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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.

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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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