Forest Service relies on honor system to keep mountain bikers off illegal trail
The head of the U.S. Forest Service office in Aspen is urging mountain bikers, hikers and any other potential users to stay off a bandit trail on Smuggler Mountain.
The agency doesn’t have a lot of funds for enforcement, so it’s relying on the honor system to keep people off the Balcony Trail.
“It’s a trail we did not approve the construction of, so use of this trail is not OK,” said Aspen District Ranger Scott Snelson.
The White River National Forest shifted away from “open travel” regulations in 2002. It only allows travel on trails and roads specifically designated as open. The responsibility is on users to know if a route is open or not.
“Any trails that are not designated for use, we would appreciate if people would not use them,” Snelson said.
The longer term status of the Balcony Trail is a bit cloudy. The Aspen staff is meeting with the separate law enforcement branch of the White River National Forest next month to set priorities. It will likely be determined then if an investigation is warranted into who built the Balcony Trail and whether there is the manpower to pursue an investigation.
The possible penalty for constructing or maintaining an unauthorized trail is a $300 fine and a possible mandatory appearance in federal court, according to federal regulations.
The Aspen Ranger District must also determine whether to consider legalization the trail, which requires an environmental review, or permanently close it and rehabilitate the terrain.
Wilderness Workshop, a nonprofit conservation group, brought the Balcony Trail to the attention of the Forest Service this summer after scouting the trail to acquire GPS coordinates and map it. Wilderness Workshop is part of a coalition of groups that wants the area where the Balcony Trail is located to be added as wilderness as part of the Hidden Gems proposal. The coalition says those lands have high value as wildlife habitat.
A Wilderness Workshop staff member guided Forest Service staffer Jon Thompson to the trail for further investigation. Thompson said the areas at the lower and upper portion of the trail are posted with signs that say, “This area closed.”
He believes there was an old pack trail in that area at one time, marked on old maps as route 2190. It fell out of use and hasn’t been officially recognized by the Forest Service as part of the trail system.
The trail is on the south side of Smuggler Mountain Road. Dirt bikers used to ride portions of it years ago as an alternative route up to Warren Lakes. The Forest Service marked it as closed over concerns of erosion and resulting environmental degradation on some steeper stretches. A source familiar with the trail’s history said motorcycle use tapered off, so it wasn’t believed it warranted any further Forest Service action. The trail became popular with mountain bikers in recent years as word of mouth spread and the route was upgraded.
An avid cyclist in Aspen, who didn’t want to be identified because he didn’t build the trail, supported use of the Balcony Trail because it expands the riding opportunities close to town. The issue would be different if the terrain was remote, he said.
The Forest Service has “legalized” other trails that were built illegally in the Smuggler Mountain/Hunter Creek Valley area.
Martha Moran, recreation specialist with the Aspen Ranger District, said she understands the demands for additional trails, but a user group cannot take management of public lands into its own hands.
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