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June 1 was my first trip into the forest this year, and like most years, I spent it with a dozen other motorcyclists, clearing trails. The plan was to work in the North Jemez and see how many trails we could clear in a day. How far we would get was determined by how many trees the snow and wind felled during the winter.
We pulled into the forest access road and stopped at the first set of camp sites. Some of the other riders I had not seen in at least a year, so the first order of business was some socializing. We unloaded our bikes and got our gear together. The riders brought chainsaws, folding saws, lunch packs and lots of energy for a day of trail clearing.
There were a few RVs scattered about the area, including one from Canada – and the occupant of that one seemed very curious about what we were doing there. I found out later, as a man named Carl from Toronto, Canada, joined us on the trail, that we had just made his weekend a little better. He was touring the National Forests of the Southwest and was planning on riding the roads on his motorcycle today before he found out that we had a challenging single track. Much more fun for him and for us, as we had another helper for clearing trails.
The bulk of the work is clearing large trees that have fallen over the trails. Usually there is no way to get around them at either end, especially the off camber trails that traverse the grades up to a ridge line or mesa top. Here is where the chainsaws do most of the work. By cutting a path through the fallen tree trunk, the trail remains passable to the bikers, hikers, skiers and equestrians, without everyone attempting their own path around the tree, effectively widening the trail at that point.
The riders without saws prune back the “face slappers” – those pesky branches growing out at the right height to pop your nose if you don’t see them in time. Generally one pass through the trail after the spring winds quit is enough to keep the trail open all year.
I have been riding the trail system in the forests of northern New Mexico for more than 25 years and some of my riding buddies can claim longer than that. At our lunch break, we discussed whether any of us had ever seen a hiker or mountain biker or equestrian carrying a chain saw or in any other way helping to clear the trails. The consensus of the group was that because we clear for them, they don’t have to. The next question was, “If the forest service removes motorized travel from these trails, who will clear them?” Probably no one. The forest service has made it clear at several of the scoping meetings I have attended, “There is not enough manpower within the department to completely maintain the trails. If the trails cannot be maintained as ‘SAFE’ then we will just close the trails.”
So it appears to me that if motorized recreation is forbidden on the trails of the National Forests, the trails fall into disrepair because no one else wants to spend their time maintaining them, and the forest service will close the trails to ALL users because they are unsafe. In this scenario, what has anyone gained from the closure? Everyone will have lost the ability to hike, ski, mountain bike, or ride horses or motor bikes on the trails because a few very vocal people think that every square inch of forest should be wilderness area with no vehicles allowed.
Another benefit to having responsible trail riders in the forest is what we can haul out with us. And it is not what you think. My backpack always leaves with more trash than I can believe. It pains me to see how disrespectfully people treat the forest by throwing water bottles, beer cans, food containers and many other types of trash on the trail – and sometimes they just dump entire bags of trash for someone like me to try to haul out.
The 300 miles of single track that I ride in the Santa Fe National Forest is so hidden that most people don’t even know it is there: a groove 6-12 inches wide snaking through the forest like a game trail, so remote from the paths of others that 99 trips out of 100, I encounter not another soul on my rides. Sometimes I do come upon the evidence of others who share the trails with me even though they obviously do not share my “pack it in – pack it out” mantra.
I will clean up their mess and I will keep the trails clear and open because it is the right thing to do for all of us – until they tell me that my motorcycle is no longer welcome there. After that, you’re all on your own.