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Illegal trail building a vexing problem for public land managers

Mountain bike trails crop up in past few years
A cyclist rides past the closed trail sign and orange fencing that stretches across the entrance to the Sale Barn Trail on the southeast side of Durango.

People in Durango are building illegal trails in closed areas that are critical winter habitat for wildlife, and it’s causing an issue for land managers, wildlife officials and trail advocates that can’t rein in the longstanding problem.

“We’re not talking small connector trails,” said Shannon Borders, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management. “We’re talking miles of illegally built trails. And it’s not like there’s not a ton of recreational opportunities around town.”

Rogue trails constructed on public lands is not a new problem, but the most recent spike started when the BLM’s Tres Rios office updated its “Resource Management Plan” in 2015.

The plan, which covers eight counties in Southwest Colorado across 503,000 acres of BLM-managed lands, seeks to balance commercial, recreational and environmental uses.

As part of the process, the BLM was tasked with including a separate “Travel Management Plan,” which identifies what routes are open to hiking, mountain biking, motorized vehicles and other uses.

When planning began in 2015, the BLM included all existing routes in its inventory – 2,500 miles of roads and trails.

But people who wanted to include more trails in the travel management plan without going through the proper BLM process started building the illegal trails, especially around Durango, Borders said.

The BLM has a process for proposing new trails, which includes an extensive environmental analysis and a process that can take a few years.

Over the past three years, miles of unapproved trails have cropped up around Durango, particularly in the Animas City Mountain and Grandview trail networks, said Tyler Fouss, a BLM law enforcement ranger.

While the trails are considered “mixed-use,” the routes appear to be mostly constructed and used by mountain bikers.

At Animas City Mountain, on the north end of Durango, for instance, a 3½-mile trail known locally as “Sick Bird” was built, mostly for mountain bikers.

And Fouss said there are at least three to four other illegal trails at Animas City Mountain.

The BLM and other agencies treat the illegally built trails as a criminal case of trespass, but it’s tough to find perpetrators. Since 2015, no one has been caught in connection with building illegal routes.

The trails are also being built and used in closed areas. Every year, the BLM cordons off areas that are critical winter habitat for wildlife from Dec. 1 to April 15, and every year, people disregard the closures.

“It’s a shame people can’t share the landscape with wildlife, and that all they can think about is their mountain bike jumps,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Joe Lewandowski.

In 2016, 19 tickets were written to trespassers, and in 2017, another 13 tickets were issued by the BLM. This year, Fouss said he’s written one citation and issued five warnings. A ticket typically requires trespassers to pay a fine that can be a couple hundred dollars.

But with only one ranger for Durango, enforcement can be difficult.

For instance, Fouss said last week he saw mountain biking tracks at the Sale Barn trailhead that accesses Grandview that were likely from the weekend.

Mary Monroe, executive director of Trails 2000, a local trail advocacy group, said the BLM’s travel management plan is the best and most effective way to inventory all the trails and identify missing links.

Monroe said Trails 2000 never condones people taking trail building into their own hands.

“We go through great extent to work hand-in-hand with our partners,” Monroe said. “That’s the way you come up with a trail network that is effective.”

The problem extends beyond BLM lands.

The U.S. Forest Service last fall discovered an illegal mountain bike trail near Hermosa Creek Campground, in a special management area protected by law. Forest Service staff and volunteers went out in June to eliminate the route by spreading shrubs, rocks and trees along the path.

Cam Hooley, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said illegal trails have become more of an issue in the last five to 10 years, especially as mountain biking has gained in popularity.

“We recognize the demand for trails and the economic driver that mountain bike use is in our community,” she said. “But we encourage the public to participate in our planning processes.”

Hooley said the Forest Service has received reports that people cut open the illegal trail near Hermosa Creek Campground that was rehabilitated in June.

She said no one has been caught in connection with the illegal act.