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Backpacker Magazine – December 2007

Backpacker Interview: The Trail Bandit

Rangers despise him. The law is after him. Yet in chopping down trees in an overgrown national park, Bob Garrison has become a hero to some hikers.

by: Dan Drollette


Virgin Islands National Park protects 7,000 acres of tropical jungle. Bob Garrison has spent much of the last 27 years illegally hacking it down.

Though he sounds like someone who should be serving some serious jail time, the man who unapologetically calls himself Trail Bandit is surprisingly popular on St. John. He swings a machete to clear abandoned trails leading to ruins and prehistoric petroglyphs within the park, and publishes high-quality waterproof topos. No wonder local hikers see a bit of Robin Hood in him.

Rangers, though, do not. They say his illegal clearing causes erosion, reef destruction, and theft of native artifacts. The Bandit, a wealthy, retired 65-year-old physicist and pilot from New Hampshire, considers himself a crusader liberating historic paths, and he's spent $25,000 on his controversial mission.

Why do you do this?
It's every American's right to see historic ruins on public land-land we all own. All people should be able to go look at them, and see what happened there 200 or 300 years ago. There's nothing wrong with trekking to these sites and taking pictures. I see it more like educating the public about the park's history rather than walling it off. Plus, these reclaimed trails are a way to escape the tour buses.

What's a normal day of trail clearing like?
I cut down trees and brush with a machete. I used to spray herbicide, the same brand the park service once used, to keep the vegetation from coming right back. But the park service is now definitely against herbicides, so I refrain from that.

The park service isn't a fan of your hobby, herbicide or not.
First, they asked me to stop. Then they threatened incarceration and tried to catch me in the act. Some of the terrain I've cleared is indeed risky; some has endangered species of plants or Taino Indian artifacts. The park says that with a limited budget, it can't maintain all these trails, and hikers should stay away from some particularly sensitive areas.

And your response?
I've told them that I'd do trail maintenance for free. Luckily, there's been a changing of the guard down there. Recently, I went on a hike with Mark Marshall, the new chief ranger, to inspect one of my more controversial trails, out on Cabritte Horn Point, which had been maintained in the 1960s. He's willing to listen to my point of view, but said I can't just put in a trail anywhere. So I've pretty much halted my activity until we figure out how I can maintain trails that benefit the public, and still remain within their guidelines.

Are you concerned that sensitive areas might be harmed?
The park has not had time to inventory these places, and the park archaeologist is worried people will pick up the stuff and take it home as souvenirs. But the park service has had this land for more than 50 years, and hasn't done anything with it yet. So at least I'm moving the process forward.

What inspired you to start clearing trails?
In 1978, I stumbled upon a wonderful road down to Reef Bay. Twelve years later, I couldn't find it because it was so overgrown. Then I discovered a 1958 topo showing the trail, and I was able to relocate it. I wanted to be able to find it again, so I cleared away the brush and undergrowth. Simple as that.

Is your scouting process still that simple?
Now, I use aerial photos and negatives that the USGS uses to make its maps, plus maps from the late 1700s when the Danes had sugar plantations here. Then I head out on foot with a machete and GPS. Part of the fun is finding a new ruin in the boonies. It's like an Easter-egg hunt.

What's your favorite hike on the island?
Cabritte Horn Point. It's far from the crowds, with dramatic oceanside cliffs, interesting Turk's Head cactus, and the ruins of a 1968 tektite meteor research project. Also, NASA constructed an underwater living quarters nearby, to test the effects of long-term close confinement among astronauts.

What's up with your nickname?
Maybe 10 years ago, the Appalachian Mountain Club, of which I'm a member, had an article about people who were, without authorization, reopening old trails. The article decried these people as "trail bandits." Well, I kind of liked the name.

What's next?
New Hampshire's Ossipee Mountains. I was in my plane this past spring and saw a beautiful, open granite ridge begging to be hiked. A little research with old maps told me there was an old, lost trail there called the Banana Trail. I plan on clearing it.



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READERS COMMENTS

will
Nov 12, 2011

right on Eleanor.

Allison
Aug 30, 2009

Trail moron.........good work, another 12,000 acres closed to the public. Your doing a great job.

Allison
Aug 30, 2009

Thank You Mr. Trail moron. By using other people's land as if it were your own, by cutting trees and vegation, you have just caused the removal of 1,000 acres from public use. Nice going!

Trail Bandit Hater
Aug 29, 2009

"I've told them that I'd do trail maintenance for free." Really, Trail Bandit? Really? Let's be serious. You're a 65-year-old man without much time left on this planet. And you live in Henniker, NH -- neither in the Ossipee Mountains nor in VINP. You really think your offer to do trail maintenance is taken seriously? You simply do not have the resources to maintain the trails. So don't waste our time with your superficial declarations good samaritanism. If you're getting old and finding yourself with idle hands, try the following:

Go home. Plant trees in your back yard. Cut them down. Repeat.

That should keep you busy.

Here's the latest, for whoever is interested:

http://www.concordmonitor.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090829/FRONTPAGE/908290349/1012/NEWS

SBC
May 24, 2009

We met Garrison on our property, GPS in hand without permission and demanded that he leave and also that he erase our trails. He was beligerant and offensive. Two years later he published a map that invited people onto our land and encourages them to park in our driveway. Because of his inconsiderate manner, ignorance and total disregard for our wishes we are posting our land. This will take over 1,000 acres out of reach for many who have enjoyed it. We have been stewardships of the land for over 20 years and this is the first time we have considered and in fact are following through with posting our land to the public. We are not alone in this. There are several other land owners ordering "no trespassing" sings with us. He is not a hero to the hiking world--he is their enemy because the consequenses to his actions have a deep impact on them. Others who feel the same as he does should educate themselves and realize that respect and common courtesy for the land and land owner is essential.

Eleanor Gibney
Apr 03, 2009

Mr. Garrison
Numerous times? We were in contact by e-mail once and you then did not contact me again when you were here because you heard I was sick?
No, The VI National Park is not my private sanctuary, but it IS supposed to be a sanctuary, not a place where someone can come and destroy endangered nature without consequences!
And yes, as a St. Johnian, I do feel I have a right, and indeed, an obligation, to defend my beloved home against deluded vandals. If you were not lying to the public , you'd not be getting ANYONE to glorify you. I was willing to let your previous crimes go, with the hope that you had indeed reformed, but you obviously have not. Shame on the VI NP for not prosecuting you, but mostly, shame on YOU!

Trail Bandit
Mar 11, 2009

Hi Eleanor,
I have tried numerous times to get you to educate me as to what your "rare native plants" look like.I have offered to go hike in your areas of concern. You have never responded. A National Park is open to all visitors, not just to the select few that have lived there for a long time. VINP is not your private sancuatuary. You have my address, phone number, and e-mail address if you would like to contact me. Respond once in a while, teamwork is always better.

Allison
Mar 11, 2009

Bob is just trying to help restore the trails so many people have enjoyed, so that more people can! He isn't harming you or your property back off!

Eleanor Gibney
Mar 07, 2009

I am about as "local"as you can get on St. John, and I am outraged by Mr. Garrison's activities. He has NOT confined himself to re=opening old trails. He has cut and herbicided many rare native plants...and exposed many extremely delicate areas to tourist access.If he were out knocking coral off the reef to satisfy his ego, he'd certainly be in jail! His activities can be compared to putting dynamite in a reef.

G
Feb 17, 2009

Respect for the land, where is that? There are places on this earth where man should not go. Why should an individual like the trail bandit be given any space, any validation, that what he is doing is right?

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