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  1. #1
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    Legal -vs- illegal trail maintenance

    Where is the line drawn between legal and illegal trail maintenance? I'm a big believer in maintaining the trails that I frequently ride. During my rides, I may accomplish everything from trash removal to filling in ruts after rains as needed. But, I was recently scolded by a trail user (hiker) for performing some basic maintenance to one of my favorite existing roll-overs after the recent rains washed it out. So my question is: as responsible trail users, are we allowed to perform such maintenance, and if not us, then who? There are no Rangers at the trail in question. I'd hate to let our trails deteriorate due to fear of persecution.

  2. #2
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    contact the land manager. it is always a good protocol to do that before you do anywork. If you someon give you grief after you have gotten approval, you can politely tell them to go pound sand...err that you have gotten permission to do the work.
    ...building wherever they'll let me...

  3. #3
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    Good advice. How does one go about finding who the land managers are for the various area we ride?

  4. #4
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    Many basic maps will show management if it's not private. State land, county land, Dpt of natural resources; it shouldn't' be too hard to find out. If no one is actively managing the trails, offering to do maintenance may be a good way to establishing a relationship.

  5. #5
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    Start with you local city parks department and move up from there if they don't manage it. Like formica said, it should be too hard to find out. If it is, don't get discouraged. Know that you are doing a good thing, and press on.
    ...building wherever they'll let me...

  6. #6
    zrm
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    My club does not do "official" trail work on non-system trails for legal reasons. That said, we do not discourage people from fixing problems that are causing resource damage. The Forest Service people we work with have a somewhat similar attitude; the official line is only work on system trails, but privately they donít want to discourage stewardship.

    The whole thing can be something of a slippery slope though. When folks create an illegal trail and it get's more use it will probably need work, especially since bandit trails are generally not well designed. When people work on it, more people use it and the more people use it, the more likely it will be discovered by land managers and then there is often a dilemma with land use policy/regulations. If it's on private property the trespassing issue comes up.

    So, it's always good to do trail work, especially when the trail is negatively impacting the surrounding environment, but if the trail is illegal, working on it, or at least doing major work on it, will raise it's profile.

    The best solution is to work for legal trails and concentrate on those but we all know that isn't always what is going on on the ground so you do the best you can.

  7. #7
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    Thanks ZRM, I have a similar outlook. Although I feel it's always a good idea to work with the powers that be on "major" work like new trail construction, etc..., I'm trying to figure out where the line is drawn. In my opinion, most responsible, open-minded Land Managers and the folks that work with them are doing a fantastic job at opening and maintaining trails, but alas, they are very few in number. So, as responsible trail users, what is our role in helping out. Trail maintenance days never occur immediately after rains, but rides do. If my favorite trail section is damaged, I'd like to fix it without making phone calls, obtaining permits, etc... It just feels like the responsible thing to do, no?

  8. #8
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    Illegal vs. What won't get you in serious trouble

    This is an area of many different opinions, so here are is my rather long take on it.

    If you ask a lawyer, I am guessing they would say the only legal trail maintenance is that performed by a trained, responsible group, under the supervision of the land manager or their delegate, after a memorandum of understanding has been signed detailing the exact nature and scope of the work. But that's a lawyer for you.

    At the other extreme, the following activities do seem to generally fall well within the definition of illegal which could possibly result in a ride in the car with flashy lights; building illegal new trails, rerouting existing trails, cutting down standing live trees and building expert features on an existing trail.

    Power tools like chainsaws or brushcutters also seem to push you near or over the boundary of illegal. Some land managers will look the other way if you are using a chainsaw to cut deadfall off a trail, others will immediately have you arrested. A huge percentage of trail maintenance work does not require a chainsaw, so this is usually not an issue for the volunteer trail maintainer. Plus a good folding handsaw will cut up to 12" diameter or so logs (albeit, slowly). (Rhetorical question; Why can any yahoo buy a chainsaw and legally cut fire wood for personal use on public land but the same person using the same chainsaw to clear deadfall off a trail could be charged with a felony.)

    Performing obviously needed maintenance on an existing trail within the trail corridor seems to be officially frowned on but unofficially condoned. I have advised land managers by e-mail of trail maintenance I have performed without permission and have been waved at rangers who drove by while I was doing just such maintenance, with no problems and even thanks.

    Some of this probably depends on the nature and location of the trail in question. In my part of the country, where I am more likely to see a mountain lion than a ranger, most the trails get little maintenance and even less enforcement coverage. Other trail users are unlikely to say anything or report you, so unless it is something really serious, the authorities are unlikely to send out someone out to check on you. At a city or county park back east, the exact opposite it probably true.

    Having said all that, here is how I apply my understanding of legal and illegal trail maintenance.

    I personally perform all types of solo trail maintenance up to and including chain sawing deadfall. I understand my actions are illegal and, even though I know it is unlikely, I stand ready to accept the consequences of my actions (with the advice of a good lawyer, of course). I feel the urgency of the situation (deteriorating condition of many trails on public land) justifies my passive resistance to the current laws.

    I have learned everything I can about trail building and maintenance so I can do the work correctly. Having a high level of knowledge also demonstrates to the land manager that I am serious about performing the work to a high level of quality.

    I have purchased and use all of the safety equipment required by the land management agency for the execution of the particular trail work task by a government employee (heavy boots, leather gloves, chainsaw chaps, hardhat). I do this both for my own personal protection and to again demonstrate to the land manager that I am serious about performing the task safely.

    I dress in clothing appropriate for the task (long pants, long sleeve shirts, wide brimmed hat) which has been selected to look somewhat government uniformish (brown leather boots, khaki work pants, forest green shirt). I am not trying to impersonate a government employee (not one item of clothing has any identifying words/logos) but I am trying to look like someone who should be performing trail maintenance. I have found if I am dressed like a mountain biker or hiker, then people question me about what I am doing. Dressed like a professional trail worker, I get far fewer questions or concerns.

    Most people assume I am a government employee (what kind of nutcase would do this for free) and I cheerfully answer their questions about what I am doing and even sometimes provide advice on my favorite trails. I am often thanked for finally starting work on the trail maintenance backlog. I never claim to be a government employee and if they directly say that I am, I correct them and say I am a trail volunteer. If someone asks for details about the volunteer program with the government agency, I again correct them and say that I am a solo volunteer who does trail maintenance on many different trail systems. My experience has been that as I go in their eyes from employee to group volunteer to solo volunteer, they are more impressed, not less. I think that the professional levels of knowledge, equipment and safety convince them that I am doing exactly what I should be doing.

    Just my personal opinions. Please take all of my advice with a grain of salt and consult a good psychic and/or lawyer being emulating my actions in any way. I do not accept collect calls from correctional institutions.

  9. #9
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    Very good advise bweide and zrm. I would add that folks in the USFS and BLM and other land agencies field calls from all recreational users about maintaining trails. Standard response to people or groups that they do not know and have not worked with is NO.

    Hardly surprising.

    But, through the various clubs that do trail work with the agency, a relationship develops and over time, many land managers will allow work to take place without the official trailcrew being present. Sometimes it is an official MOU and sometimes it is a nod from the person in charge. Each place is different. It really comes down to taking responsibility for what you do out there. Be prepared to handle questions from anyone, including the all sage knowing city folk who come up for the weekend and wonder why you are "ruining the forest" as well as the lifelong forest ranger. Knowing the history and the future of the trail is important. Knowing who the users are is very important. Some activities are praised by most people (clearing deadfall, clearing loose babyheads in the trail, and diverting erosion from runoff). Other things are less praised (adding or removing features) or understood. Some other things are really not tolerated (some forms of signage, trail widened to fit an ATV). So I guess it all comes down to good judgement. I hope to become better versed in such things as time goes along.

  10. #10
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    Very well said, and yes, I also find that the comments I receive while performing maintenance varies depending upon the folks I encounter and the uniform I wear. If I'm in bike attire, most other bikers will either stop and help, or at least say thanks. Whereas hikers/joggers will look at me quizingly at best. I'm in the SoCal area, so it is inevitable to run into all sorts of trail users, which I also find is why most trails need maintenance (and trash removal).

    Sounds like it never hurts to get to know the elusive Land Managers and receive their respective blessing.

  11. #11
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    Gearilla:

    You might consider taking some before and after pictures of the type of maintenance work you are doing to show the land manager how you might be improving the sustainablity of the trail you are working on.

    I am a solo offical volunteer for a local parks department. The park I volunteer at has about 8 miles of multi-use trails. My goal is to do small maintenance projects that allow the trail to recover quickly after extended periods of rain. Rather than filling in ruts I try to notch out a drain so that water doesn't pool in a low spot. I find that usually works better than filling in the low spot. If you have good clean compactable soil to fill the hole that might be a better fix, but usually takes more work.

    The land manager I work with just wants me to send him an email if I am going in to do some work. I don't have to actually make contact with him, but in case he is contact by law enforcement he can check his emails to see that I told him I was going in to work.

    If you are like me you do some trail maintenance each time you do a ride. All I have to do is send an email before the ride and tell the manager I am going to do some work on several different trails I am going to ride. Even if you didn't do any work because the ride was more fun, it doesn't matter to the manager all he cares about is that you told him you were going to work.

    Since he doesn't come in to check your work it doesn't matter that you did something that particular day as long as you are actively doing trail inprovements it doesn't matter that you did something on a particular day. You are just playing the game and both of you win.

  12. #12
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    Other downside

    First off, it's great that you are willing to pitch in to maintain the trails.

    What you are missing out on is the opportunity to build a relationship with the land manager. There is the chance the manager will say no, but then you can (hopefully) go where your work is appreciated.

    At this point, the park manager where I work accepts what I present as the priorities for trail work, actively steers volunteers my way, and has encouraged the Friends group to donate money for tools and rentals to my club. He still does his job and reviews new trail corridor and reroutes, but his criticisms are well considered and valuable. In return he gets free labor on what is considered by many as the best trail system in our area. (The park won an award from the state Friends group for the best mountain bike trails for 2007.)

    I'm not sure why you would want to pass on an opportunity for the above in order to never get credit for your work and chance being arrested.

    BTW, it really helped me being a member of a club that had some (positive) history in the area.

    Walt

  13. #13
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    Both group and solo volunteer trail maintenance

    I do volunteer trail work with several different outdoor volunteer organizations, I am an officer in one of them and I am on a first name basis with several local land managers. I did not mean to imply you should solo trail maintenance to the exclusion of working with a group. However, I think they both have their place.

    Sometimes you know the answer will be no whether it was a group or an individual making the request. For example, I contacted one land manager about deadfall blocking a trail and after watching a couple completely insufficient efforts to fix the problem, eighteen months later I chainsawed out the deadfall illegally. This particular land manager is known to forbid any volunteers, solo or group, from using a chainsaw but obviously didn't have the resources to do it themselves.

    Another example is remote or less-well-used trails. By the time you engage an ourdoor volunteer organization, get an event on the schedule, organize said event and actually did the work, you will have expended far more time and energy than it would have taken to do it yourself. It is sometimes better to reserve the big guns for events like new trails or critical reroutes and perform solo maintenance on smaller things like removing deadfall and clearing drainage.

  14. #14
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    In my neck of the woods, "illegal" trail work did serious damage to our "official" relationship with USFS land managers. A group of well meaning and very skilled people did some awesome rock armoring on a very heavily used/ gullied out trail. What they didn't realize was the rock they harvested was from an active archaelogical site. The group did what was necessary to repair the land manager relationship, but I cannot tell you how much work had to go into this. Please be careful with what you do.

  15. #15
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    In a few words....before and after photos, e-mail the results to the land manager with a brief description. A recent local lawsuit resulting in a death from a fall from a wooden TTF was documented as being inspected and OK'd just a week before the tragic accident. Simple documentaion cures legal woes.
    IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU'RE NOT RIDING (or building)!

  16. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mike Brown
    A group of well meaning and very skilled people did some awesome rock armoring on a very heavily used/ gullied out trail. What they didn't realize was the rock they harvested was from an active archaelogical site.
    Seems like there are three key points to take away from this incident. If the volunteer trail effort involves a group, more than 2 or max 3, effort should be made to work with the land manager. If the volunteer trail work involves intensive work in one small area, rather than lots of small efforts over a long stretch of trail, work with the land manager. If there are impacts outside of the immediate trail corridor, work with the land manager.

    IMO, solo trail maintenance efforts should be limited to trail maintenance, not improvement, on existing trails by a small number of individuals where the necessary trail maintenance work is not being performed by the land management agency.

  17. #17
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    Working with the Land Manager can be REWARDING

    Last summer I was visiting the Whistler Bike Park. While riding in the park I noticed that a connector trail was needed between the Side Track Trail and the Dirt Merchant Trail which are both equal difficulty trails.

    Unfortunately the Side Track trail runs into a lessor difficulty trail that developes user conflicts due to higher skilled ridrs over taking lessor skilled riders.

    I descided to take a look at an alternate connector routing that could improve the riding experience of the higher skilled riders and eliminate or reduce the traffic on the lessor skilled trail.

    I spent about 8 hours flagging and reflagging my proposed route on a 1/3 mile connector trail. After the flagging was done I approached the VP of the bike park and asked him if he throught a connector trail between Side Track and Dirt Merchant would be a good alternative to the current routing? After thinking about it for a couple minutes he said the idea sounded good, but he needed to get the input from his trail foreman.

    He pulled out his cell phone and called the foreman on the phone to see when he might be available to look at the new proposed routing. The foreman said he had a three hour window that same day and that he could meet me after lunch to take a tour of my flagged route.

    After lunch I met up with the trail foreman and his trail crew leader who was comming along to help him evaluate the porposed routing of the new connector. We climbed into Whistler Bike Park pickup with two other trail crew employees who rode with us to a drop off point at the start of the Side Track Trail.

    When I got out of the truck the foreman and crew leader got out while the two trail crew employees took off with the truck to leave it at the end of the proposed connector. While we walked down the Side Track Trail we discussed how the trail had gotten its name and how the cost of the trail was higher than other trails in the park because they removed or buried all of the trees and brush cut down to make the trail. We also discussed my other trail building experiences to get an idea as to how helpful I would be in building the proposed new connector.

    When we got to the trailhead of the proposed connector, the foreman told me that they had been researching such a connector previously, and he was looking forward to seeing what proposed routing I had come up with. As we walked down the flagline the foreman was very friendly and he told me that the next day he was flying to Europe to consult on some new bike park projects that Gravity Logic was working on.

    When we got to the end of the flagging at Dirt Merchant he tuned to me and said, "pretty nice route when do you want to start building it?" I told him I could start the next day and I was hoping he could lend me the tools needed to build it. He told me that the trail crew leader would get me whatever tools I needed, and that due to other higher prioity projects (Crank It Up), I would be on my own.

    I told him no problem and the next day I picked out the tools I needed, and the trail crew guys drove me back up the mountain to start the project. I had told the foreman that my goal was to complete the project by August 1st and he looked at me and said that sounded like a pretty lofty goal. I told him I had a bunch of friends coming up to the park on August 3rd. and I wanted them to have something new to ride when they got to the park.

    As it turned out after 85 hours of work I did complete phase one of the project on August 1st. During the trail building process I reported my progress to the foreman each day. Since he was in Europe consulting I just left messages on his voicemail to keep him updated on my progress.

    When I finished the initial trail I met up with the bike park patrol to let them know there was a new trail in the park. They said that the trail needed to be signed for it to be official and that the sign would indicate the degree of difficulty. They said since I built the trail I would have to come up with a name for it. I was happy to get to name it and after putting together a list of about 20 names I decided on one.

    Since the trail was built for advanced riders, it wasn't built to an intermediate rider standard. That being said, there was at least another 20 hours invested into additional trail improvements over a one month period. Additional trail armouring was needed in soft loamy areas and ruts were filled in with rock and clean soil. Also additional selective tree removal and limbing were done to improve the flow factor.

    This project was one of the most productive projects that I have had the joy to work on and this summer I hope to come up with another connector trail that will peak the land managers interest. It would be nice to think that it would only take 4 hours to get the approval to build the new project.

  18. #18
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    Good comments... My 2 pennies...

    1. You don't say where you're from, but if there's a local IMBA club, they'll likely know who the land manager is for your trails.

    2. Assuming that the trails are legal to ride, most land managers have a community (civilian, citizen, etc.) volunteer program. If you let them know you're interested in helping, they'll likely ask you to fill out a form and let you start helping. This will also likely get you covered under their workman's comp program in the event you're hurt while volunteering.

    3. This will give you an answer for the people questioning you volunteer work on the trails: I'm an official (land managing entity) volunteer.

    4. If you haven't already, you should consider attending an IMBA Trail Care Crew class. This will give you some credentials to support your volunteer efforts.

    5. Thank you for volunteering. Compared to the number of people that use the trails, there aren't a lot that go to the efforts that you have to help keep the trails in good shape.

  19. #19
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    Let me stir the pot a bit more...

    All good advice. Here's another twist to the saga: Upon several of our legal trails, skilled craftsmen have integrated ingenious, and much welcomed, obstacles along the routes. As an all-mountain rider I welcome these tests of bike handling skills. Jumps, rolls, walls, bring it on... But are they legal, and should we make repairs if need be?

    Case 01: I roll over a boulder obstacle and knock off a well-placed cheater rock. Should I stop to fix it, or roll on and hope the next guy doesn't hurt himself?

    Case 02: I roll up onto what appears to be a jump, but has washed out due to recent rain. With a couple well placed rocks and some fresh dirt, I know it will be safe for launch. Again, should I stop and fix it, or ignore it and roll on?

    Bringing these cases to the Land Managers attention of certain areas could get them shut down. So could not fixing them and risking someone getting hurt. Not fixing them makes me feel irresponsible as a trail user. Fixing them on my own makes me a criminal in some opinions.

    I'd like to hear some opinions from Land Managers if you're reading this.

  20. #20
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    Two wrongs make a right

    We (PA) have Game Commission Land that has many great trails, but they are closed to horses and bikes.

    On one trail we ride that is actually illegal (I know, I know)
    some yahoo biker built a log ride with lumber nailed across it.
    This is just advertising for: bust me, because I'm STUPID

    We hiked up it with pry bars to dismantle it, and this dude riding a horse came along and thanked us, because he didn't want the Game dudes staking out his favorite trail. We told him that's what we thought too.

    Anyway, illegal trail work, for the good.

  21. #21
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    In this particular case, as long as you aren't adding unauthorized features, I see no problem with it. It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Just don't go buck wild and do anything that could be viewed negatively.

  22. #22
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    Caution;  Merge;  Workers Ahead!

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim311
    In this particular case, as long as you aren't adding unauthorized features, I see no problem with it. It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Just don't go buck wild and do anything that could be viewed negatively.
    Forgivness will cost your about a grand per tree where I come from!

    Plus other added things like tesspassing, littering and so on..................

  23. #23
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    Generally speaking, if it's something you can handle with some hand pruners (for living stuff encroaching on a trail) or a small packable saw (for dead downfall), you are probably well into the legal range. Things get sticky when you're dealing with live trees (even saplings) as well as anything you've gotta hump tools in for. For that stuff, it all depends on the land management directives that particular property follows and their policies on volunteer maintenance.

    Some places I've done work permit volunteers to use chainsaws as long as they've attended a chainsaw safety course and use all the proper safety gear. Other places say no regardless of the circumstances. Some of those places usually don't mind if you use an axe, btw, but it never hurts to ask.

    Moving soil and rock is another concern, illustrated by the poster from NC above. Don't want to disturb any active archaeological sites...that can get you into DEEP stuff. I was helping on a maintenance project at one park that needed major work. We had started out doing small things but realized soon that the trail system needed a complete overhaul/reroute. The park made us put EVERYTHING on hold until an archaeological survey could be completed for the mtb area. It took a couple of years so volunteers had to be really patient.

    If you replace a cheater rock that was already there, I doubt anyone will complain. I also doubt anyone would complain if you left it out. If that cheater rock could move that easily, it can't have been that much help to riding the obstacle in the first place. I would probably leave a washout be, personally, as encountering that sort of thing is part of the challenge of mountain biking. If the washout is really a problem, then it's probably best left to a work crew with permission and enough tools and muscle to repair it in a way that it is less likely to wash out again.

    For me, I limit myself to solo maintenance projects like trimming overgrowth, pushing small downfall off the trail, putting rocks/downed logs over perpetually muddy spots (to reduce trail widening), and that sort of thing. My local park has requested that we save coordinates of major downfall onto our GPS and call the park office to report it so they can bring out a chainsaw crew. We are putting a stewardship crew in place for this particular park, so we are currently in the process of identifying areas most urgently require attention. This park also has issues with trail maintenance of the illegal kind. There are folks who build new trails without park permission, folks who build unsanctioned obstacles and technical features, and folks who go out of their way to remove natural features that add challenge to the trail.

    The park would like to stop that activity, but lacks the finances for increased law enforcement patrols. In creating the stewardship crew, the park is hoping to get more people involved officially with the park and decrease the illegal maintenance.

    The key is developing that relationship with the land manager to find out what those boundaries are for your particular trails. Every trail and every property is going to be different.

    And yes, if you choose to ride some trails illegally, then you DEFINITELY want to keep that use as low key as possible. Part of it is keeping your maintenance low key. I have been there before.

  24. #24
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gearilla
    All good advice. Here's another twist to the saga: Upon several of our legal trails, skilled craftsmen have integrated ingenious, and much welcomed, obstacles along the routes. As an all-mountain rider I welcome these tests of bike handling skills. Jumps, rolls, walls, bring it on... But are they legal, and should we make repairs if need be?

    Case 01: I roll over a boulder obstacle and knock off a well-placed cheater rock. Should I stop to fix it, or roll on and hope the next guy doesn't hurt himself?

    Case 02: I roll up onto what appears to be a jump, but has washed out due to recent rain. With a couple well placed rocks and some fresh dirt, I know it will be safe for launch. Again, should I stop and fix it, or ignore it and roll on?

    Bringing these cases to the Land Managers attention of certain areas could get them shut down. So could not fixing them and risking someone getting hurt. Not fixing them makes me feel irresponsible as a trail user. Fixing them on my own makes me a criminal in some opinions.

    I'd like to hear some opinions from Land Managers if you're reading this.
    Case 1: In most cases, the person who built the trail likely didn't add the cheater rock, log, etc.


    Case 2: This is where knowing who the entity responsible for the trail maintenance (if there is a formal group) would help you. In general terms though, if trail maintenance involved rebuilding or reshaping the trails, my advice is to leave it for the official volunteers.

    A point for you to ponder: "Not fixing them makes me feel irresponsible as a trail user. " There have been more instances than I can come close to remembering where well intentioned people tried to fix trails that our group maintains. Sometimes they knew what they were doing and the "fix" was likely a fix. But the well intentioned "fixes" that aren't fixes wind up costing volunteers more time and effort to repair than the initial problem. I'm not suggesting that you've done this.

    I'm not suggesting that you don't know what you're doing. Using myself as an example: I consider myself fairly proficient in trail maintenance. I've layed out, designed and built a fair amount of trail. If I'm riding on a trail system that isn't one of "mine" and I come across anything other than piece of deadfall that is obviously not part of the trail system (newly fallen, branches poking out, not at or near ground level, etc) then I'll leave it alone. Not because I'm unwilling to help but because the people responsible for that trail know it better than I do.

  25. #25
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    Is it $worth$ it?

    We all seem to have similar stands on this issue and appear to have similar training and experience with trail "maintenance" or whatever you wish to call it. So has anyone ever been busted? Harassed? I'm all too familiar with the legalities of poaching, trespassing, etc... But does anyone know the consequences for performing maintenance and enhancements to trails? Let's hear those stories...

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