Monday, October 31, 2011

Great Basin Institute's most recent bait-and-switch

I got this e-mail a couple of days ago from a young woman who came to my home town from Switzerland to work for the Great Basin Institute on the Secret-Lamoille Trail project. It is a disturbing - very disturbing - indictment of the Great Basin Institute, the man they've hired to "oversee" the project, and of the local USFS office. This utter incompetence is why GBI and the USFS has blown through most of a half-million dollars RAISED BY THIS COMMUNITY on 3.5 miles of trail that is going to have to be substantially rebuilt. It's nothing more than a gross and ugly bait-and-switch, played on the people who put this project together AND on the well-meaning kids who sign up to work for GBI.

Good God, this pisses me off. It should piss you off, too.

I've changed the author's name, as well as the name of her partner, to protect their privacy.

I found your mail adress in because I read your articles about the Ruby Mountain Trails. I write you because me and my boyfriend= were part of the GBI workers working this summer to built the Secret Pass Trail and we had a very bad experience!! We really hope that GBI will stop its activities because it´s a very bad organisation.They lied to us about what we were suppose to do during our stay in USA and we paid a lot of money to come to USA from Switzerland!

GBI hires American (american corps workers) but also foreigners. Some foreigners are volunteers (they are not at all paid) others (like [my partner] and me) are interns (paid two times less than the american corps workers).

[My partner] and me came to do an internship in environmental conservation. Our goal was to gain some experience because we just finished our Master in geosciences. What we were suppose to do is described in the attached document. This document, the DS-7002, is part of the J-1 Visa process that explains what the foreigners participating to an internship in the USA are suppose to do in the USA. As you can see, this document contains a plan of what we were suppose to do while we were in Lamoille. This document contains a "contract agreement" part signed by us, the supervisor and the program sponsor. A lawyer explained me that this DS 7002 has the value of a contract.

GBI never admitted that this document has the value of a contract. The organization persisted to say that it is a list of readings and topics to be covered during the internship but if you read it you will see that it's clearly not!

We wrote to Nancy Taylor from the US Forest Department [ed. note - Ruby Mountain Ranger District recreation planner and overall project manager] to explain the situation but she never answered! We really don´t understand why the US Forest Department work with an organisation that doesn´t respect a contract from the US Department of State!!

About the work we did in Lamoille, I totally agree with what you say on your blog! The work done is unprofesional. A lot of the GBI workers hadn´t any motivation (like the interns because we didn´t know that we will do this job!). Some switchbacks were done 3 times instead of doing it well the first time! The result was that we had to cut a lot of trees because of the mistakes mad! The supervisors, team managers, etc. had no idea about environment. When we started the work, we didn´t received any informations about the trail. GBI just explained us how to use tools like a shovel!! I had to ask and ask again to have at least a map of the site and have some informations about the trail (like the historic of the trail, where the trail is going, informations about the environmental assesment, etc.)

We lost a lot of money, time and energy with this experience. We choosed to leave the internship because we were tired of this situation. Now we are still waiting for a full refund of the money that we spend to participate to this internship.

Maybe this story can help you to persuade people to stop the collaboration with GBI, an incompetent organisation that lies to hire its workers.



Here's what these kids were supposed to be learning, taken from the State Department paperwork granting them a visa to enter this country. Their internship was supposed to be broken into three phases:


Interns will see, first hand, how the theories of ecological and habitat restoration are being applied in the field. Participant will be able to apply their knowledge and skills gained while working in the environment in which they are studying.

Phase 1
Week 1: Introduction to Concepts of Ecological Restoration, discussion pertaining to the required research project.
Weeks 2-4: Concepts of Ecological Restoration, Principles of Habitat Restoration, check topic of research project for relevancy.

Phase 2
Week 1: Introduction to Restoration Project Planning.
Weeks 2-6: Restoration Project Design.
Weeks 7-11: Site Analysis and Preparation.
Weeks 12: Introduction to Native Plant Revegetation/Control of Invasive Plant Species.

Phase 3
Weeks 1-11: Monitoring, assessing, and evaluating restoration projects.

As far as I can tell, the only restoration work that needed to happen up there was fixing the butcher job that GBI itself is doing!

Where do I start with how terribly GBI wronged this young woman and her partner?

1. You do NOT abuse volunteers! People sign on to projects like this for an absolute pittance because they want to do great things for the environment, for the forest, for future trail users. Interns sign on for projects like this to further their education! GBI promised these kids a well-rounded season of work learning about environmental restoration, and instead handed them a shovel with NO oversight or guidance and set them to a job they had no desire to do.

2. These young people spent thousands of dollars of their own money to fly half-way around the world to further their education. Most young people don't have a money tree growing in their apartments. They were defrauded of the educational experience they thought they were paying for - wasting not only money, but also time that they could have used to get the experience needed to move into the workforce.

3. My guess is that these two kids were not alone in their experience, based on the absolutely abysmal quality of work I see up there. They had NO guidance, NO supervision, even though GBI's executive director is paying his Reno "buddy" out of the project's funds to provide precisely that. The blind were leading the blind, which can give no thinking person any kind of job satisfaction. The best part, though, is that once they were here it was almost impossible for them to leave! They were trucked out from Reno and bivouacked at the Lamoille USFS Guard Station, with no vehicle other than the ones driven by their crew leaders.

And, on a personal note - I love Lamoille, I love the Rubies, and I love this state. Northeastern Nevada is, to me, paradise, and I'm very, very proud of the beauty, history and hospitality of this place. To know that these young people traveled halfway around the world to get here, and then were so ABUSED... angers me beyond belief. I wish there were some way that I could show them that the rest of us here aren't charlatans, but I can't. They're gone, as are the rest of the kids GBI brought here last summer.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Travel management and Pandora's box

I got in a bit of back-and-forth a few days ago with a couple of folks on the Elko Daily Free Press website regarding travel management. I've largely stayed quiet about the process in recent years, mostly because I thought it would negatively impact the work I was doing on the Secret-Lamoille Trail Project. Since I've been booted out of that project, though, I don't see a lot of point in staying quiet any more. What the hell - Pandora's box can hold some interesting stuff.

An off-the-top-of-my-head history of Travel Management

For those unfamiliar with the history of Travel Management, several years ago the Bush Administration directed public lands agencies to begin the process of changing travel rules on USFS and BLM lands from "open unless designated closed" to "closed unless designated open." This has the effect of limiting travel on routes in the Forest and on BLM lands to identified system roads, thus in theory stopping overland travel and the incredible resource damage said overland travel can cause.

Few who care about the condition of public lands can argue with the concept. All you have to do is head out to your nearest Forest or BLM land to see the incredible damage that careless motorized travel does every day. More and more people are out there riding, and the motors and tires get bigger every year. One little track from some guy testing his skills driving up or down a steep hill becomes a deeper and deeper track after other folks try and follow him, and after erosion starts taking place. Pretty soon those tracks become rocky gullies and scars on the hillside... so the next guy tries another hill a few feet over and the cycle of damage begins again. Those scars are visible from miles away and will never heal in this dry desert climate. These kinds of "pioneer trails" are rampant around here and are an amazing degradation from when I was growing up.

When the travel management process begins in a public lands district, the district staff does its best to inventory the existing roads, ATV tracks and trails. They look to the public for a lot of help on this because it's not physically possible for them to find everything... something's certain to be missed, and in so doing a good route would be closed to public use since it wouldn't end up on the finished maps. Once they have an inventory done, they go through it looking for routes that should stay open and routes that should be closed. Closure is usually recommended for one of three reasons:
Resource damage/unsustainable route - travel along the route is causing damage to the soils, fisheries, wildlife habitat, cultural sites, etc.

Duplicate routes - multiple routes accessing the same destinations.

Lack of access - routes are locked off from access due to lack of public easements through private property. In these cases, the roads' designation was changed to "administrative" in order to allow for use by permittees and to allow for future categorization as "open" should an access easement be arranged.

As part of the Environmental Impact Statement necessitated by this significant of a change in public lands use, four different alternatives are proposed for the new travel management rules, from "no change" (not possible under Federal law) through increasingly restrictive scenarios. Environmental and cultural studies are done on each of the proposed alternatives, and the public is invited to comment through a formalized "scoping" process. Based on the results of the studies and the public scoping, one of the alternatives is chosen as the most appropriate for that district and is modified based on findings during the process. A draft of the new rule is published for comment again and, after the public has had a chance to have its say one more time, the new rule is adopted and implemented. It's reviewed again in a year and into the future to see what's working and what isn't, and changes are made at that time.

An EIS is an open invitation to a lawsuit, and the likelihood is that the agency is going to get sued by a variety of parties after the rule is adopted. If the EIS is done well and if the agency can demonstrate that it used good science and good scoping policies to do its work, the lawsuit generally doesn't get very far. If the agency's work is slipshod, the lawsuit will drag on for years if not more. Your tax dollars at work - generally speaking, entities that sue the federal government get their legal fees paid by the taxpayers. Groups like Western Watershed Project pay themselves nice, fat salaries that way.

That's the basic concept of how travel management is supposed to work, and how it is working across the country.

Travel Management and the three local Ranger Districts

By and large, that's how the travel management process worked here, up to a point. The USFS conducted an inventory of routes and published very preliminary and incomplete maps in 2005, asking the public to fill in the gaps. The ONLY people who participated were members of the Gold Country ATV club, even though the USFS ran articles in the paper, got on the radio, held public meetings, sent out letters, begged people to get involved. The overwhelming sentiment was that people didn't want to participate - to spill the beans on their favorite routes - because the USFS would then just close the route. These people missed the entire point of travel management, because unless the routes were identified and categorized as open, then they were GUARANTEED by law to be closed.

Another big problem with trying to get the routes identified was that the maps were, frankly, awful. You literally couldn't tell by looking at them which road was which, where it went, or anything. They should have been topographic maps or satellite images, but instead were simple black lines (routes) on a white background. Utterly useless... even if a person WANTED to help the maps were so bad that they couldn't.

This went on for several years, with the USFS trying to get their maps to be more complete and the public largely ignoring them. Scoping came and went, and while a few people commented most people didn't really say much.

And then, after the public scoping period had come and gone, one of the local USFS "haters" got wind of the deal.

Oh, my, god, you'd have thought the USFS was trying to murder Santa Claus! The commissioners blew up. Members of Elko County Staff, on Elko County time, spent days and weeks attacking the USFS and the travel management plan. People screamed in the media, screamed in meetings, made all kinds of false statements and accusations. Much of it was politically motivated, and a few people now hold elective office here in large part because of the noise they made about travel management. What started out as a fairly orderly and necessary process turned into a national example of a process gone wrong.

Travel management has been extended for multiple years at this point at the request of the commissioners and other local politicians - demanding more and more public meetings, more and more opportunities to attack the USFS, more and more ways to drag things out. As things sit right now, they've chased the local ranger out of town (no tar and feathers, although I'm certain that they'd be applied if they could catch him). The Forest supervisor has had to put her foot down and refuse to extend the process any farther. Meetings at this point are accomplishing nothing - they're just more opportunity for local residents to abuse USFS staff. Said non-tarred-and-feathered ranger will sign the travel management document as likely his last act for the Ruby Mountain Ranger District before leaving this area forever. Don't let the door hit you in the ass.

How things could have - and should have - gone

Frankly, anybody with any kind of familiarity with this area could have seen this coming. There has long been a hugely antagonistic relationship between locals and the USFS, and given the history of belligerence and the emphasis on motorized recreation here, it was a given that this was going to be an explosive issue.

The USFS made it radically worse by publishing terrible maps, by terrible communication, and by not playing the politics well.
One of their very FIRST acts should have been approaching the commissioners looking for help and buy-in. In 2005, before this all went to hell, the commission had some very level-headed people on board who were more about problem-solving than putting on a big show. They didn't do it, though, and now they're reaping the seeds that they didn't sow.

Before publishing the EIS with its four alternatives, the USFS should have identified the reason behind each and every mile of proposed road closure, and identified what needed to happen in order to keep those stretches of road open. That would have given people productive ways of working to address problems. If the road/trail needed to be improved, if erosion control needed to be done, if access easements needed to be purchased and/or negotiated - those things can happen if people are given the opportunity to work on them. Just telling somebody *NO* is guaranteed to get peoples' hackles up.

We needed people at the USFS working on this project who were more familiar with the local area and local politics. Frankly, while Gar Abbas is a very nice man, he was the wrong man for this job. He wasn't local and didn't have the local connections and buy-in that was absolutely crucial to make this process work. In addition, he didn't enroll locals to help the USFS to engage the community more fully in the process. The USFS became more and more insular as things went on, which is an understandable reaction given all the abuse that was directed their way. It was, however, absolutely the worst thing they could have done.

The commissioners and the local agency haters haven't had a lot of reason to try and find constructive solutions to the problems caused by unregulated motorized travel, because they've been almost completely successful in derailing the process. Ultimately, though, they're playing a losing hand. Whether they like it or not, Travel Management is the law of the land and is going to happen one way or another. It's earning them all kinds of political points now, but it isn't doing a damned thing to resolve the underlying issue, which is public lands access.
They need to decide to work WITH the USFS, rather than against them. There are common goals out there - the USFS wants increased public access, too, believe it or not. Be leaders - find commonalities and build on them, rather than just launching attack after attack. That just wastes tax dollars, both at the local and federal level.

Find out what can be done to minimize the REASONS for road closures. There are tools that the commissioners have been reluctant to use that would guarantee access into the future - for example, changing planning and zoning rules to require that subdividers provide a public access easement whenever they're dividing property adjacent to public lands. Using RS2477 to establish public access easements on established roads that have been used for access for years. Write grants to purchase public access easements from property owners. Develop a local volunteer corps to do road improvements, erosion control, etc. The list goes on.

There's not a lot of possibility that any kind of real leadership on this issue is going to come out of the Elko County political class. They're winning elections based on their public posturing, so why change? The agency haters are in full cry and will be satisfied with nothing less than the complete departure of any and all Federal agency presence in this part of the country. It'll never happen, but it keeps them busy and earns them business from the other haters in town. Nice little closed (and closed minded) loop. No solutions, no progress, nothing but a lot of hate and wasted energy.

I can always dream that we'll see level-headed, creative, problem-solvers on the Commission again, but the haterade runs deep in Elko County and anybody who emphasizes solutions rather than belligerence doesn't have a chance in hell of being elected here. I can always dream that we'll get a new ranger that has a clue how to work with the locals, but there's not a lot of hope that anybody with any talent is going to want to come to Elko County. This is the place where agency careers come to die. It's a downward spiral that I have little reason to believe will stop any time soon.

Sorry to be so gloomy - time to go walk around in the Rubies and forget about "travel management" for a while.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

This just can't be allowed to stand...

In my previous post, I suggested that the organizers of the Secret-Lamoille Trail project look to the Nevada Division of Forestry for project labor, since they do a great job for significantly less money than what the project is paying for GBI. One of the commenters on my previous post replied:
NDF is not any better at building trails than USFS or GBI. A community-trained crew would be even worse. I have seen GBI and NDF projects across the state and GBI always has done a much better job and had less environmental impact. NDF is just as expensive as GBI now.

Just about everything in that poster's response was flat-out wrong, but this one I see no point in letting stand.

The Nevada Division of Forestry will hire out ten-man crews, complete with tools, transportation, supervision, their own food and drink, etc. for about $850/day. For projects like this one, they'll do it for half that price, with the other half going towards grant matching. In other words, you get a supervised, equipped, self-contained crew for about $425/day. Since these guys earn the right to do projects like this, they're darned happy to be out there and work their butts off.

Simple cost comparison - $2550 for six work days from adult men, with another $2550 going towards grant matching, vs. $15,000 for six work days from GBI's kids. You do the math.

NDF is local, and they're part of this community. Many of the folks on their crews are locals, too. Opportunities like this benefit the community in myriad ways, as well as getting the trail built for a reasonable cost. The money saved using NDF crews could be and should be used to bring on a professional trail builder who can provide direct, constant, on-the-ground supervision to make sure that NDF is building the trail to standard. And, while he's at it, said professional can train local volunteer crews how to build trail, too. That would give our local community a talent base to maintain this trail down the road, as well as to work on new trails elsewhere in the area.

Win - win - win - win - win.

Here are photos of NDF crews that came out this summer to build trail up at SnoBowl. These guys kick ass in all respects. That project would be going better if we'd had the opportunity to train local trail builders on the Secret-Lamoille Trail Project, as was originally envisioned. Right now we have a lot of enthusiasm but not a lot of on-the-ground experience from our volunteers. Just imagine what a group of experienced local trail-building volunteers could accomplish!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Going forward with the Secret-Lamoille Trail project

One of the commenters on my previous post said the following:
This is outrageous and needs to stop. We have many months before Great Basin solicits its workers fornext year. All I can think of is to go to the FS and ask them to supervise this project more carefully. What do you suggest? How. Much further is Great Basin's work funded? Should we start a petition to engage thew FS more, require a cleanup, take the project away from them? Please detail your ideas and suggestions.

In a nutshell: the project's management needs to be immediately replaced by a community-based team like the one that got it going in the first place. This started out as a community project, and was hijacked by people who had nothing to do with getting it off the ground. The hijack needs to stop, and the people who did the hijacking need to be held accountable.

Here's a letter I wrote to the editor of the Elko Daily Free Press that I didn't send in for publication, for a variety of reasons.

I hear through the grapevine that the current managers of the Secret-Lamoille Trail Project are nearly out of funds and are looking to the community to help pay for the project. Here are some numbers that you might find interesting:

The Great Basin Institute is doing the trail construction based on an agreement with the US Forest Service. It costs approximately $15,000 for a Great Basin Institute “tour” on the project. Each “tour” is described as six work days, two travel days for a crew of ten college-aged kids, most of whom have little to no trail-building experience. In other words, it is costing the project $250/workday for an inexperienced worker to drive out from Reno and build trail. The best part, though, is that these kids are all Americorps volunteers so very, very little of the money is going to them. I really don’t care what GBI says to justify themselves… we can build this project much, much more cost effectively than what GBI is doing.

The money for this project was raised by members of the Elko community as part of the very hard work that went into getting this project off of the ground. This project was never intended to be a 100% hand-built trail. Quite on the contrary, project organizers spent a tremendous amount of time looking for alternative construction methods and building up a corps of community volunteers to get the work done. Unfortunately, neither the Great Basin Institute nor the then-new recreation planner for the Ruby Mountain Ranger District were interested in pursuing the community’s vision for the project. In the words of the USFS recreation planner last year: “My relationship with GBI is more important than building a cost-effective project.”

We see the result on the hillside. The construction work on the trail is shoddy at best. Much of it will have to be redone. The switchbacks are unsustainable and largely unrideable by the mountain bikes and pack strings the trail is supposed to serve. The money that should have been more than adequate to take the trail from Lamoille Canyon to Talbot Canyon, if the project was managed as it was originally conceived, is gone and the trail is significantly less than half complete. And they’re now coming to us asking for more?

This trail will be a tremendous asset to the Elko community when it’s finished. It’s already seeing a lot of use all year long, and will see more as time goes by. It is very much in the community’s best interest to see this project through. At a minimum, though, the community should insist that the project be managed by people we can trust not to squander our energy, our money, and our volunteer efforts. The management team for the project, as well as the Great Basin Institute, needs to be held accountable and immediately replaced by a community-based team with the entrepreneurial vision to understand what a real community partnership looks like.

GBI was the grantholder on the project, after the Northeastern Nevada Stewardship Group decided that there was too much money involved for it to handle. However, just because GBI was the grantholder and fiscal agent for the project did NOT mean that they had to provide all of the labor and all of the oversight for the project. That was never what was intended when Bill and I wrote the grant, and that's where the problem came in.

Originally, our GBI partner was Bill Wolf, a long-time Elko resident and a believer in the strength of this community. He is a good man and was very, very behind the community's vision for the project. Unfortunately, GBI closed the Ely office where Bill was based, and brought all of Bill's projects to Reno for management. So, not only did we lose Bill from the project, but we lost control of the money.

We also lost the USFS recreation planner who started the project with us. The woman who replaced him is a very nice person, extremely well meaning and very much behind the project - but she'd never built a trail before. Not only that, she'd never worked as a USFS recreation person before, never mind managing the recreation programs in three ranger districts! In my opinion, the executive director of GBI used her inexperience and Bill's departure to take control of the project. He hired one of his buddies to "oversee" the construction, and said buddy drives out from Reno every couple of weeks to "oversee" what's going on. That's just about all the supervision these kids are getting. The USFS has had some summer crews out there, too, but they don't have a whole heck of a lot more experience than the GBI kids do. The USFS rec planner is pretty well lost without GBI to get her projects done, because she doesn't know enough to understand the alternatives available to her.

And here we are.

I don't know where we are with the money because I have not been involved with the project since GBI's coup. They didn't want me around, either, for obvious reasons. I made a LOT of noise about where this was all going, and was eventually told by GBI to back off. Since I got no support from the folks at the USFS, I did. My continued involvement at that point would have been useless.

Here's a blog post I did at that time:

So long, and thanks for all the fish

My understanding is that GBI has scrounged up enough money to go for a while next summer, and that's it. However, what they've scrounged, combined with what this community can bring to the table and with some new resources from the state USFS office, should be able to get us a whole lot closer to done with the first segment, anyway.

My suggestion would be this: Immediately get a committee of trail-friendly locals involved in overseeing all aspects of this project: one from the hiking community, one from the equestrian community, one from the mountain bike community. Make sure at least one of those people has significant project management experience. I would suggest Bill Wolf, since he's intimately familiar with both the community, the project, and GBI. Get rid of the "buddy" immediately, and if GBI doesn't want to be the fiscal agent any more, so be it. NNSG or the Great Basin Trails Alliance can assume that role. Bid the project out to the trailbuilding community and bring on an experienced trail boss to manage construction. The labor for the project can come from paid NDF crews, who work a lot more efficiently than GBI crews as well as a LOT less expensively, as well as local volunteers. It should be bid to GBI and other, similar entities to see if they can do it more cost-effectively. I doubt it but you don't know if you don't ask. And by using community volunteers we can get locals trained up in trailbuilding techniques - useful down the road when it comes time to maintain this trail or build new ones.

There are likely other ways of getting this done but we'll never know as long as GBI is controlling the project. Certainly we won't end up with the community buy-in needed for this and other projects down the road. Having a strong, experienced team of community trail builders will help us immensely, not only with projects in the Rubies, but with trailbuilding at the SnoBowl and other possibilities that may present themselves in the future.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pissed off but not surprised

Didn't realize it'd been so long since I wrote an update for the blog. Lots of reasons/excuses, primarily centering around work, family and (ugh) road biking. Remind me to never sign up for 1000 miles worth of road bike tour in a summer again.

Now that THAT ordeal is over, I've finally had a chance to spend some quality time in the Rubies. This isn't a bad thing as we are currently in the throes of a SPECTACULAR fall. We'll see if it lasts through the snow forecast for Wednesday... can't we just keep the pretty leaves for a little while longer?


The Great Basin Institute kids have left for the summer, and a horrific mess snakes up the hillside in their wake. Their supervisor should be ashamed of himself for the gross mismanagement that has made a shambles of the Secret-Lamoille Trail Project. There are ten switchbacks on the trail so far, and not a one of them meets the minimum specifications for an equestrian or mountain bike trail. None of them are remotely sustainable and three of them are patently unsafe. The benching is so narrow in some places that the "trail" is literally falling down the mountain, and horses are forced to walk on the trail's critical edge, exacerbating the problem. The three sets of steps that the kids wasted their time constructing are not only needless and unsustainable, but unusable by two of the trail's three target user groups.

Here's the one that really pisses me off, though:

Remember this photo from last winter?

Here's another shot taken from the same spot:

That was one of the prettiest viewpoints on the entire trail.

Here's what the butchers left in their wake:

They killed five trees - completely needlessly, since Greg's original design had the switchback placed well before the trail reached the trees. They ruined the framing for the spectacular view, turned the great shady sitting rock that was right there into the trail base. They just tossed the dead trees off to the side to rot.

Do these people even use trails???? You have to wonder why they're here, unless it's to use power tools that somebody else is paying for.

The people from the state forest service office are finally coming out to have a look at this shambles, and I can only hope that big, big changes are in store. Certainly the very first thing that should happen is that the incompetent hack running the show should be fired and replaced by somebody willing and able to provide direct, continual, on-the-ground supervision to the kids doing the work - somebody who not only knows how to build a sustainable mountain bike trail, but somebody who actually cares about building a good one.