Illegal use of public lands

Santa Fe National Forest's pirated paths

A lone investigator hunts for a rogue skier who cut more than 1,000 trees

James Parker investigates broken branches in a glade in the Pecos Wilderness, where trees have been cut down illegally. Parker and Forest Service investigator Michael Gardiner also observed ski tracks during their November patrol of the area. | Paige Blankenbuehler

James Parker investigates broken branches in a glade in the Pecos Wilderness, where trees have been cut down illegally. Parker and Forest Service investigator Michael Gardiner also observed ski tracks during their November patrol of the area. | Paige Blankenbuehler

This story originally appeared in High Country News. The following text is an excerpt. Read the original, here.

Pine needles crunched under James Parker’s feet as he walked in the Santa Fe National Forest on a warm September day. Parker, a longtime local, has hiked from the Winsor trailhead for the better part of two decades, and he rarely sees signs of other people once he leaves the path and bushwhacks into the woods. But this time, hiking off trail just inside the Pecos Wilderness, he stumbled upon a crime scene: Hundreds of chainsawed firs and ponderosa pines, their trunks littering the forest floor.

The fallen trees shaped a path 50 feet wide and several hundred yards long. Side trails branched out from it, forming a network of ski runs hacked from the heavily wooded forest. Shocked, Parker surveyed the damage, walking past stump after stump. “It goes beyond egoism to egomania,” Parker says. “It looks like someone cut their own personal run to show their friends this cool new glade they made.” He reported the crime to the U.S. Forest Service and local media, and the Forest Service launched an investigation.

Most of the illegal cutting that Parker discovered occurred near Raven’s Ridge, an unofficial trail near the Ski Santa Fe resort. And each time Parker returned, he found yet more slashed trunks. Plastic red ribbons flagged trees still standing in the route.

The U.S. Forest Service gave the case to the agency’s crime unit, but as it grinds on, the incident vividly illustrates the paradoxes involved in managing public lands, which are open to anyone and lightly, if ever, patrolled. The federal process for developing new trails is slow and cumbersome, and that seems to be driving a few frustrated outdoor enthusiasts to forge their own renegade paths, says Miles Standish, manager of wilderness, trails and recreation for the Española Ranger District.

Cutting trees and bringing a chainsaw into designated wilderness are both illegal activities. But the culprit here went beyond simply creating an unofficial trail by repeated use; this effort was “much more intentional,” Standish says. “This damage, and the attitude that seems to be behind it, is worse than in the past.”

Continue reading this story at High Country News.