Illegal bike trails and a Forest Service crackdown divide a town 

A biking boom in Sedona, Arizona, forces locals to ask: Is there room for all these people?

Illegal bike trails and a Forest Service crackdown divide a town:  A biking boom in Sedona, Arizona, forces locals to ask: Is there room for all these people? - STORY BY SARAH TORY // HIGH COUNTRY NEWS WWW.HCN.ORG
  • Story by Sarah Tory // High Country News
  • Illegal bike trails and a Forest Service crackdown divide a town: A biking boom in Sedona, Arizona, forces locals to ask: Is there room for all these people?

On a rainy August day in 2012, Jeff Harris entered the scrubby Coconino National Forest near Sedona, Arizona. He carried loppers and pocket saws, but left behind his usual warning system — his dog, Mesa, who'd bark if anyone came near him.

Harris, a well-muscled 38-year-old with a thick Texas twang, was one of Sedona's most notorious mountain bike trail-builders. He had crafted many masterpieces — G-Spot, Bootylicious, Skidmark, Wall Ride, Wash Up, Lovey Dovey, Sloppy Biscuits — trails that total only about 10 kilometres, but weave through incredibly rugged country. Most of them are "very black diamond," the landscaper and part-time professional biker, says proudly.

With a small cadre of two-wheeling diehards, Harris helped transform the quiet New Age mecca of Sedona into singletrack heaven, with over 200 miles of trails winding past towering red rocks and over slickrock in the piñon-and-juniper-covered high desert. There was just one problem: Most of his trails were illegal.

Though Harris had previously promised to stop building trails, he had recently moved to a different part of town and couldn't resist starting what he told himself was his final project: clearing 500 yards of juniper and shrubs to connect two of his favorite trails to a prominent hole in the rock called the Keyhole Cave.

That evening, two Forest Service law enforcement agents came to his house and questioned him. Did Harris know about any illegal trail building behind his house? No, he replied. Then they broke out the pictures: A series of grainy shots caught by a game camera that showed him lopping off tree branches and tossing them aside. In one, he holds a branch triumphantly overhead while downing a beer.

 It was one of those "do-gooder" types, Harris says, speaking  of the person who tipped off the Forest Service after following him on one of his previous outings. "She really thought I was out there doing damage — harming trees and killing stuff."

Harris considered his ad hoc landscaping a public service that prevented bikers from creating their own haphazard paths, but the Forest Service disagreed: It charged him with illegal trail building and destruction of federal property, slapping him with a $2,500 fine and a year of restricted access to the Coconino Forest.

The bust was part of a larger effort to get a handle on Sedona's mountain-biking explosion, which over two decades has mushroomed from a low-key activity done by a few passionate locals, into a major sport attracting thousands of riders hungry to test their ever-burlier gear on ever-gnarlier terrain. Three years ago, after passively watching the revolution, the agency closed many of the most popular unsanctioned trails and started busting their builders.

The crackdown infuriated many longtime bikers. "I'm proud of what the mountain bikers have created here," says John Finch, who was recently barred from entering Forest Service land and fined $500 for illegal trail work. Like Harris, Finch spent hundreds of hours building trails, and at one point even created a spreadsheet showing that locals created the majority of the forest's popular trails.  Still, he says, "we were considered renegades."

Recently, however, both bikers and forest officials have begun to wonder: Just how much wear and tear can the forests take? And can bikers peacefully coexist with all the other forest users — motorized and non-motorized?


Jonathan "Ramajon" Cogan, left, talks with fellow illegal trail-builder John Finch, who is now banned from Forest Service trails, on the streets of Sedona. - PHOTO BY BROOKE WARREN
  • Photo by Brooke Warren
  • Jonathan "Ramajon" Cogan, left, talks with fellow illegal trail-builder John Finch, who is now banned from Forest Service trails, on the streets of Sedona.

These questions are being asked on heavily used public lands across the West, but what's happening in Sedona hints at an uncomfortable possibility: Maybe there's just not enough room out here for everyone to do their own thing. Not anymore. Jonathan "RamaJon" Cogan moved to Sedona in 1987 from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, drawn to its crystals and natural foods. He soon grew disillusioned with the new-agey kitsch, but found a new spiritual path: Surrounded by wild forests and desert, and blessed with almost-perfect weather year-round, Sedona, he believed, was a mountain-biker's paradise. "It still felt like the Wild West," he remembers, and Cogan, who goes by Rama, wanted to be a modern cowboy.

The Forest Service managed most of that wildland in Sedona's backyard — some 550,000 acres, 18 per cent of it federally protected wilderness that was off-limits to bikes. Still, there seemed to be plenty of room for a biking entrepreneur, and Rama asked the agency for a permit to lead commercial mountain biking tours. But he was rejected, he says, primarily due to the straight-laced agency's reluctance to accommodate long-haired rebels like himself.

Undeterred, Rama started a bike shop devoted exclusively to mountain biking. Mountain Bike Heaven became the unofficial centre of Sedona's biking culture, which included then-13-year-old Jeff Harris.


Horses and bikes share Bell Rock Pathway in Sedona, Arizona. - PHOTO BY BROOKE WARREN
  • Photo by Brooke Warren
  • Horses and bikes share Bell Rock Pathway in Sedona, Arizona.

Rama and crew began constructing a network of secret trails. They had no desire to build beyond what the wheels of their bicycles — old-school hardtails with no suspension — could create. "We did not cut a branch or move a rock; we rode everything in," says Rama. Sometimes they followed old cattle paths, but mostly they simply picked a starting point and an end point and wove their way through the shrubbery to get there. The final products were curvy and twisty and full of rocks, and encouraged exploration more than athleticism, says Rama. Riders would often take an hour or two to travel just a couple of miles, stopping to tell stories and smoke pot.

None of this (except the pot) was illegal; Forest Service policy allowed "cross-country travel," meaning you could walk or ride wherever you wanted, so long as you didn't deliberately do anything to alter the landscape.

As the network of unofficial trails grew, though, so did Sedona's reputation in the biking world. By the late 1990s, growing numbers of enthusiasts were descending on the Red Rock District, which abuts the town. New bike shops opened, and, in the years before the recession, Sedona experienced a housing boom. For 15 years, its real estate market was in the top five nationwide, as more and more people, including bikers, bought second homes.

"That was the lifeblood of the town," says Rama. "They'd come in and buy a new house and then come to the bike shop and buy a couple of bikes for their friends; then they'd come back and say, 'I need a couple more.' Literally every week, people would come in like that. It was incredible — phenomenal. And all the construction workers were bikers, too."

Meanwhile, Rama and his crew had become the bad boys of biking. In 1998, during a budget-related government shutdown, Rama and four others tried to ride the Grand Canyon from rim to rim, which was strictly off-limits to bikes. They were arrested at Phantom Ranch and helicoptered out, high on mushrooms. Their exploits earned them the title "the Sedona Five," and in the mountain-biking community, a celebrated place in history.  

But the sport was changing. By 2001, there were more than 40 million bikers, and manufacturers began building tougher bikes with forgiving suspensions that allowed riders to test themselves on harder terrain. Different trails were needed to accommodate the new gear, and a new breed of trail-builders emerged to meet that demand. Using pickaxes and shovels to smooth out paths or build massive jumps, they built new trails that had a bigger impact on the landscape than the pioneer trails. Though several builders, including Jeff Harris, added drainage ditches and special rock placements to prevent erosion, others did not. Some trails careened straight down steep fall-lines or through Native American ruins, which abound around Sedona.


Jennifer Burns, recreation director for the Red Rock District, with a map of designated forest trails. - PHOTO BY BROOKE WARREN
  • Photo by Brooke Warren
  • Jennifer Burns, recreation director for the Red Rock District, with a map of designated forest trails.

These new trails were illegal, but the Forest Service had limited success in stopping them, says Jennifer Burns, the recreation director for the Red Rock District. The old Coconino forest plan dealt primarily with "traditional uses," she says, mostly grazing and land swaps. It was revised in 1998 to address rising tourism and recreation, but did not consider the rapid growth of trail use. At the time, she says, "the district was focusing on other things." Soon, the agency's laissez-faire approach would be turned on its head.

The parking lot is almost full when, on a Friday afternoon in late March, I meet Burns at the Yavapai Vista Trailhead, just west of downtown Sedona. Tall and red-haired, wearing turquoise earrings beneath her Forest Service ball cap, Burns has a no-nonsense vibe. She leaves a bright blue expensive-looking mountain bike on the back of her car, as we head onto the trail.

"Most people just want to walk 10 minutes, take a picture and leave, so parking just gets crazy," Burns says, gesturing to the hikers and a few bikers heading into the forest. Over 2 million yearly visitors — more than many national parks receive — arrive on this thin strip of national forest along the highway between Sedona and its smaller offshoot to the west, Oak Creek Village. Today, the road is jammed with cars full of tourists heading into town. "It's a zoo," she says.

When Burns started her new job with the Forest Service in 2009, the agency had been fighting a losing battle against the unruly trail system, sending teams out to place rocks, logs and other barriers across the illegal trails causing the most obvious damage. Mountain bikers resented the work, and it quickly turned into a game of cat-and-mouse: As fast as the agency could dismantle a trail, bikers would rebuild it. The local newspaper helped foment the fury when it ran a front-page story on the agency's destruction of High on the Hog, a prized local trail. "People were at each other's throats and really disappointed in the Forest Service," Burns recalls.

Burns believed the agency needed to do more than dismantle the worst trails; it had to start actually providing trails. That meant formally "adopting" some of the illegal trails by doing the necessary archaeological and environmental assessments to make sure they didn't run through Native American sites or cause erosion. It also meant building some new trails. All of this took money and manpower, though, and with a recreation budget of just over $100,000 a year, and a trail crew consisting of one temporary employee and a seasonal crew of two, Burns couldn't move very fast.

"We are totally budget-strapped," she says, noting that the regional office simply says, "If you can't sustain it, don't build it." 

click to enlarge Lars Romig, president of the Verde Valley Cycling Coalition, has worked with IMBA and the Forest Service to help reduce the number of illegal trails. - PHOTO BY BROOKE WARREN
  • Photo by Brooke Warren
  • Lars Romig, president of the Verde Valley Cycling Coalition, has worked with IMBA and the Forest Service to help reduce the number of illegal trails.

So Burns turned to the biking community, reaching out to local clubs and to the International Mountain Bike Association, or IMBA, the country's largest mountain bike advocacy group. Together they organized volunteer trail-work days and an "adopt-a-trail" program in which a rider could take charge of maintaining a particular trail. As part of those efforts, in 2009, the Forest Service announced it would start bringing some of the illegally built trails into its system, including the legendary Hangover — famous for its hold-your-breath-and-pray cliffside traverses. The relationship between Sedona's mountain bikers and land managers began to improve.

But some thought the agency wasn't moving fast enough. "I know the bureaucracy," says Jeff Harris, which "takes forever." With his own volunteers, Harris could accomplish in a few weeks what would take the Forest Service a whole season —  plus, he'd do it for free. Illegal construction continued at a torrid pace: A 2013 Forest Service summary of the activity found brand-new bridges and walls and numerous illegal trails under construction; of the 74 kilometres of illegal trails it documented, 84 per cent were built for mountain bikers. And Burns did not appreciate the help. "We were blown away by the scale of construction," she says. "It was just out of control."

A few months later, in March 2013, the Forest Service clamped down, issuing a two-year order prohibiting mountain bikers from travelling off designated routes in five areas around Sedona. Suddenly, a number of prized trails were illegal, and lawbreakers risked a fine of up to $5,000 or six months' jail time.

This drove a wedge into Sedona's bike community: On one side were those who saw the order — which did not apply to hikers or equestrians — as proof that the Forest Service was biased against mountain bikers. Others were tired of fighting and ready to move on.

The Sedona Mountain Bike Club, many of whose members came from Rama's old Mountain Bike Heaven crew, fell into the first camp. The club drafted a petition against the closure and posted it on The Verde Valley Cycling Coalition, on the other hand, was willing to cooperate. The rift widened after IMBA learned of the petition and booted the Sedona Mountain Bike Club from its chapter program — the only time the organization has ever done that.

Patrick Kell, IMBA's Southwest regional director, declined to discuss the issue, but in a memo that was later posted on a popular mountain-bike forum, he stated that IMBA and some members of the Sedona Mountain Bike Club had "divergent" approaches to mountain-bike advocacy and that IMBA "cannot align with the style of advocacy that some SMBC Board members are putting forth."

"(IMBA's) philosophy is that they need to work with the Forest Service," Rama says. "As a lobby group, that's really ass-backwards. Lobby groups are supposed to lobby for what they want on behalf of their constituents."

But Lars Romig, president of the Verde Valley Cycling Coalition, thinks the Forest Service decision reflected a larger reality. The illegal trail building "wasn't sustainable," says Romig, 34, a firefighter and mountain-rescue worker. Tanned and fit, he's also an "aggressive" rider and holds numerous "King of the Mountain" titles on Strava, an app that tracks bikers' time on various routes. Romig acknowledges that years of illegal trail building have helped bikers. "But at a certain point, you can't rob banks forever," he says. "There's a line in the sand somewhere. Eventually, you get caught, and it's public land — it's all of our land."

Jeff Harris is also tired of fighting. The closure order and his own subsequent bust have changed his outlook. "One," he says, "the fine sucked. Also, the threat of being caught again, which would mean jail time. I wasn't down with that. More importantly, though, (the Forest Service) started working with us — and besides, butting heads wasn't getting us anywhere."

Now Harris is trying to help raise money to boost the Forest Service's meagre trail-building budget. Along with a few others, he's started placing donation boxes at bike shops and hotels around Sedona, an initiative they've called the Red Rock Trail Fund. One hotel owner has even started asking guests to pitch in through an additional charge on their room. In one year they've raised $26,000. Burns and her team increasingly rely on such volunteer initiatives to build and maintain trails. "It's catch as catch can," she says.

Other money has come from grants to the Verde Valley Cyclists Coalition, which the Forest Service has allowed to upgrade some trails, and last year the city of Sedona chipped in $110,000 to build a bike-skills park (and a further $10,000 annually for maintenance). All told, Red Rock County now has 357 kilometres of mountain-bike trails, and the business community is marketing Sedona as a biking destination, says Jennifer Wesselhof, president of the Sedona Chamber of Commerce. The sport, she adds, has matured: "We felt the mountain bikers and the Forest Service were coming together."


Jason Firsty rides high above Sedona, Arizona, on an exposed rock slab in the Coconino National Forest known as Submarine Rock, a legal trail for mountain bikers. - PHOTO BY COLIN MEAGHER
  • Photo by Colin Meagher
  • Jason Firsty rides high above Sedona, Arizona, on an exposed rock slab in the Coconino National Forest known as Submarine Rock, a legal trail for mountain bikers.

Before we leave the parking lot, Burns stops to chat with a couple of mountain bikers just back from a ride. They're from British Columbia, part of the annual early-spring influx of Canadians. They love it here and wonder when one of the recently closed trails — a favourite — will re-open. Burns assures them that the Forest Service is working on it.

But no one knows Sedona's carrying capacity, and that troubles Burns. On the slickrock overlook above the Yavapai Vista Trailhead, hikers and bikers flow over the top. Above us, the thwack-thwack of a helicopter punctures the air and far below, pink specks move along the highway — the now-ubiquitous "pink jeep" tours that take tourists on off-road excursions through the desert.

"Everyone wants to have a good trail system," she says, "but what is sustainable recreation? It's not just about having more and more of it; we have to make sure it's compatible with the land."

Burns hopes the agency will ultimately implement a ban on cross-country travel on all forest land around Sedona. This would put Sedona in line with other recreation-intensive Western meccas, such as Moab, Utah, where bikers have a great trail system but are limited to official routes.

In May, the Forest Service extended the closure order for another two years, effectively banning all cross-country travel for mountain bikers on unauthorized trails. Though some riders — chiefly those involved with the original petition — remain disgruntled, the general reaction has been more subdued. Most of the illegal trail building has stopped, something Burns attributes to the slew of successful convictions against unauthorized trail builders, along with the agency's progress in building and adopting new trails that offer riders a variety of riding challenges and terrain. And perhaps mountain bikers are beginning to realize that the land itself has limits.

Burns believes the agency's closure order is in line with its goal of offering citizens a contemplative experience in the wild. On the way back to the parking lot, she tells me that ultimately biking on public lands is "not really about sport."

That's a sentiment even Rama might agree with; he admits, on my last ride before leaving town, that "we are loving Sedona to death." But the rules and regulations designed to protect places from people still raise his hackles. And he worries that Forest Service and BLM closures will continue, despite the recent collaboration.

One afternoon, we head out onto Anaconda, one of the original trails Rama and his crew "rode in" decades ago. He's wearing aviator sunglasses and a faded Hawaiian shirt, his hair in a long graying braid — looking more like an easy-going aging hippie than a mountain-biking warrior in full-body armor. Instead of a $5,000 carbon-fiber bike, he still rides an old hardtail. "People say watching me ride is kinda like watching water flow uphill," he says, as we roll over chunky Sedona dirt through a tangled cactus-studded forest.

"We're outspoken people," he says, when I ask why he won't accept the closure order. "We're not just going to sit down and say, 'Yes,' because we're not yes men."

We reach an intersection where a big Forest Service alert sign warns us that the trail is closed except to pedestrian traffic. Rama stops and looks around briefly. "Well," he says, a mischievous glint in his eyes, "I can't resist."

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN. This article was originally published in High Country News July 20, 2015


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