Just outside of Lander, Wyoming, there’s a mountain biking trail that takes riders up ridges with views of the Wind River Mountain Range, down valleys, through scattered juniper, and past jutting red sandstone. It’s part of a trail network called Johnny Behind the Rocks, which started as a meandering cow path in the 1980s on Bureau of Land Management property, when mountain biking was still in its infancy as a mainstream sport. In the mid 2000s the area saw an influx of users, some of whom began building unauthorized trails around the original path.
The illegal trails created “obvious concerns” for the agency, said Jared Oakleaf, BLM outdoor recreation planner for Lander. In 2008, riders cut a new trail through a BLM habitat restoration project for mule deer and greater sage grouse. After that, it became clear that bikers and the BLM needed better communication in order to have both of their needs met.
Later that year, a local mountain biking group called Lander Cycling asked the BLM to incorporate the user-built trails into the agency’s land use plan, which was in the works at the time. The BLM ultimately designated Johnny Behind the Rocks as a Special Recreation Management Area, which identifies the area as prioritizing recreation over other uses. It conducted an environmental assessment to determine which trails should be included in a trail system and which should be rerouted or closed. Lander Cycling helped the BLM identify important trails and organized maintenance crews of Lander Cycling members and volunteers.
The case of Johnny Behind the Rocks illustrates a relatively new trend in land management. As recreation like mountain biking becomes ever more popular on public lands, federal agencies such as the BLM are being prodded to supply more access. To meet the needs of communities and quell illegal trail building, the BLM has begun to increase its partnerships with local mountain biking groups across the West.
This tactic is part of a larger five-year Recreation and Visitor Services strategy, called “Connecting with Communities,” released in 2014. The BLM says that the shift in strategy is “not business as usual,” but a sincere change in the way the agency has addressed community-based recreation in the past, because it looks for “proactive engagement with communities,” and “emphasizes benefits from the perspective of community networks of service providers.” The new direction focuses on partnerships with local governments, communities and advocacy groups across the recreation spectrum to work more closely with the public. “It has become the mainstay of our national strategy,” Oakleaf says.
Well-loved trails around the West, like Johnny Behind the Rocks, are gaining community-driven support, which means more people advocating for their protection. “These close-to-home recreation areas are becoming woven into the fabric of communities,” says Oakleaf. “People hold them with great pride.” Most recently, the Lander community urged the BLM to withdraw mineral mining rights for the trail system’s area, just under 5,000 acres, to prevent negative impacts on the trails. The request is being reviewed by the Department of the Interior, and is a trickle-down effect from Lander Cycling’s partnership with the BLM.
A big part of why the BLM is increasing these partnerships comes down to resources. In Lander, two people staff the BLM’s recreation program for 2.5 million acres of public lands, and it would be unrealistic to add maintaining and developing a 16-mile trail network to their duties. Bringing in volunteers lightens the load, while also involving the community. “That’s really how we supply a demand now,” Oakleaf says.
According to Zach Jarrett, outdoor recreation planner for the BLM in Oregon and Washington, there isn’t much data on how BLM field offices nationally are coping with illegal trails, or how many miles of those trails exist. But in Jarrett’s experience, fewer rogue trails appear when he’s cooperating with a local mountain biking group, rather than trying to manage the area alone.
“If you can work with the mountain biking community to really provide the type of experience they are seeking, they’re not going to want to spend their time and energy doing clandestine trail-building,” says Jarrett.
In addition to a shift in strategy, the BLM is building a more robust protocol in the way it deals with mountain biking. In July, the BLM released an introduction to a guide for local managers to foster open dialogue with the public about mountain biking and trails. In November, the agency will be releasing an update of its 2002 National Mountain Bicycling Strategic Action Plan, which details how field offices can proactively work with communities to address what recreation needs they have, and for educating BLM employees on mountain biking, assessing what demand exists, and balancing mountain biking with BLM mandates for other stakeholders.
“One person could go in the dark of night to build their own trail, but it’s not going to be nearly as valuable as (a trail) that we sit down and talk about, to be enjoyed by all sorts of people,” says Mike Pritchard of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bicycling Association in western Colorado.
Pritchard says he has seen an increase in partnerships with the BLM as mountain biking has become more popular, such as in New Castle, Colorado. Last winter the town council, in conjunction with Roaring Fork Mountain Bicycling Association, sent a letter to the BLM asking the agency to assess a series of illegal trails that had popped up around an existing short, steep mountain biking trail in a designated recreation area. While the environmental assessment study goes through the process of identifying which trails to keep and which to close or reroute, the association is focusing on trust-building and on being the mediator between the community and BLM.
Illegal trail-building can be difficult to categorize, since it can occur in so many places with different designations and existing management plans. An illegal trail built in a designated wilderness area would currently not be allowed to stay (though a bill recently introduced in Congress could change that), and a trail in a designated recreation area could stay as long as the BLM finds it doesn’t conflict with endangered species, cultural artifacts and more.
In Paonia on the Western Slope of Colorado (HCN’s hometown), locals are in the beginning stages of a campaign to protect a system of well-loved unauthorized trails on BLM land. Advocates of protecting Jumbo Mountain area want to see it become a Special Recreation Management Area, the same designation as Johnny Behind the Rocks in Wyoming. This would pave the way for conducting environmental assessments to see if the trails could become authorized. The BLM is concurrently formulating a Resource Management Plan for the larger region, which will inform how it will designate the Jumbo trails.
As backyard recreation sites like Jumbo, the New Castle trails and Johnny Behind the Rocks are increasingly scrutinized and brought into the light, partnerships between the BLM and local nonprofits give mountain bikers the opportunity to realize their goals of increased trail systems in a legitimate way.
This story was published on High Country News. Photos by Leslie Kehmeier/International Mountain Bicycling Association