This article was originally published on outdoors online.
In April, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a hunting education and advocacy organization, issued a press release offering a $500 reward “for reports or information leading to the conviction of those responsible for the illegal construction of trails on public lands”. In other words, the national nonprofit placed what amounted to a bounty on mountain bikers who built illegal trails.
BHA’s Colorado chapter sent the press release directly to two publications: Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper and Mountain Ear, which serves Nederland, a city 18 miles from Boulder Canyon. The bounty technically applies statewide to Colorado, but the memo said it was for trail builders in national forests around Boulder and Nederland.
Both cities are hubs for outdoor recreation. The Roosevelt and Arapaho National Forests, which comprise 160,000 acres of public land, offer ample opportunities for hiking, skiing, hunting, and fishing. They are the third most visited forests in the country, with around 7.5 million annual users. The Netherlands, in particular, is popular with mountain bikers: the parking lot of the West Magnolia trail system, an extensive network of singletracks, is full of cars every weekend from late spring to mid-autumn, and the Nearby Front Range trails also see heavy bicycle traffic. .
But around here, like just about anywhere with a mountain biking scene, locals have built secret, illegal trails. These see much less traffic than the sanctioned trails. I spoke to a local resident who builds illegal trails, who wished to remain anonymous for this story. He told me he loves the creativity, the solo time in nature, and the challenge that comes from cutting the clandestine paths.
There’s a long history of building social trails in the Netherlands region, says Josh Harrod, president of the all-volunteer, mountain biking-focused Nederland Area Trails Organization (NATO). “I would say over 90% of the trails we use here started out as social trails – elk and deer crossed, then hikers followed, then cyclists followed suit,” he says. “Social trail building is kind of the fabric of the local trail community. NATO doesn’t sanction it, but I don’t think it will ever stop.
These are the trails that interested BHA. The Press release read: “For years, we have heard from public lands agency staff and our members that illegal trail building is rampant in many areas of the state and is proliferating. Herds of elk and other wildlife suffer. [The $500 reward for turning illegal trailbuilders in] is one small step we can take to try to help moderate and hopefully deter further illegal trail building activities.
Local mountain bikers were angry. “These guys are walking around with guns. When they offer a premium, it’s a bad look,” says the trail builder I spoke with.
Bikers felt the reaction was overdone. The trail builder I spoke to describes his renegade trails as harmless labors of love that only he and a few friends know about – could they really be in the way of wildlife? And why was one group of backcountry users launching what looked like an offensive against another?
The trails in the Netherlands region are, like most trails through the western mountain, more crowded than ever. You could tell that in their press release, BHA quoted a quote from Gary Moore, executive director of the Colorado Mountain Bike Association, saying that biker options are limited in the state. And popular renegade trails are sometimes retroactively sanctioned by the Forest Service, according to several mountain bike groups.
Allowing new trails to be built is a complicated process that can take decades, says Meara McQuain, executive director of the Headwaters Trails Alliance in Grand County, Colorado. If the HTA wants to build a new trail on federal land, it submits its idea to the appropriate land agency. If the agency is interested, it will conduct a public survey to determine engagement. Then the trail goes through a process mandated by national environmental policy law to assess its potential impact, with scientists and researchers – including archaeologists, hydrologists, botanists and wildlife biologists – weighing in. The results of the study are published for public comment, and if anyone protests, the project enters a period of public objection. The federal agency makes changes, if necessary, and the management of the land management agency makes the final decision. All of that can take anywhere from three to 15 years, McQuain says. (The process is different for public and private land.)
Research shows that trails can have a dramatic impact on wildlife. In the 1980s, a Colorado State University biologist named Bill Alldredge began study elk near Vail, as ski resorts and trail networks began to develop. He and his team radio-collared female elk with new calves, then walked the humans through their favorite grounds until the cows showed signs of being disturbed, such as getting up or moving away. Of the moose he studied, around 30% of their young died when their mothers were disturbed by humans – and when the disturbances stopped, the population recovered.
A 2016 Review of Wildlife Studies spanning four decades have found that human traffic on trails causes animals to flee, limiting their feeding time and forcing them to expend valuable energy. And one study in Steamboat Springs, Colorado earlier this year found that mountain biking was second only to the use of mountain bikes to disrupt elk populations in a 120,000-acre parcel of land east of the city.
We don’t know if all illegally constructed trails have a negative impact on wildlife. But Kriss Hess, the BHA member who sent the press release to the Boulder and Nederland newspapers, says that while many of these trails see only a little traffic in their early years, it’s not rare that they end up on mapping apps and grow in popularity, impacting wildlife years later.
“We’re not trying to be aggressive with this, but we’re extremely concerned about the population decline we’re seeing elk, mule deer and other populations all over the state,” says Brien Webster, BHA program manager and coordinator for Colorado and Wyoming. “Our wildlife and land management agencies are at maximum capacity, so it’s extremely difficult for them to post and prevent cyclists from entering an illegal trail,” says Webster. They hope the bounty could help agencies deal with the problem.
BHA also hopes to create and distribute maps and other educational materials that could help different user groups better understand how elk see and use a landscape. In August, they published a 15-page article “Memo on illegal trailswith maps showing critical wildlife habitats and national conservation areas with social trails built through them. BHA is also considering placing educational signs at the beginning of existing trails in areas with high concentrations of cyclists where illegal trail construction has taken place.
But the Boulder Ranger District has no formal or informal agreement with BHA, and it would be illegal for BHA to perform any type of trail maintenance, add signage or install cameras, according to Reid Armstrong, public affairs specialist for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National. Forests. Armstrong also pointed out that several recent bills have increased funding for the Boulder Ranger District and are focusing their efforts where they feel it is most urgent, particularly on infrastructure projects and recovery and forest fire mitigation.
And Wendy Sweet, executive director of the Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance, said publishing illegal trail maps could have the opposite effect of the desired effect. “If the mountain bike community sees this memo, the first thing they will do is check [those trails] out,” she said. Sweet had several meetings with members of the BHA prior to the publication of this memo to talk about how all the different stakeholders in Boulder County could work together to create wildlife-safe trails, and felt that the publication was in bad faith. Many other factors put pressure on wildlife, such as the development of the nature-urban interface, increased use of the hinterland by all user groups, forest fires and land change. climatic.
Since the bounty was released, Webster says, no one has been reported. Instead, “BHA has had some really good conversations with people in the mountain bike community who are trying to address this issue in a meaningful way,” he says. “It helped us think about our purpose and focus more on education than the premium aspect.”
Aaron Kindle, director of sports advocacy at the National Wildlife Federation, thinks BHA isn’t tough enough. “What happens when someone says, ‘My actions don’t count here; I will do what I want. What if other people started seeing these guys never get punished? ” he says. “The beauty of having public lands is that we are all responsible for caring for those landscapes.”