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.


  1. I will support any effort to stop the destruction of the natural environment up there. Please let's come up with a game plan and execute it. The obvious point of agreement is that these trail builders have little regard for the aesthetics. Let's share ideas here and then get support before approaching the Forest Service - I don't know that the Commissioners care much.

  2. Here are some thoughts: 1. determine how much of the funding remains and ask that the funding stop because the money is not being spent properly. 2. Engage the Forest Service and ask them to supervise more closely. 3. Go to the senior executives at GBI and see if our issues can be resolved with them. 4. Get the Stewardship Group support for 1, 2 and 3. One thing is for clear - we cannot allow this kind of destruction to go all the way to Secret Pass. What is built now will last decades if not forever. This project was to rebuild a neglected trail, not to build what looks like a road up there - let's put a stop to this!!!

  3. Well, keep in mind that *any* new trail is going to look somewhat road-like right out of the gate. In a couple of years the foliage up there will make the trail nearly invisible from a distance unless you know what you're looking for. My big beef is that what they're building is unsustainable and doesn't meet the minimum specifications for equestrian and mountain bike trails - both problems which will contribute to long-term and significant maintenance problems, as well as making the trail unenjoyable for users. And, of course, the fact that the community has been shut out of the process and the money we raised poured down a rathole.

    The state USFS recreation guy is on the problem, as we speak. I met with him a couple of weeks ago to bring my concerns to the table, and he was out here last week to look at the project. It's my hope that, if they don't take over management of the project, they'll at least provide significant up-close and personal supervision until it's finished. What's happening up there right now should make ANYBODY who cares about these mountains absolutely furious.

    I don't think there's any point in approaching GBI. They're just going to want more money. Their financial model and approach to the project just doesn't fit in a community that cares about cost-effectiveness and is vehemently opposed to wasteful spending. I mean, seriously - $250/day to have a kid drive out from Reno to build trail? I don't know the numbers, but I think an NDF crew of TEN hard working guys is something along the line of $300/day. You do the math.

    My understanding through the grapevine is that the state guys think that it's very correctable at this point, which I'm glad to hear. We just need to get people on board who know what they're doing, and who are interested in effective project management. Pressure through the commissioners and the Stewardship Group will, I think, help in this regard, as long as its done with the idea of moving forward, not dwelling on what's happened so far.

  4. FWIW, we got great support from the commissioners when we were getting this project off the ground. We have a different commission now, but I think we would find some very useful support there if we pursue it. Certainly they're no fans of the forest service. However, we're going to end up with a new ranger sooner rather than later, and when we do that ranger is going to want a better working relationship with the commissioners than Gar had. Something like this could be and should be an excellent place to start.

  5. I would find out what is the current status of the funding. I have hiked the trail with friends. A very experienced horeswaman I was with said it is not good fore horses and she would be afraid of her horse being spooked by a mountainbiker with no place. To go. I don't see a biker doing the trail without walking his bike over segments. Very few people that I know who have done the trail have gone to the end. If the funding is an issue, I would spend the money first on finishing what is already built and see how the community uses that. The Island and Lamoille Lake Trails, Thomas Canyon and South Fork trails are all underutilized - and of course Seitz, Griswold and Ruby Dome trails have virtually no use. I would find out what the state of the funds are and then finisht/fix the first 3.5 miles and then determine what's next.

  6. 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. Every new trail is going to look pretty nuked at first and vegetation will have to be removed. The initial rec planner with the USFS did not do that well with the project and didn't have much experience building trails. The new rec planner does have a lot more recreation experience gained in the private sector than the old rec planner and understands the local issues better. This project did not have that much community support and was pushed through by a vocal minority (led by you). This trail is a pet project that will be enjoyed by few and cost (and has cost) the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, disturb private landowners, livestock, and wildlife. The new ranger of Ruby Mountains/Jarbidge is only on a temporary detail and the old ranger will be back in a few months. I highly doubt that the detailing ranger will do anything at all with this project or the state USFS rec person. The federal government has huge budget problems already and in my opinion they should be spending what little funds they have maintaining the hundreds of miles of trails they already have and not wasting money building a 40 mile trail for a handful of people. And also to the consternation of local landowners. If you want to better the recreation opportunities in Elko, put your energy into helping the state and feds maintain what they have instead of insisting they build more.

  7. The last Anonymous could not have said it better. There are generally two things one should do to protect this area. 1. Nothing. 2. Support those who maintain the open spaces. If you like the area around Lamoille, that means supporting the ranchers who maintain the area. The Kennedy family were ranchers who sold out to developers, and where a ranch once stood is now urban sprawl. Perhaps they had good reason to do this, but it was unfortunate for the area. We don't need more trails/bikes/people in the Rubies - those who want to travel there can already do so. Sue, the Fair Board is a better place for you to devote your energies and I hope you will apply for the next opening and the Commissioners will harness your energy and skills by putting you on the Board.

  8. God, you just have to love the folks at the mouth of Talbot Canyon.

    Guys, as a local I've never (previously) had a problem getting access to the Rubies. However, I'm not the only person out here, and as more people move here and more people come here to recreate in the Rubies, there is going to be more and more need for places for them to go. You simply CAN NOT get to the vast majority of the trails up there. We tried back at the beginning of this project to negotiate and/or purchase trail access at Talbot Canyon and a couple of other places, so that people could use the public lands their tax dollars pay for, but all we got were locked gates, no trespassing signs and a lot of name-calling.

    So what do you want people to do? Going overland causes a lot of resource damage, besides being dangerous. They can always trespass, of course, and many do. I don't think that's a good answer, though, and I'm confident you don't either. And making an appointment weeks ahead of time, if you can even figure out who to call, isn't reasonable or practical in any way.

    It is NOT FAIR, nor is it right, to lock people out of public lands, and yet that's what private property owners around here have done. People should be able to go out for an afternoon and go for a hike in Talbot Canyon without making an appointment or paying a fee to do it.

    This trail project is a direct result of the homeowners at the mouth of Talbot Canyon - that would be you - who refuse to allow access to the public lands behind their property.

    You know and I know that those locked gates and no trespassing signs are there because people want to get back there. NNSG held two VERY well-attended meetings in 2003 and 2005, and the overwhelming sentiment among attendees is that they want more access to the Rubies, as well as lower-altitude year-round trails. We had dozens of volunteers show up on the one Trails Day event we held before I got booted from the project. Every single entity and person I approached for support on this was not just supportive, but enthusiastic. The trail is already one of the most popular routes in the Rubies, and it's not even finished yet! None of those things would be happening if it were a "small minority" of people who wanted to see both the access and the trail go forward.

    If you don't like what's happening up there, look in the mirror. Any one of you could have prevented this by negotiating access with us. We even had an agreement to buy a trail easement from one property owner up there, and he backed out after SIGNIFICANT negative pressure from his neighbors.

    Like it or not, people want to use these mountains, as you have been able to freely do. People have the RIGHT to use these mountains. And if they can't get legal access through private property to do it, then the only alternative is to develop access other ways. A single-track trail is the least intrusive way to do it, so that's what we did.

  9. And one more thing... to the point "we don't need more trails/bikes/people in the Rubies."

    Like it or not, they're not only coming but they're already here. There were 5,000 people in Elko County when I was a kid, 10,000 people when I left for college... there are 50,000 now and both the population and tourist visits will continue to grow at an ever faster pace. Locking gates and telling people to go away serves about as much purpose as shoving your head in the sand. You can plan now and mitigate negative impacts before they get out of hand, or you can sit back and watch as overuse and overland travel destroys the hillsides.

    If you don't believe me, you should hike the overland route between Right Fork and Echo Lake. It's been ravaged by careless boots because the Echo Lake trail is behind yet another locked gate. The only way to get to Echo Lake is overland through a sensitive high alpine area, and it's created a train wreck. There is terrible erosion up above the lake now, as well as a tremendous amount of defoliation... the change in the last 20 years is astounding and terribly sad.

    People are going to get to where they want to go one way or another. You can do it right and give people the chance to not tear things up, or you can keep doing what we're doing and see resource damage all over the Rubies' greatest hits destinations. I should think that anybody who loves these mountains would opt for the former.

  10. OK, put a trail to Ech Lake. You have made that case. While Elko has grown, trail use in the Rbies has not. If you think it has, why has the parking lot at the head of Lamoille Canyon not been enlarged. Try hiking to Island Lake on a Saturday in July - not that busy. Hike on a weekday and you will see few people. Verdi Lake will be about 14 miles one wayon the new trail - hardly a day hike. Plenty of people make it a day hike from the Terraces. Nobody goes to far more accessible Seitz, Robinson, Griswold Lakes.
    There are plenty of people who refuse to take a horse up the new trail, and have hiked it and turned back before going to the cuRrent end. I know you have better things to do, and yes development around here needs to be restrained.

  11. And when you go over the top from the Terraces you create exactly the same problem you have above Echo Lake. I'm assuming you've done that trip - if so, you've seen the damage and, like me, have contributed to it. I don't like tearing stuff up up there, and I'm assuming you don't either.

    Building a trail from the Terraces to Verdi will never happen, both because of the terrain and because of the NEPA work that would be necessary. The old trail from the Glacier Overlook over the top to Talbot can be and should be brought to modern standards, but it's still hardly something that your average backpacker is going to want to use. If we can't get access at the mouth of Talbot Canyon, then, the only remaining option is the Secret-Lamoille Trail. And while it may not be a day hike, it'll be a damned nice backpacking trip.

    Nobody goes to Seitz because you can't get to the trailhead without trespassing - unless you have a key to the SC Campground gate and want to walk a couple of miles through sagebrush hills and cross an often-raging creek to even get to the trailhead. Same goes for Griswold, although a lot of people trespass there to get to Ruby Dome. People don't go to Robinson because, frankly, it's not all that interesting of a hike.

    I'm seeing some points of agreement here, even though we don't see eye to eye on several things:

    1. The trail as it's currently constructed isn't well built and isn't suitable for horses. It's not suitable for mountain bikes, either.

    2. The trail project as it's currently being managed is a huge financial boondoggle.

    3. I concur completely re: development around here, which is part of why I'm trying to put a conservation easement on what's left of our ranch.

    4. And, yes, I certainly have better things to do. The current project managers don't want me involved, for a variety of reasons, and I resigned a year ago when it became obvious I was going to be thrown under the bus. That doesn't mean that I think their gross mismanagement should be allowed to continue, which is why I'm making this tiny bit of noise. If I really were interested in being loud about it I would have sent in that letter to the editor for publication, as a start.

  12. By the way, "anonymous" (and I'm speaking to several of you here), it's clear that your biggest beef is with providing recreational options for mountain bikes in the Rubies. To that I can only say - learn to share. Horsemen and bikers can share trails easily if both parties live up to their responsibilities as recreationists. I did a fairly lengthy post about this several months back. Those horsemen who are UNWILLING to learn to share have a few hundred miles of wilderness trails that are open to them but are closed to mountain bikes. Not only that, but I'm more than willing to bet that the "anonymous" horsemen commenting here have keys to various locked gates at the base of the Rubies. There are plenty of places for you to go, and one (1) trail for mountain bikers. This one. It's easy to avoid if you're not into sharing.