If you’ve hiked anywhere in the Northwest, there’s a good chance you’ve seen an illegal trail. Often they’re quick shortcuts or paths to off-trail viewpoints. But in extreme cases, they’re longer, surreptitiously constructed paths that wind through public and private land.
The unauthorized trails can cause a range of problems in wild areas. As more and more people spend time in the woods, closing down these illegal trails has become increasingly difficult.
On a recent cold, gray Sunday afternoon, mountain bikers pulled into a remote spot called Four Corners, south of Ashland. They're here to ride Catwalk, an official Forest Service trail that runs though the Ashland watershed. But just across a gravel parking lot from where Catwalk begins, an illegal trail, unofficially called Lower Missing Link, continues up the mountain.
"We’re at about 4,000 feet. So you’ve got another 2,200 feet to get to Mount Ashland," says Rob Cain, president of the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association.
Cain, who through the AWTA has been working with trail users and federal agencies to fight the proliferation of illegal trails, looks up the hillside at the narrow zigzagging slash of Lower Missing Link. It’s just wide enough for a mountain bike.
"For the most part, until people put in this illegal trail, the only way to get up that direction was on the road," Cain says.
People build unauthorized trails for many reasons – in a way, says Cain, it’s simple economics.
"The last time we had any new trails that were approved was, I think, in the year ’99 or 2000. So we’ve had a continuation of more and more bicyclists, hikers, runners," he says. "More demand and no increase in supply."
Unauthorized trail building peaked in the mid-2000s in the Ashland watershed. The popularity of mountain biking was exploding at that time, and bikers want different kinds of trails than hikers. For example, sloped, or "bermed," corners allow bikers to maintain speed going downhill. The process of getting new trails built was very slow, says Nathan Granados.
"I think a lot of people build illegal trails out of frustration around the process of building legal trails," he says.
Granados, a student at Southern Oregon University, has been biking the mountains around Ashland for four years.
"As a student at SOU, I'm here for four years then I'm going off to live my life wherever. If I wanted to get new trails built here, there's no way that I'm going to be able to do that legally on my own."
Illegal trails cause problems all over the Northwest, not just in Ashland, says the Forest Service's Don Boucher. And although all trail user-groups contribute to unauthorized trail-building, Boucher says he thinks mountain bikers have had the most impact in the Ashland area.
"The concern with it being built without any design or forethought, other than specific to bike rider's need, is that it may be disturbing habitat of the Pacific fisher or spotted owl," he says.
Morgan Lindsay with the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center echos that sentiment.
"Wild animals like wide-open wild spaces and so with any road or trail you're dealing with fragmentation of that habitat," Lindsay says.
But the biggest concern for Lindsay's group is erosion. She says the soil in the Mount Ashland area is composed of decomposed granite, and is already prone to erosion. Poorly constructed trails can make it the problem worse, degrading drinking water and salmon habitat.
It can also be a safety issue. Illegal trails aren't on official maps. So if a hiker or biker gets hurt on an illegal trail, it's challenging for emergency officials to find them.
" literally went out and spread slash over a trail about a quarter mile long, and two weeks they went back up there and the trial was open again," he says. "So it's like, what do you do?"
Boucher says public agencies like the U.S. Forest Service have scant resources to patrol and keep illegal trails closed.
"We're not strongly enforcing use of those trails... right at the moment, just because we can't," he says.
Combine this with a lack of signage on illegal and legal trails around Ashland, and you get a public that feels the illegal trails are quasi-sanctioned by officials.
"Part of the challenge that we have right now is that a lot of trails are in a questionable state of legality," says Nathan Granados. "The Missing Links, Upper and Lower - those are very commonly ridden by mountain bikers. No one is penalized for riding those. It's pretty accepted those are bike trails."
Now, at least in Ashland, wheels are in motion to solve some of these problems. At a packed public meeting at the Ashland Public Library, the Forest Service recently presented a new trail system plan, developed in close conjunction with the Ashland Trails Association. The plan is at least six years in the making, with origins and impetus in the community.
First bikers, equestrians, hikers and trail runners came together and decided what kinds of trails they wanted.
Near the top of the list for Granados and other mountain bikers was avoiding conflict with other trail users by creating bike-only trails.
"If I want to go out for a ride and just get in the zone, and bomb down hills, I can do that without fear of running over, or running into people, or scaring anybody," he says.
Then, the Forest Service came in and made adjustments to protect things like spotted owl and Pacific fisher habitat.
Under the plan, about 25 miles of trails would be added to the Ashland watershed. A substantial portion of those new miles aren’t actually new, however. They’re illegal trails, like Lower Missing Link, that are just being grandfathered in. These illegal trails were evaluated to ensure they meet environmental standards, says Siskiyou District Ranger Donna Mickley.
"They were either built in sustainable manner, which means not too steep and water can get off the trails, they're not causing erosion," she says. "Or we've done re-routes or mitigations... so that they will be built in sustainable manner"
The proposed trail system is a compromise, says AWTA's Rob Cain. And it's one that could work.
"Everybody went away feeling like 'Okay, we got about 70-75 percent of what we wanted.' In that way I think it was good."
District Ranger Mickley says decommissioning the trails slated for permanent closure will still be a challenge.
"Most of them, we have built alternate routes. We've provided alternate trails to replace them. That's why I think we'll be successful this time," she says. "We're not just closing them out of an area, we're pointing them to a more sustainable route."
Mickley could approve the new trails plan this spring. Then the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association will get to work building out the trail system.
Ranger Mickley says the Forest Service will also rely on trail users to stay involved in other ways going forward.
"I need the public to help me monitor and police that there aren’t ongoing renegade trails being constructed once we’re done with this project."