In April, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a hunting education and advocacy organization, circulated a press release offering a $500 reward “for reports or information leading to a conviction of those responsible for illegal trail construction on public lands.” In other words, the national non-profit placed what amounted to a bounty on mountain bikers building illegal trails.
The Colorado chapter of BHA sent the press release directly to two publications: Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper and the Mountain Ear, which services Nederland, a town 18 miles up Boulder Canyon. The bounty technically applies to the entire state of Colorado, but the memo indicated that it was targeted at trailbuilders in the national forests around Boulder and Nederland.
Both towns are hubs for outdoor recreation. The Roosevelt and Arapaho national forests, which comprise 160,000 acres of public land, offer ample hiking, skiing, hunting, and fishing. They are the country’s third-most visited forests, with an estimated 7.5 million annual users. Nederland in particular is popular with mountain bikers: the parking lot for the West Magnolia trail system, a prominent network of singletrack, overflows with cars every weekend from late spring to mid-fall, and the nearby Front Range trails see ample bike traffic as well.
But in the vicinity, like just about anywhere with a mountain bike scene, locals have built secret, illegal trails. These see far 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 enjoys the creativity, solo time in nature, and challenge that comes from cutting the clandestine paths.
There’s a long history of social trail-building in the Nederland area, says Josh Harrod, president of the all-volunteer mountain-bike-focused Nederland Area Trails Organization (NATO). “I would say 90 percent-plus of the trails we use up here started as social trails—the elk and deer ran through, then hikers followed, then bikers followed suit,” he says. “Social trail construction is kind of the fabric of the local trail community. NATO doesn’t sanction it, but I don’t think it’s ever going to stop.”
It was these trails that interested BHA. The press release read, “For years we’ve been hearing from public lands agency staff and our members that illegal trail building is rampant in many areas of the state and proliferating. Elk herds and other wildlife are suffering as a result. [The $500 reward for turning illegal trailbuilders in] is one small step we can take to try and help moderate and hopefully deter additional illegal trail construction activity.”
Local mountain bikers were angry. “Those guys are out there walking around with guns. When they put a bounty out, it’s a bad look,” says the trail-builder I spoke with.
Bikers felt the reaction was overblown. The trail-builder I spoke with describes his renegade trails as harmless labors of love that only he and a few friends know about—could they really be getting in the way of wildlife? And why was one backcountry user group launching what felt like an offensive towards another?
The trails in the Nederland area are, like most trails across the mountain West, more crowded than ever. You could argue thatIn their press release, BHA cited a quote from Gary Moore, executive director of the Colorado Mountain Bike Association, saying that bikers’ options are limited in the state. And popular renegade trails do occasionally get retroactively sanctioned by the Forest Service, according to multiple mountain bike groups.
A study out of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, from earlier this year found that mountain biking ranked second only to ATV use in disturbing elk populations in a 120,000-acre parcel of land east of town.
Sanctioning new trail construction 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 takes its idea to the relevant governing land agency. If the agency is interested, they’ll do a public survey to determine engagement. Then, the trail goes through a process mandated by the National Environmental Policies Act to evaluate its potential impact, with scientists and researchers—including archaeologists, hydrologists, botanists, and wildlife biologists—weighing in. The study findings are released for public comment, and if anyone protests, the project goes into a public objection period. The federal agency makes modifications, if necessary, and the leadership of the land management agency makes the final decision. All of this can take anywhere from three to 15 years, says McQuain. (The process looks different for state and private land.)
Research shows that trails can impact wildlife in dramatic ways. In the 1980s, a Colorado State University biologist named Bill Alldredge started studying elk near Vail, as ski resorts and trail systems started expanding. He and his team radio-collared female elk with new calves and then had humans hike through their preferred grounds until the cows showed signs of disturbance like standing up or walking away. Of the elk he studied, about 30 percent of their calves 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 found that human traffic on trails forces animals to flee, limiting their feeding time and forcing them to expend valuable energy. And a study out of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, from earlier this year found that mountain biking ranked second only to ATV use in disturbing elk populations in a 120,000-acre parcel of land east of town.
Whether all illegally built trails negatively impact wildlife, we don’t know. But Kriss Hess, the BHA member who sent the press release to Boulder and Nederland papers, argues that while many of these trails might only see a little traffic in their early years, it’s not uncommon for them to eventually wind up on mapping apps and grow in popularity, impacting wildlife years down the line.
“We’re not trying to be aggressive with this, but we are extremely concerned about the population declines we’re seeing across the state in elk and mule deer and other populations,” says Brien Webster, BHA’s program manager and Colorado and Wyoming coordinator. “Our wildlife and land management agencies are maxed when it comes to capacity, so it’s extremely difficult for them to post up and stop riders from accessing an illegal trail,” says Webster. They’re hoping the bounty might help the agencies manage the issue.
BHA also hopes to create and distribute maps and other educational materials that might help different user groups better understand how elk see and use a landscape. In August, they released a 15-page “Illegal Trails Memo” with maps showing critical wildlife habitat and national conservation areas with social trails built through them. BHA is also considering placing educational signage at existing trailheads in areas with high rider concentration where illegal trailbuilding has occurred.
But the Boulder Ranger District has no formal or informal agreement with BHA, and it would be illegal for BHA to do any kind 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 the Boulder Ranger District’s funding and that they are focusing their efforts where they feel they are most urgently needed, specifically on infrastructure projects and wildfire recovery and mitigation.
And Wendy Sweet, executive director of the Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance, said that publishing maps of illegal trails may have the opposite of the desired effect. “If the mountain bike community sees this memo, the first thing they will do is want to check [those trails] out,” she says. Sweet had multiple meetings with BHA members prior to the publishing of this memo to talk about how all of the various stakeholders in Boulder County could work together to create trails safe for wildlife, and felt the release was in bad faith. Plenty of other factors place strain on wildlife, like development in the wilderness-urban interface, increasing backcountry use across all user groups, wildfire, and a changing climate.
Since releasing the bounty, Webster says, nobody has been turned in. Instead, “BHA has had some really good conversations with folks within the mountain bike community who are trying to address this in a meaningful way,” he says. “It has helped us think about our objective, and to focus more on education than the bounty aspect.”
Aaron Kindle, director of sporting advocacy at the National Wildlife Federation, thinks BHA isn’t being heavy-handed enough. “What happens when someone says, ‘My actions don’t count in that spot; I’ll do what I want.’ What if other folks started seeing those guys never getting punished?” he says. “The beauty of having public lands is that we’re all responsible for taking care of these landscapes.”