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Acts of environmental vandalism lead to trail closings in Ossipee Mountains

September 03, 2009
OSSIPEE — The owners of 12,000 acres in the Ossipee Mountains region have closed public access to the lands due to irresponsible trail use and environmental vandalism. The New Hampshire Bureau of Trails made the announcement in an Aug. 27 press release, but some of the land has been posted against public access since April. The properties are located north of the Lakes Region Conservation Trust's Castle in the Clouds property and south and west of Routes 25 and 16. The closure includes popular hiking trails to the summits of Mt. Shaw and Bayle Mountain, according to the statement.

According to Chris Gamache, chief of the Bureau of Trails, the property posting was sparked by irresponsible trail development, use, and advertisement, and has been fueled by landowners noting disrespectful treatment of their properties by summer recreational trail users.

The acreage includes thousands of acres owned by the forest products company Chocorua Forestlands and at least eight private landowners who have posted their land. Chocorua Forestlands President Jeff Coombs said the damage is extensive. Damage includes a half-mile swatch of trail about 12 feet wide was treated with herbicide and many new flagged trails where there weren't any before. In some areas whole trees and limbs were cut and dragged into the woods. Coombs also found beer bottles and litter on the mountaintops, but perhaps more frightening was the 17 fire rings that campers had left behind in remote areas.

"There's a lot of ignorance out there," said Coombs, noting that there was a major forest fire in that burned 2,000 of acres in the 1950s. "We're a commercial timber property and we can't have forest fires. April and May were very dry months. We found beer bottles and trash at the top of the mountain. Trash can be picked up by the fire rings were disturbing… these were in the woods in an area where you could not access with fire apparatus."

Coombs stresses that the land has been opened to the public for the 30 years since the company has owned it. "We never blocked access. In winter we allowed snowmobiles to use a 10-mile trail; we've always allowed hunting, fishing, hiking, bird watching. We welcomed that activity," he said, adding that the company is a responsible steward of the land, certified as a tree farm and by the Rainforest Alliance. The company sold a conservation easement on a portion of the property to the state.

Landowners say that hikers may have learned about the property through a map printed online and in hardcopy by Bob Garrison of Henniker who calls himself the "Trail Bandit." Coombs said he met Garrison three years ago when he came across him mapping trails. Garrison at the time was on Coombs own private property. "He was very arrogant. I told him we did not all our trails mapped out. The situation escalated this past winter and spring when he saw more and more people hiking. He didn't have a problem with hikers, but he was concerned to find many new hiking trails flagged with brightly colored ribbons.

Garrison published a map of the greater Ossipee area in January online on his web site, www.trailbandit.org, and has a history of unauthorized trail blazing in the Virgin Islands on St. John. The map of the Ossipee Mountains trails was also published in hard copy. Coombs said he has heard that Garrison admitted to using herbicide and clearing trails to others.

Coombs and other landowners said they welcomed public use of the lands, but that things have gotten out of hand.

"We certainly cannot blame the landowners for their decision in this matter," said Gamache. "A small percentage of careless users typically cause the majority of problems. In this instance, when the landowner confronted the irresponsible user(s), they chose not to respect the landowner's rights. We support the landowner's decision in the matter and will work with them to get public access granted back on these properties," he stated.

Susan Bryant-Kimball and her husband posted 1,200 acres abutting Coombs property after they too found new trails flagged and saw their private skid roads on Garrison's map. She said the flagging started about two years ago, and every spring she and her husband would go out and remove a shopping bag full of plastic flag tape marking the unauthorized trails. "This land was open until April when we posted it. I would say the trail map (online) pushed us into posting it," she said, adding that she had asked Garrison not to post the unauthorized trails or private skid roads on the map.

"I think people don't understand this is private land," she said, and not a national park with park signage and kiosks. New Hampshire has a history of private landowners sharing the land with the public, she said. The fire rings also concerned her deeply.

"When the forest is your 401K and your long term care insurance, you care about whether it's going to be burned down or not," she said.

She said the landowners have had meetings with the state agencies and also with the state Attorney General's office to see what if any legal action could be taken. She said Jason Stock of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association is also involved. He and other landowners could not be reached by deadline but in a published report Stock stated that his organization has been concerned with the unauthorized use of private property.

"It would be like me walking to your house and taking pictures over the hedge in the backyard and then posting them on the Internet," Stock was quoted as saying in the Concord Monitor. Some of the other landowners who have posted the land could not be reached by deadline. Garrison did not reply by deadline to a request for an interview.

Coombs said the lands could be accessed with written permission from the company. Send a note to Ossipee Mountain Land Company, P.O. Box 599, West Ossipee, NH 03890.

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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