- Associated Press - Friday, October 30, 2015

Numerous primitive runs for skiing or snowboarding have been illegally cut in a national forest in northern New Mexico, including part of a wilderness area, with a federal investigator estimating that those responsible cut down approximately 1,000 trees.

The Forest Service is trying to find those responsible for the cutting spotted this fall by hikers in a high-altitude area of the Santa Fe National Forest.

The cutting of the dozen or so runs hundreds of yards long may have been going on for several years, said Mike Gardiner Jr., assistant special agent in charge for law enforcement and investigations for the southwest region.

The illegal cutting would be a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail and a fine of $5,000, said Forest Service spokesman Mark M. Chavez.

The Forest Service previously has found illegal cutting or other work for trails for snowmobiles and mountain bikes elsewhere in the country.

In Arizona, two Sedona residents pleaded guilty in 2013 to federal criminal charges for unauthorized construction of mountain bike trails on the Coconino National Forest. More recently, the owner of a Vermont inn and private ski club on Oct. 5 agreed to pay $72,000 in civil fines and restitution for unauthorized snowmobile trail work in the Green Mountain National Forest.

But Gardiner, who has worked in both the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest, said he hadn’t heard of illegal tree cutting for skiing or snowboarding runs before.

“Guys go out and create themselves a path,” Gardiner said. “They’re trying to have more fun.”

Trees have been cut on both sides of a border of the Pecos Wilderness Area. The cutting is near Lake Peak and a privately-operated ski area on leased forest land.

Gardiner said axes and saws were used to cut trees with diameters of up to 13 inches, while a wilderness activist who has seen the damage said some of the felled trees are even larger.

Mark Allison, executive director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said those responsible may have camped in the area and cut the trees at night when nobody else was likely to come around.

He said it looks like snowboarders wanted their own private runs, which he said is both breathtaking and galling.

“This is national public land and it belongs to everybody and nobody has the right to take it up themselves to do this kind of damage for their own narrow selfish interest.”

Photos provided by Gardiner show the downed trees lying flat on the ground where they’ll be covered by deep snow during the winter.

The relatively narrow runs are hard to spot from a distance, Gardiner said. “But the trained eye could see that from a helicopter.”

Gardiner said the cutting probably involves fewer than a dozen people.

“I can’t imagine it’d be a lot of people that do this,” he added. “Most people know this is wrong.”

Allison said he recently hiked into the area to observe the cutting. Some of the cuts appeared “very, very fresh,” possibly done since the Forest Service’s Oct. 1 announcement of a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.

“We’re getting more reports of this every time somebody goes up there,” Allison said. “We don’t know if they’re done yet.”

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Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show that the fine amount is $5,000, not $6,000.

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