Black Hills ghost trails come alive

Two existing but unauthorized recreational trails will be considered for inclusion in the Black Hills National Forest’s official non-motorized trail system. But the trails were apparently blazed by users rather than Forest Service officials, and neither trail is considered part of the forest’s official trail system.

Just two years ago, the then-ranger of the Forest’s Mystic District, Ruth Esperance, threatened to criminally prosecute builders of unauthorized trails. The threat provoked a backlash among trail users, especially in the mountain-biking community, who accused forest officials of longstanding inaction on proposals for new trails.

In other words, they got tired of waiting and just decided to do it themselves, and the Forest Service is about to sanction that.  Meanwhile, four other proposed trails were set aside for now by Forest Service officials, who considered a total of six proposed trails as part of a new trail-proposal process that was created in August.  They were not approved because of unacceptable impacts.

Van Every identified numerous problems with the Storm Mountain and Victoria Lake trails. “Issues include routes through documented cultural sites, crossing private property, permitting bicycles on the historic Flume Trail where they are currently not authorized, crossing a major highway, fence crossings in the Foster Gulch area, lack of parking, and potential conflict with big game winter range,” Van Every wrote…  Furthermore, Van Every wrote, the Paha Sapa trail goes through the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, where trail miles are limited by the Black Hills National Forest’s management plan.

For the two trails that were advanced for further review, several more steps in the process remain, including environmental reviews in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

Well, this kind of points out the problem with this approach – these trails are already there and impacts have already occurred.  The reason the Forest Service doesn’t “just do it” is because there are resources they are charged with protecting that they are required by law to consider BEFORE they decide to do it.  But here is a great way to shortcut the process, and ignore legal requirements; just look the other way. The users could have funded the environmental analysis needed to proceed, but instead extra-legal “self-help” is apparently being rewarded.

Maybe this new process of “build it, then ask for it” will become the model for other places where the Forest Service doesn’t act fast enough on trails or other developments (or maybe even where they’ve already said “no”).  Maybe national forest neighbors (or their governments) will start using this approach to cut down trees on public lands that they consider a fire risk, or maybe they’ll burn them.  (This actually reminds me of the “shovel brigade” that rebuilt a Forest Service road in Nevada after a flood, which damaged bull trout habitat, but there the Forest Service at least resisted it.)


6 thoughts on “Black Hills ghost trails come alive”

  1. Jon, that’s not the same perspective I got from reading the article.
    I got (1) People Propose Things. (2) Forest Supe asks for changes. (3) They get it figured out between the FS and the mountain bikers and then (4) propose trails and do NEPA.

    What would you do differently? I guess you could send law enforcement after folks riding on user-created trails and closed trails until all those steps are worked through.

  2. “All six of the proposed trails already exist as unauthorized trails.” I don’t see how you can read this as anything other than “build first, ask later.”

  3. I don’t mean to take anything away from Jon’s point with my comment here.

    But it got me thinking about the term unauthorized. I trust someone will correct me if I’m off on this, but I always thought unauthorized was a catch-all term developed during the promulgation of the travel management rule. Used to describe any linear route that is not on the mvum.

    Does it have a regulatory definition outside of the management of motorized routes? Could an equestrian trail be unauthorized? Hiking trails? Can anyone help with a reference in a handbook or planning guidance?

    During the TMR I remember quite a lot of discussion about what was considered construction — is the mere passage of humas, horses or mountain bikes construction? Or does construction mean ground disturbing work via hand tools?

    An unauthorized route does not necessarily mean it was user created. Could have been constructed for a timber sale, access to abandoned mine, cattle improvement or maybe just a old FS trail that got dropped off the maps. Lots of those in the Caribou Targee, where I hang out. Blaze spotting is becoming popular activity.

    Anyway, it does seem these trails were illegally constructed. And I know this exact situation is happening in most forests.

    Notwithstanding Jon’s point, I think the FS could be much more pro-active in providing recreational trails. Failing that, the agency could, in my opinion, be far more cooperative with stakeholders who seek to provide recreational trails “the right way.”

    • Brian, those are good questions. I’ve seen “trails” that people make from their neighboring property into the forest that connect to forest roads and trails. They’re certainly unauthorized, but don’t know if there is an official definition.
      I wonder if there’s a report somewhere that lays out all the different kinds and what FS policy is about taking action about them.

  4. Agree those are good questions, and the answers are probably kind of gray. “Unauthorized Road or Trail. A road or trail that is not a forest road or trail or a temporary road or trail and that is not included in a forest transportation atlas (36 CFR 212.1).” This does not distinguish between motorized and non-motorized routes. I would make a distinction between the trail and the use of the trail, and this refers to the former, but both could be “unauthorized,” the latter through a forest closure order.

    “Responsible officials should work with user groups and others to identify those unauthorized routes that should be considered for designation, based on the criteria in 36 CFR 212.55.” (which are the usual environmental and conflict considerations, and have nothing to do with the origin of the route) (FSM 7703.21). A Google search indicates that this is happening a lot, and the FS is inconsistent in its approach. I don’t have a problem with objectively determining if a user-created trail should be designated as a system trail. However, the agency can’t simply ignore its obligation to manage and protect its resources, and should vigorously prosecute anyone who built the trail. Here it sounds like they know who did it and are not penalizing them (but rewarding them).

    Here is an example of a similar “rewarding bad behavior” approach by BLM to divesting federal land as a result of an illegal trespass:

  5. Thanks for the links, Jon.

    Many non motorized stakeholders assert the cfr 212.1 definition does not apply to them because it is in the TMR and so applies only to motorized. Some even assert the agency lacks any authority to prohibit foot and horse travel except to protect specific resources.

    I consider it a moral failing, but I live for this sort of controversy. I was in heaven once when a FS unit closed a designated trail in a area designated as open. So illegal to ride on the trail but legal to ride adjacent to the trail. Fun!

    You wrote:
    “However, the agency can’t simply ignore its obligation to manage and protect its resources, and should vigorously prosecute anyone who built the trail. Here it sounds like they know who did it and are not penalizing them (but rewarding them).”

    I agree, actually. But vigorous prosecution might not be the best solution if compliance with FS recreation plans is the objective. Gotta pic your battles carefully if you sit behind a supervisor’s desk. IMO anyway.

    My original questions go specifically to how the FS would charge them? Violation of what, exactly? And what if the trails were blazed via passage of vehicles w/o any ground disturbing work done via tools?

    Anyway… I’m kind of surprised no ncfp’er brought up what’s been happening near Sedona and other parts on the Coconino and Tahoe. Would boil your blood, methinks. And if you knew how the famous mb trails bear Fruita, CO (BLM) were created and marketed… Dang!

    Thanks again Jon. I appreciate your response.


Leave a Comment