Around 40 outdoor enthusiasts gathered at the Outward Link Trail on Sunday morning (Sept. 19) along Paseo del Cañon in Taos, but not just to spend the day outdoors.
Instead, they had gathered to protest a nearby homeowner's ongoing efforts to block access to a portion of the trail crossing into their property, despite the existence of an easement established 15 years ago so that it could be shared with the public.
Petitions and flyers with information about the trail and its easements were passed around at 9 a.m. as people began to gather, but Liz and Lore Bamberg, the homeowners who recently purchased the land in question to put a stop to what they have said has become an unreasonable nuisance near their home, did not appear.
The Bambergs have owned a property through which the trail runs since 1995, but due to the recent increase in traffic, they decided to purchase an adjacent parcel of land containing the current parking lot and unofficial start of the trailhead with the hope of closing off the easement altogether.
Local resident and organizer of the event Spencer Bushnell opened the gathering with a statement that defies the Bambergs' challenge to the validity of the easement allowing hikers access to the trail. “Our message is simple this morning. The trail remains open. It was never closed, it's existed for 15 years legally. We support the respectful use of the trail," Bushnell said. He also called on the town and county of Taos to “do whatever is in their power to ensure access to this trail and to continue to protect it.”
He said that another property recently purchased east of Outward Link Trail showed the existence of the easement as well, and noted that the property owners who originally agreed to it with the town did so knowing it was meant to continue "in perpetuity," which are the exact words used on the easement agreement itself.
Still, the homeowners have maintained that it's within their legal right to close this part of the trail down.
John Hutchinson, another organizer of the Sunday protest event said that what had started as a protest ride of about “12 to 15 mountain bikers” turned into “a whole giant rally.” As someone who frequents the trail, he said he has seen the impact of the trail closure firsthand, including its effect on local students from Taos Charter School. Others have pointed out that the only alternative entrance is the El Nogal trailhead, which is just shy of a mile down the road and would likely be much more difficult to access, especially for older people trying to make use of Outward Link Trail.
Local town council member Darien Fernandez and Kristina Ortez, the chief executive officer of Taos Land Trust and District 42 representative in the New Mexico House of Representatives, were in attendance. Fernandez said he was there to stand up for the public right to access a trail that has “been a part of our [trail] network for 15 years.”
In a town council meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 14) the council directed town attorney Stephen Ross to begin pursuing legal action to maintain that “public lands remain in public hands,” said Fernandez. The Bambergs, however, have not said whether they plan to pursue legal action on the matter.
Fernandez referenced other attempts to close public trails in recent history. “Unfortunately across the west we see efforts by landowners all the time to restrict access to public sections, whether it's on the river, or a couple years ago in the case with White’s Peak just a little north of us,” he said, referring to another land use squabble that's been ongoing for more than 50 years.
Fernandez encouraged the Bambergs to be “good neighbors” and to “work with the community, not against it.” He said the closing of the trail sends “an unfortunate message that certain trail segments and portions of our outdoors are not open to everyone in the community.”
Ortez said she was there to learn more about the legal situation and to “do more research on where the easements are, what it looks like, and who owns this part,” she said referencing the makeshift parking lot where the blockade is currently located. Overall, she called the situation “distressing."
“This is our community and this is a well-loved trail. Most importantly, it’s well-loved by the students at Taos Charter [School], who walk up here every Wednesday.” Like Fernandez, Ortez is also seeking an amicable solution. “I'm hopeful and confident we'll find a solution that makes everybody happy.”
Taos Charter School, who has been using the trail since they moved to their location on Paseo del Cañon 15 years ago, said they have been impacted by the closure in several ways, including blocking off access to their physical education class, which walks there every Wednesday, and their cross country team, which regularly uses the trail for practice.
Taos Charter School director Jeremy Jones said even after a confrontation in which the Bambergs called his staff “bullies,” they will continue using the trail until official legal action is taken. “If we're told we're trespassing, then we'll absolutely comply with a legal order, but it seems to be in dispute right now.”
Jones said he felt the issue should be solved at the town or county level. “Harassing people isn't the best solution. It needs to be a legal solution that everyone can comply with," he said.
But the Bambergs still contest the legality of the easement, which they maintain won’t hold up in a court of law. Lore Bamberg made clear that she was not against trail users, but rather the disruption to her private property. “I've got nothing against the people who are using the trail. Many of these could potentially be my friends. It's the sheer volume and the fact that it's the number of people who've been coming through that just became too much.”
Bamberg said since the pandemic began, use of the trail access next to their property has exploded. She blames this in part on the fact the trail is now listed in Google searches.
She said with the proposal of the Talpa Ridge Trail System by the Enchanted Circle Trails Association, she foresees a bottleneck in trail traffic. “This 10-foot wide easement is going to be so impactful, and it is completely unrealistic to believe that you could put that many people through here,” she said.
Legally, Bamberg has several issues with the trail, for which she said there is no record of an easement on the deed for her property. “It’s because the town did not follow proper procedures in putting it in the first place,” she said.
Her opponents have argued that the resolution signed between the Resh family and the town of Taos in 2004 is a legally binding easement they expect to hold up in court.
Tamara Brown, another person who showed up to protest the challenge to the easement on Sunday, said she has been walking on the trail for the past 15 years at least three or four times per week. “I'm sure the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps is not going to build a trail where there is private property without any permission,” she said.
High school students Isabella O’Donnell Silfverburg and Harper Higdon said they were there to help protect a trail they have used nearly all their lives. “I've been coming here like my whole life, that's where I learned how to walk. So it would just be nice to continue walking here,” said Silfverburg.
Higdon said that he was part of the Taos High School Mountain Bike composite team and rode the trail “every other day in the training season.” He said he thought it was unfortunate that “people are being upset about stuff like this.”
Higdon’s father, Brad Higdon said he also uses the trail several times a week, and emphasized its importance for the whole of the community. “This free access to our public lands should be a really critical community value because it's so important to our, our well, our health and our quality of lives.”
Loren Bell, president of the Taos Mountain Bike Association, also expressed the trail’s importance to the local high school mountain biking team. “We can’t all park at El Nogal because there’s not enough room. Really the only way to get safely onto the trail is to utilize the Outward Link Trail.”
Bell encouraged those gathered to “speak out, and write letters to our representatives.” He made clear that by the books, the parking lot off of Paseo del Cañon where they were gathered was not an official parking lot, and clarified “the official trail head for the Outward Link Trail is the Youth & Family Center.”
Kari Malen, another Taos resident and Loren Bell’s wife, said she appreciated the accessibility of the trail, especially when it came to older folks’ access to outdoor recreation. “This is one of the few places around town and within reach that I can take my mother. Most of the trails in Taos are super steep and just inaccessible,” she said, referencing the El Nogal trailhead. “I think it's unfair for somebody who has the privilege to purchase the land to then take away access to everybody else.”
Aleksandar Kostich, lead public defender in Taos, was also in attendance. He said he was there to support the continued access to a trail he described as "essential."
While Kostich noted that he does not specialize in property law, he said he felt that the Bambergs were in “a weak position in a couple of different ways" – in light of the previous agreement with the Resh family. He said any legal dispute would likely prove the legality of the easement.
Kostich also said an argument for a prescriptive easement could be made, which establishes an easement that has been in existence for over 10 years.