Who’s cutting illegal ski trails in the Santa Fe National Forest?

On the trail of a backcountry criminal with the Forest Service.

 

Pine needles crunched under James Parker’s feet as he walked in the Santa Fe National Forest on a warm September day. Parker, a longtime local, has hiked from the Winsor trailhead for the better part of two decades, and he rarely sees signs of other people once he leaves the path and bushwhacks into the woods. But this time, hiking off trail just inside the Pecos Wilderness, he stumbled upon a crime scene: Hundreds of chainsawed firs and ponderosa pines, their trunks littering the forest floor.

Felled trees that James Parker suspects were illegally cut to create a “personal ski run.” The Forest Service is still tracking down the culprit.
Courtesy James Parker

The fallen trees shaped a path 50 feet wide and several hundred yards long. Side trails branched out from it, forming a network of ski runs hacked from the heavily wooded forest. Shocked, Parker surveyed the damage, walking past stump after stump. “It goes beyond egoism to egomania,” Parker says. “It looks like someone cut their own personal run to show their friends this cool new glade they made.” He reported the crime to the U.S. Forest Service and local media, and the Forest Service launched an investigation.

Most of the illegal cutting that Parker discovered occurred near Raven’s Ridge, an unofficial trail near the Ski Santa Fe resort. And each time Parker returned, he found yet more slashed trunks. Plastic red ribbons flagged trees still standing in the route.

The U.S. Forest Service gave the case to the agency’s crime unit, but as it grinds on, the incident vividly illustrates the paradoxes involved in managing public lands, which are open to anyone and lightly, if ever, patrolled. The federal process for developing new trails is slow and cumbersome, and that seems to be driving a few frustrated outdoor enthusiasts to forge their own renegade paths, says Miles Standish, manager of wilderness, trails and recreation for the Española Ranger District.

Cutting trees and bringing a chainsaw into designated wilderness are both illegal activities. But the culprit here went beyond simply creating an unofficial trail by repeated use; this effort was “much more intentional,” Standish says. “This damage, and the attitude that seems to be behind it, is worse than in the past.”

James Parker investigates broken branches in a glade in the Pecos Wilderness, where trees have been cut down illegally. Parker and Forest Service investigator Michael Gardiner also observed ski tracks during their November patrol of the area.
Paige Blankenbuehler
 

On Sept. 24, 2015, soon after Parker’s report, Michael Gardiner, an Albuquerque-based investigator of the crime unit of the Forest Service’s Southwest Region, took the case. Gardiner, a middle-aged man with a Hardy Boys-like enthusiasm, has tracked misdeeds ranging from illegal marijuana crops on public lands to theft of government property. But the crimes unit is seriously under-funded, and Gardiner’s workload — he oversees several other investigators as well as his own district’s crimes — keeps him from spending as much time as he’d like on each case.

Gardiner first turned to social media, scouring YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit for videos of cutting in the area, incriminating conversations, plans for skiing there. Nothing.

He called Parker, the sole witness, into his office to answer questions. On a topographic map, Parker sketched the damaged area. By then, he had tallied more than 600 cut trees.

In late September, Gardiner went to see for himself, driving his tan Chevy Tahoe up to the Winsor trailhead. He questioned the people he met, but learned nothing useful. Then he hiked towards Raven’s Ridge, following Parker’s map to the new clearing, piled with slashed debris and red ribbons waving from dozens of live trees.

The next day, on another “scoping mission,” Gardiner found fresh damage, bringing the total flora fatalities to more than 1,000 trees. He thought he was hot on the heels of the perpetrators. The agency set a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

The trail wasn’t the area’s first illegal path. In the 1960s, in the early days of Ski Santa Fe, a young employee there hacked away a few hundred trees on lunch breaks to create his own run, just beyond resort boundaries. A few years later, the ski area absorbed the illegal glade, and the cutter even got to name it — the Desafio. The ski area appears to have no connection to the current crime, though, and no plans to absorb this new trail, which is just past the resort’s westernmost run. The motivation for the deed simply seems to be someone’s desire for a secluded but easily accessible trail for downhill glade skiing, Gardiner says.

It’s not just skiers who carve illegal trails on public land: Rogue ATVers, dirt bikers and hikers have created dozens of unauthorized tracks in Santa Fe National Forest. “There’s a more aggressive attitude prevailing in the recreation community,” Standish says. “People have differing opinions about how to manage these lands. The process of public-land management can be slow.”

Many renegade trails that might have otherwise been sanctioned by the Forest Service are constructed clandestinely because legal development often takes years. The proliferation of pirated trails shortchanges citizens of the usual due process: public requests, environmental impact assessments and open comment periods. Establishing new trails legally starts with a request, Standish says, but that’s just the first step. “Many requests sit in a holding pattern as a nice idea, but no certain way forward,” he says, especially when they don’t fit into the agency’s master plans, which lay out a vision and management policy for the forest.

But the Forest Service would never have given someone the go-ahead to slice a trail or ski glade inside a wilderness area, says Standish.  The agency lacks the funding or staff to patrol unsanctioned paths, or enforce closures. So it prioritizes protecting tribal lands and wilderness areas — and pursuing particularly egregious cases like the crime at Raven’s Ridge.

In February, there was a break in the case. Someone mailed anonymous letters to the Santa Fe Forest Service office and a local newspaper. They included a -LinkedIn profile picture of the alleged culprit, an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and a scathing argument that connected the suspect to the crime. Gardiner’s head whirled: A federal employee would have access to the equipment to do it — and could slip under the radar. In early March, Gardiner and the New Mexico Office of the Inspector General questioned the suspect. After more than two hours, though, they let him go. “We didn’t have the evidence to prove anything,” Gardiner says. “The trail ran cold right there.”

Now, Gardiner fears the case is languishing. It will be hard to solve it, he says, without more time to patrol the area, another agent on the case, or the resources to install trail cams or increase rewards. 

In March, James Parker went snowshoeing through the area. Once again, the tree slasher had left behind tantalizing clues. No more trees had been cut, but crimson ribbons glistened with melted snow, lightly swaying in the wind. Parker plucked off all of them. At the very least, he says, “I’m still watching.”

If you have information about illegal tree cuttings such as this, please feel free to provide a confidential tip to HCN. 

Paige Blankenbuehler is an HCN editorial fellow.

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