Changes in the landscape

At the time, it felt like a cruel joke.

Rachael, the baby and I had been bumping around on one of our favorite local trails. Our footfalls crossed sandstone ledges, heads ducked beneath pinon and ponderosa, and eyes looked out over the Animas Valley. After a series of steep twists and drops, the familiar trail came to an end, rejoining another stem. But there it was, staring boldly at us in orange on black. “Private Property,” the sign read. “Violators will be prosecuted.”

Having left nothing but footprints and the cooing of a baby girl behind us, it didn’t feel like we had just violated anything. But we had unknowingly been trespassing. In deference to the property owner, we turned the other way and tried to put a favorite trail out of our minds.

Seven days later, I followed another section of the same trail network, this time in my bike saddle. Again I’d been lulled into a daydream by the nearly perfect singletrack, zipping along on a buff, well-trodden trail punctuated by technical climbs and tight switchbacks. But suddenly, the dream was shattered, and I was the butt of another joke. At the top of the rise and several miles from the trailhead was a motley collection of nearly a dozen shining signs. Slogans like “Beware,” “No Trespassing” and “Turn Back” shouted in the midst of the backcountry silence.

This time, my thoughts turned to the not-so-distant days of my youth in different regions of Colorado. At that time, I took these things as personal insults. They seemed like infractions on a landscape that should be shared by everyone, feeble attempts to claim ownership over a common resource. And in response, I removed my fair share of signage, pulled quite a few handfuls of survey stakes and clipped more than a couple strands of barbed wire.

Not surprisingly, these and others’ attempts to turn back the tide only led to more barbed wire, louder signage and eventually the introduction of law enforcement. In one total backfire, a nearly perfect trail was obliterated by heavy equipment and the landowner hired overseers who knew how to dial 911 to park their RV at the trailhead. The following spring, earth movers broke ground, foundations were poured and the trail vanished forever.

And while new signs are always popping up, there’s nothing new about this age-old conflict. We live in a land where the noose of private ownership is tightening around public access. Private vistas from redwood decks are given priority over the common hiking boot and the simple pleasure of breathing in the woods. Like it or not, the dollar is in charge here. The backcountry frequently has a price-tag affixed to it.

Monkey-wrenching does have romantic appeal. However, it’s easy to forget that those of us traveling over private property do so at the landowner’s pleasure. We are and have always been their guests, and guests who foul the host’s home usually aren’t invited back. Still, I struggle with the recent loss of those two trails in my back yard, and I know that more signage and fencing is on the way.

Early this week, I vented my frustrations to a friend with more than little insight into local trails. We discussed my situation as well as places throughout La Plata County where trail access is threatened. And we came to a less-than-startling conclusion.

With a sense of inevitability, he said, “Our landscape is changing.”

Yes, the surface of Durango and La Plata County is being rearranged. In this dynamic world of growth, open space and trails often suffer, two things that we often take for granted. As my mind searched for solutions like conservation easements and land trusts, my friend came up with a more practical one.

“Get on your bike and go ride or put on your shoes and go for a hike,” he said. “Enjoy these things while we’ve still got them.”

With no time to lose, we parted company and I was on my way. There are still some pretty marvelous trails that are sign and fence free, and I don’t plan on taking them for granted any more.

- Will Sands




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