Ranger: I Love Illegal Bike Trails…But Don’t Make More


illegal trails 660I love mountain biking. And the trails I ride in Western Colorado are as good as anyplace you can boast about. But it’s no secret that throughout much of the western United States, many of the mountain bike trails used today were created illegally, only later ‘grandfathered’ grudgingly into our public land system by whatever federal agency had been ‘managing’ the land. As a matter of fact, that’s still the pattern.

I have to confess that I’m grateful to those early outlaws, some of whom I’ve gotten to meet in my area around the city of Grand Junction. The way they see it, ‘bandit’ trail-builders wanted somewhere to ride and just doing it themselves was the quickest way to make it happen. As an about-to-be retired public land ranger, I’m well aware that it can take a frustratingly long time to get the Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service to respond to the public. It can take decades for a federal agency to work through its planning process and build trails in areas that would tolerate riders well.

But having admitted that, I have a message for the mountain biking community here in Colorado and elsewhere, and it’s short and sweet: Enough already! Over 200 miles of legal mountain bike trails now exist on lands managed by the Grand Junction BLM, for instance, and many were constructed in the last three or four years. More are coming aboard all the time. These are excellent trails that have begun to lure bikers — and their wallets — from around the country. It’s true that millions of acres of nearby open public land seem to beckon to riders, but while it’s unlikely for a rider to get caught striking out across public lands, creating new trails is not only wrong, it’s just plain stupid and irritating.

Here’s why. First, it perpetuates an obnoxious philosophy that can be summed up as, ‘This is public land; I can do whatever I want on it.’ Yet I don’t know of one mountain biker who doesn’t turn up his or her nose at illegal dumping, the illegal taking of game, or driving ATVs all over the sacred landscape. Many mountain bikers are even righteous about how destructive motorized users are. But how is creating bike tracks and trails all over the place for one’s personal benefit somehow different behavior from what these other slobs do?

Second, we ride where we do because we love passing through beautiful landscapes — and then we defile them with casually carved-out trails. Some mountain bikers may think that a plethora of crisscrossing trails is beautiful; most probably would admit that it’s an eyesore.

Third, solid reasons exist for allowing our land management agencies to plan and construct new trails. The West is rife with Native American cultural sites that need to be preserved. Part of the federal planning process is to survey and identify cultural sites so that a proposed trail can go around, rather than blasting through. Our region is home to many rare plant species that also have to be surveyed and identified so that, again, the trail can be routed around and away from them. If mountain bikers are so environmentally concerned — which seems to be something we’re happy to proclaim — shouldn’t we care about where we ride? In addition, we are always sharing our trails with wildlife, and while most of us would probably agree that the potential impacts to wildlife from proposed highways, drill sites or hydro-electric dams should be considered and addressed, isn’t that also the case with mountain bike trails?

Hypocrisy is such an unattractive trait. Finally, proper trail construction is important. A badly constructed trail becomes nothing more than a useless, destructive, un-bikeable hazard.

I think that these days federal agencies have become more responsive and more reasonable to work with, though, of course, this is not true everywhere. But just as the off-highway vehicle community came together to protect the values of what they enjoyed, as well as to keep open areas open to them, the mountain biking community can and should do the same.

So here’s my advice to today’s pirate trail builders: Come in from the cold and make federal agencies your allies. It’s for the good of the land and riders everywhere.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. In affiliation with High Country News. Photo by Shutterstock

{ 4 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Yoshi

    Trails / Trail Building is like prohibition… Make them illegal and they will be built underground – Legalize them and they can be properly built and regulated. The biggest issue facing Illegal Trail Building. Going legal is really tough and some trails take a decade or longer to make reality – most people do not have the patients for this. Land Managers / Local Muni Folks – streamline the process or face the fact that illegal trails will continue to be built – likely not correctly or in correct locations.

  • Jud

    My own experience on a FS trail crew in UT taught me a sad lesson that the higher ups have a lack of passion for anything other than their desks and ATVs. The only trails we “built” were previously bootlegged trails that were popular enough to force the hand of the Forest service. We would build/clean up a trail that everyone is already riding and hiking. It is probably a great way to save tax payer money, but a poor usage of a organization with a history of great people in a position to do great things.

  • Mark E

    There are plenty of mountain bikers who are willing to work through the approval process and get trail built legally, with land manager approval. Trail builders who are dedicated to their art eventually get tired of seeing their work closed off and erased — something that helps inspire the patience needed to go through the approval process, so the work they do results in a trail that will be open and enjoyed for decades, rather than months or a few years. Sure, in some Western areas, where land managers have small staffs and huge expanses of land to oversee, there have been times when the “build first and get permission later” approach has yielded popular trail systems. But as the writer indicates, these times have largely passed — the sport’s too big and the tolerance of land managers has been pushed too far. However, that doesn’t mean that new mountain bike trails aren’t getting built every day. Land managers have also learned what groups they can trust to develop mountain biking trails in a responsible fashion. The International Mountain Bicycling Association has partnership agreements with the USFS, BLM, NPS and other federal agencies. Under those agreements local IMBA chapters and clubs are able to gain approval for new trails and build them more rapidly than in the past. Does it always work quickly and flawlessly? No — but there are success stories all over to demonstrate hat mountain bikers are getting to build the trails they want, with the assurance that they will be around for the long haul.

  • Davey Sinon

    I feel that this message is important however it does a disservice to mountain bikers in areas like Marin County. Here in Marin we are barred from 98.4 percent of the trails. Without “illegal” trails we would have no where to ride.

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