Concord — September 7, 2009 — The Trail Bandit would like to reconsider his nickname. Bob Garrison of Henniker has made a hobby of hiking the Ossipee Mountains, GPS in hand, mapping existing trails and hunting down long-abandoned ones. He has been accused this summer of clearing trails without permission on private land and creating an “unauthorized” map of the area. He also has been threatened with legal action.
“Now I can see that that was probably not the best choice,” Garrison said of his pseudonym, which he picked up from a magazine article a few years back about a group of rogue trail makers.
A swath of 12,000 acres of forestland in the mountain region was closed to the public recently because of unauthorized trail clearing. A number of smaller landowners in the area have also posted their land.
While he takes full responsibility for creating a map of the Ossipees, Garrison won’t say what clearing he did, if any, because he is concerned about a lawsuit.
He is unapologetic about his work, though not crass. He is dismayed by the land closure and the reaction he has received but acknowledges that private landowners have a right to limit access to their land as they see fit. He has vowed not to do any trail work from now on without written permission from the landowner.
Slightly stooped and mustachioed, Garrison, 67, seems to be more like an archaeologist whose artifacts are long-lost footpaths buried beneath the tree canopies than a maniacal hiker contemptuous of the law.
The Ossipees are a beautiful and unique area, and Garrison said he wanted to map them so people know what trails are available.
“It would be nice if people had access to them and knew about them,” he said, about a particular cluster of well-maintained trails that hadn’t been mapped before.
Some landowners see it differently. They say Garrison has put them on the map – along with their driveways, bike paths created for their kids to use and private paths that lead to private campsites.
“It’s an invasion of privacy,” said Chip Bollinger of Moultonboro.
Bollinger owns about 30 acres on the ridge heading northwest from Mount Roberts with right-of-way access from his home on Route 109. He said he built a path on the land to a campsite and on toward the mountain’s peak. He has not posted his property, but he is concerned that his path, which appears to be marked as an abandoned trail, is on the map.
A group of landowners has sent a letter to the state attorney general’s office asking for clarification of what’s allowed on private land. One landowner, Susan Bryant Kimball, said she knows of eight owners who have posted their land since the map’s creation and six more who are concerned but haven’t posted yet.
The issue has received more attention since the Trails Bureau announced Aug. 27 that the vast Chocorua Forestlands – which is protected with a state-held Forest Legacy easement that promises access to hikers, hunters and other low-impact recreationalists – would be closed to the public. The land includes portions of trails that access the popular Mount Shaw.
Jeff Coombs, president of the trust that owns the property, said last week that he began finding flagged trails where there weren’t any before. Whole trees and limbs were cut and dragged into the woods, and a half mile of trail about 12 feet wide was treated with herbicide, he said. He also found new fire rings and litter.
It’s not clear who did that damage, Coombs said. But he posted the land with signs that said mapmaking of the area had put “unwanted and unwarranted pressure” on the natural habitat.
“Robert Garrison, the maker of unauthorized maps, is persona non grata on this property,” the sign read.
Garrison said he first saw the sign when it was posted next to his car while he was up for a hike.
Meet Garrison at his tiny house alongside Amy Brook on the edge of a forest that stretches to Bradford in one direction and Warner in the other, and you may think there’s not much “bandit” in him. He’s a generally likable guy with quirky hobbies.
In winter, he hikes up Pats Peak and skis down a couple of times each day. He built a medieval catapult to chuck pumpkins across a field for fun. He owns two small planes and co-owns a small airport in Henniker. He keeps a large garden there and gives much of his bounty away. He keeps stacks of maps, atlases and books about aviation and trail making and maintenance around his home computer.
Beside his very modest house sits a beautiful five-story barn inspired by Japanese architecture, with arching rooflines that come to a point at the top. It sits empty, without a purpose.
The end of the driveway is gated, which may seem ironic. Garrison said he’s been robbed three times in the past year, losing $30,000 in electrical wire left over from his business of designing power supply systems. He said he allows people fishing the brook or looking for a place to put in a canoe to come and go as they like.
Garrison started spending his vacations on St. John in the Virgin Islands in 1965. The National Park Service owns about two-thirds of the island. Because of lack of funding for maintenance, hiking trails were removed from park maps over the years. He was frustrated that trails he enjoyed disappeared as the years wore on – quickly, in the fast-growing tropical forests – and that historic carriage trails were allowed to grow over.
Using a machete and sometimes an herbicide that he said was approved for use in the park, he started clearing trails himself, “much to their dismay.” He figures that, in 10 years’ time, he cleared between 10 and 15 miles.
Garrison was at odds with the park staff for years, he said, until Mark Hardgrove took over as superintendent in September 2007. The way Hardgrove saw it, the park had a $22 million maintenance backlog and someone who was willing to work long days in the woods for free.
“He’s quite a skilled mapmaker and, with his passion for hiking, he basically wanted to adopt us,” Hardgrove said in a phone interview.
Garrison and the park staff developed a plan for the trails that he would work on as a volunteer. Garrison created a detailed map that is sold in the park store for $2, half of which is donated to the park service for trail maintenance. He also made a $5,000 donation for the same purpose, Hardgrove said.
The relationship was going smoothly until late last season. Hardgrove said Garrison veered from the trail plan and cut in an area with endangered species. He said the park will likely use Garrison’s donation to re-vegetate the area.
Hardgrove said he doesn’t think Garrison understands all the long-term affects of his clearing. There are public safety issues. For example, if a trail ventures four hours into the woods where there is no cell phone coverage, the park would need to post a sign saying so. There are major concerns about water runoff from the trails leading into the clear waters that are home to coral reefs, he said.
Hardgrove said he has talked with a U.S. attorney about the damage to the park, but he hopes to smooth things out with Garrison and get back on track with the program. Garrison hadn’t heard of any problems from Hardgrove, he said this week. But he said he would be happy to take direction about what should or shouldn’t be cut.
“We look forward to another productive partnership and another season,” Hardgrove said. “We sure need him.”
Garrison said he began exploring the Ossipees in 2001. Bushwhacking along a ridgeline, he found a trail that was marked with blazes and located it on an older map of the area. Using old and current maps of the area, he kept exploring. In some places he marked portions of a nebulous trail with surveyors tape as he tried to piece together the path. In other places, he painted over fading blazes, he said.
When he began making a map in the summer of 2006 for his own use, Garrison said he included only pre-existing trails. He said all of the trails included on the map are at least 50 years old.
Friends started asking for a copy. By January, interest had grown. He had a friend post the map online asking for corrections or additions. He heard from a couple of landowners who asked him to remove trails. In one case he deleted a trail. In another, he marked it as abandoned, he said. Garrison has printed 3,700 copies of the map and says he has sold or given away about 700.
He doesn’t agree with the idea that a map is an invasion of privacy. Nearly all of the information included on the map is available through public records and programs such as Google Earth and the state-run NH GRANIT mapping database.
Garrison’s map, titled “The Trail Bandit Map of the Ossipee Mountains of New Hampshire,” includes a long note explaining that camping and campfires are not allowed and that most of the land is private but not posted. The purpose of the map, according to the note, is to give a layout of the land “so that when you are walking along and come to some sort of intersection, you will know what goes where.”
“Try not to upset the landowners, leave a mess, or do anything that might cause them to post their land,” Garrison wrote.
Only one area of trails, those around Larcom Mountain, has not appeared on previous maps, he said. When he stumbled upon the trails off Mountain Road in South Tamworth, they were well-worn, clearly marked with yellow arrows and unposted, he said. The trails have since been posted.
“There seems to be a sentiment that locals are welcome up here and outsiders should go away,” Garrison said.
The peaks of Larcom and Little Larcom Mountain are owned by the Lakes Region Conservation Trust. Much of the surrounding land is owned by the Bemis family.
Kate Thompson, a cousin of the Bemises, lives on Mountain Road.
“There’s a hope that responsible local hikers will understand that they are still welcome,” she said.
Asked about Garrison’s feeling that outsiders aren’t welcome, Thompson said it depends on whether people treat the private land with respect. She said the region’s long tradition of welcoming people to use the land has been abused.
Joanne Haight posted her land in a subdivision off Taterboro Road in Sandwich. She was frustrated that Garrison’s map included her driveway and bike paths built for her two children.
Garrison said he respects the fact that landowners have a right to limit public access to their land. He plans to include a note with his maps saying that the Larcom trails have been posted. As for the Chocorua Forestlands, he said he thinks the easement guarantees access.
On that property, he said, “there should really not be any objection to a map.”
Coombs, president of the trust that owns the land, could not be reached for further comment this week.
Susan Francher, forest resource planner with the Division of Forests and Lands, said the closure will be temporary. State agencies are working with the landowner to come up with a plan for reopening it. In the meantime, hikers can request written permission through Coombs’s office.
In addition to trail widening and campfire building, there has been evidence of small-scale gem prospecting on the property. She said the landowner is the only party authorized to clear or alter the land.
Garrison asked Trails Bureau Chief Chris Gamache last week if he would organize a meeting with Coombs or a representative of the landowner. He wants to have a “heart-to-heart” and find out just what damage has been done, he said. Gamache said he is working to set a time for that meeting.