make bread, though that also is becoming more of a challenge as she ages. She subscribes to The New Yorker magazine and The New York Times. "I call the Times my Bible," she says. "I read it every day and quote it every day." In her fashion, she's been jotting down a list of her achievements, to help the people who will conduct the inevitable memorial service after she dies, whenever that is. She offers to show me the list, but it's in her 2012 calendar book and, though she can locate the 2013 calendar book, the older one is harder to find.

Responding to my initial questions, Mary sketches out her life. She grew up in a poor Dutch Reform family in Wisconsin, earned a sociology degree and moved to Bozeman in 1962. "I fell in love with Bozeman," she says, explaining why she stuck and became a Bozeman community activist. She won elections to serve eight years on the Bozeman city commission during the 1980s, and was a key leader in improving the library system, establishing the historic preservation board, imposing the first stream setbacks for new construction, and creating the Peets Hill park as well as other city trails and a larger, 80-acre park on yet another side of town. "There is a lot of hot air" in Bozeman politics, she says, "but you can get things accomplished."

Mary's house is near the main Peets Hill trailhead, and since the late 1970s she's hiked or biked on Peets Hill once or twice a day, though lately she's had to cut back a bit on that activity too. She led the 1990s campaign to build the official Peets Hill trail with donated equipment and gravel, and led the campaign that persuaded city government to allow dogs off leash in the park. In 1997, she was quoted in the daily paper assuring city leaders that off-leash dogs would be OK on Peets Hill, saying with her typical frankness, "Sissies and slobs don't go up there." Then, when she began noticing the rogue trails creeping across the natural landscape more than a decade ago, she sounded the alarm. She tried to block many rogue trails herself using branches, made signs and passed out vivid pink cards telling people to be more careful with their steps and pedaling and dogs. She agrees with Vodehnal's findings: "I think dogs start most of the rogue trails, and then people follow (on bikes or walking)," Mary says. (Note in photo below, the dog on the rogue trail trying to keep up with its master biking on the official trail.)

Mary also led the effort to create a brochure that lists more than 220 species of plants that are found on Peets Hill. "Such a high diversity of flora in a relatively small area is quite unusual in our region," her brochure reads. "The many wildflowers you will find must be protected for all to enjoy. Therefore please: Tread lightly and stay on the trail ..." (The current keep-on-the-trail signs, like the one below, are designed to be tougher to remove.)

Mary enjoyed riding her collection of bicycles of different styles, clear into her early 80s, and still enjoys having one dog after another as her companion (she's twice divorced). So she knows firsthand why people love to bring both to Peets Hill. At one point in the early 2000s, she reversed her position on the leash law, circulating a petition asking the city government to impose a leash law on Peets Hill during the springtime only, when the ground is muddy and most easily damaged. But then the city's dog-lovers rose up against her too. "The hatred of the dog owners!" she says. "They had loved me (for making the park a leash-free zone originally), but they got totally unreasonable." One old friend who wanted no leash law on Peets Hill even in springtime stopped speaking to her, and she received many anonymous threatening phone calls and letters, one of which accused her of suffering from a "shrinking brain" due to her advancing age.

She became notorious for confronting bicyclists and others who are making and using the rogue trails. Laughing again, she adds, "People used to call me, 'The Mayor of Burke Park.' ... Sometimes I say to people, especially joggers, 'Why cheat and cut across the corners? You're up here to get exercise!'" She recalls one cyclist on a rogue trail yelling at her, "It's just $#&%! grass." Some of the warning signs she made were on round slabs cut from logs, "but people just used them as flying saucers. They didn't last at all."

I hope this writing becomes part of Mary's legacy. When we got ready to walk Peets Hill, she put on the blue jacket that matched the rest of her outfit and her eyes.

As we walked, the chilly windy rainstorm was exciting, and we enjoyed the company of her new dog, Jewel, a skittish but loving female she rescued from a bad situation. We're savoring the storm, the immediate natural beauty of the park, and the long-distance beauty of mountains all around, and the manmade beauty of the city just below, and tutt-tutting at the rogue trails. Mary sums up what we're thinking at the moment: "Any park is better than no park at all."


Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor who's lived in Bozeman for 19 years.

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