Ossipee Range Lands Reopen; ‘Trail Bandit’ at Bay

Concord — December 10, 2009 — Thousands of acres in the Ossipee Mountains have been reopened to the public after four months under restricted use. Several landowners posted their properties this summer in response to users clearing unauthorized trails and uploading online maps that identified the new routes.

The decision to reopen portions of the privately owned land stemmed from an agreement between Chocorua Forestlands, a forest products company that owns 12,000 acres in the Ossipee region, and Henniker resident Bob Garrison, who calls himself the “Trail Bandit.”

Within the agreement, Garrison admitted to marking trails, cutting vegetation and applying herbicides on private land without owners’ permission. He also created maps, among them “The Trail Bandit Map of the Ossipee Mountains of New Hampshire,” which he sold on the internet and to local retail outlets.

The affected property, which is maintained by the state under conservation easement, includes the Mount Shaw and Bayle Mountain hiking trails and other recreational sites. Under the agreement, signs will be posted explaining which activities – hunting, fishing, skiing, nature observation and snowmobiling, for example – can take place without landowner permission, according to Chris Gamache, chief of the state Trails Bureau. Garrison is no longer allowed on the property, Gamache said.

“Ultimately, it was Chocorua Forestlands that was willing to open the land again after a couple of provisions were made,” Gamache said. “Garrison had made some admissions of activities on the property, and in exchange for the property reopening, it was ultimately agreed that no one was going to go after him for those admissions.”

Garrison agreed not to enter onto private land in New Hampshire to mark, map or locate trails without permission of the landowner, and he can no longer produce maps of private land in the state. In exchange, the state agreed to discontinue its investigation against Garrison, according to the agreement. The state attorney general’s office will monitor his compliance.

Chocorua Forestlands President Jeff Coombs on Monday declined to discuss details of the agreement but said users’ activities had forced the company to temporarily restrict access. Coombs went to the state in June after finding trails had been cleared, in some cases with herbicides. There were also campfire pits and beer bottles littered on the mountaintops, he said.

“We like people using our land, but we want them to recognize that it’s a privilege,” Coombs said. “We’re really being good stewards of the land here. We got a lot of criticism for (posting the land).”

Garrison, who could not be reached for comment this week, has a website called trailbandit.org with maps of trails in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. He told the Monitor in August that he wanted to map the Ossipees so people would know what trails were available.

When Garrison published the Ossipee map, he included a note explaining that most of the land was private and that camping and fires were not allowed. He urged users to “try not to upset the landowners, leave a mess or do anything that might cause them to post their land.” The map is no longer on his website.

Coombs said monitoring such a vast parcel of land is difficult and said he found another unauthorized trail that had been cleared last week. Some of the neighboring landowners have decided to keep their land posted.

“They just don’t think the risk is worth opening the land up again,” he said. “They don’t want it open to renegades that are treating it with no respect at all.”

Jason Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, said yesterday about 5,000 acres around the Ossipee Mountains will remain posted. The association represents a number of landowners in the area who took issue with Garrison’s trailblazing tactics, he said.

Many landowners are reluctant to reopen their properties because they’re not covered by the agreement and are still concerned Garrison or others may “pick up the torch and continue to run with it on their properties.”

The bigger issue highlighted by the ordeal, Stock said, is that there are no clear parameters for what’s acceptable on private land accessible to the public – namely what can be removed from it. When Garrison made the Ossipee maps and published them on the internet, it felt like an invasion of privacy for some landowners, he said. But there’s no specific law against it.

“The fact that (Garrison) came out and admitted what he did is really important, but this kind of begins to set the stage for how we deal with this issue on a more general basis,” Stock said. “What can you remove from that property? That’s the gray area. There needs to be some clarity in terms of what is acceptable.”

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