Longtime fans of the Devisadero Peak trail in the Carson National Forest noticed something missing in mid-May: several chairs built of stone. The iconic chairs, which had been there for decades, had been dismantled and removed by the Forest Service.
The chair removal has been controversial among hikers and runners, but it was in keeping with the federal agency's commitment to "Leave No Trace."
When we go to the forest, we are often seeking a natural experience of beauty and peace. To preserve that experience, the Carson National Forest adopted Leave No Trace principles that say, "It's up to all of us to minimize our impact, to travel softly, leaving no trace of our visit so that future generations can enjoy the woods and mountains we all love."
While the philosophy is a good one, the Forest Service action to the human-made stone chairs on Devisadero has raised questions about what constitutes a natural feature.
Leave No Trace principles
Craig Saum, Carson trails planner, oversaw the dismantling of the stone chairs on top of Devisadero Peak that was undertaken by staff and a group of volunteers in mid-May. "This wasn't an easy decision. We understand that the stone chairs are something that particularly the locals enjoyed,"Saum said. "The two primary reasons for the removal was visitor safety and resource protection, which includes the preservation and restoration of natural aesthetic."
He pointed out that the Carson, as well as Bureau of Land Management and numerous other natural management agencies, have reached a consensus that Leave No Trace guidelines are appropriate to help preserve public lands in a natural state for the enjoyment of all.
As part of the work on Devisadero, the Forest Service crews made improvements to the trails and installed new signs along the trail and at the peak. "With our volunteer crew, we were trying to do some good," said Saum. "Our trails improvement projects demonstrate how committed we are to our community. We've had volunteers come from as far away as Socorro, Albuquerque and Santa Fe."
When the crew dismantled the chairs, they were able to pick up litter and remove a mouse nest from underneath the chairs. Saum pointed out that the chairs provided a food rich environment for snakes, and removing the chairs reduced the danger of a child being bitten by a snake or coming into contact with hantavirus, carried by mice. "The CNF is not in a position to assume liability for user-built structures," he added. "I think overall that this is the right professional decision."
For some hikers, the removal of the chairs came as a shock. One hiker who was on the trail the day of the removal spoke to the forest service crew and was upset with the action. Others say that they will miss the stones as a place to sit after the hike to the peak. "It was a cool thing up there," frequent hiker Michael Povilaitis said. "Like sitting on the throne after conquering the climb."
Local runner and painter Bruce Katlin said he misses the stone chairs. "I imagine that some thoughtful and creative soul or souls put a lot of time and effort into the design and construction of the two stone pieces of furniture that provided respite in the shade. This is a good example of where government bureaucracy needs to be more flexible."
"The chairs were constructed from the minerals that are part of the forest itself," Katlin added ."I can't imagine that anyone, locals or tourists, who saw and enjoyed the chairs, thought that they should be removed."
Several hikers raised questions about why scarce resources would go to dismantling the stone chairs when there are so many needs in the forest, such as removing downed trees on trails or expanding the El Nogal parking lot, which is often overflowing.
A question remains about the age of the chairs and if they may constitute a historic structure. "The chairs were certainly more than 50 years old. Removal violated what I understand is a 50-year policy; that is structures older than 50 years are to left alone," said David L. Witt, art curator and wildflower expert.
He added, "By scattering the rocks over the summit, they destroyed areas of vegetation that had previously survived in a much-visited area."
The Carson does have a policy that applies to structures that have been in place for a long time. "We consider 50 years old as enough to be eligible to be called historic when we are encountering artifacts, features and archaeological sites. However, an item would have to be recognized through consultation with the Historic Preservation Division as being considered significant enough, based on predetermined criteria for preservation," explained Carrie Leven, archaeologist for the Questa District of the Carson. Usually, the item or structure has to maintain its own integrity, meaning that the original structure is represented, rather than having new items added to it and altering it.
Saum confirmed that a tall cairn of rocks at the top might also violate the Leave No Trace philosophy, but that a snake rattled at him from the cairn, and he decided it was best to leave it in place. Saum said that cairns can be useful on trails as a way to mark the path through meadows and in other situations where it might be hard to follow the trail.
The use of cairns leads to a host of questions, including the appropriateness of trail signs and plaques like the one on top of Wheeler Peak. In the past the Forest Service also left marks on trees, known as blazes, to help hikers find their way, although that practice is rarely used today. Trail signs, cairns or blazes can be a welcome indication that a hiker or runner is on a trail and not lost. And while petroglyphs are clearly not a natural feature, they are now seen as important cultural artifacts worth preserving.
Forest Service improvements
The removal of the stone chairs and trail improvements at Devisadero are part of several recent improvement projects undertaken by the forest service. Volunteers helped clear out deadfall from the Garcia Park area on South Boundary Trail.
"We had a strong turnout of 15 volunteers and that allowed us to clear out this area. It was the first time we have gotten out there this early in the season," pointed out Saum. Forest Service crews have also finished adding 21-mile markers and other directional signs on South Boundary Trail, and the El Nogal parking lot that serves South Boundary and Devisadero Trails received 25 dump truck loads of new surfacing recently as well.
Saum said "I'm proud of everyone who has made a contribution. There may be differing opinions, but I feel we did the right thing on Devisadero by returning it to a state of natural beauty."
The Carson National Forest, except for the Jicarilla Ranger District, was closed to the public Wednesday (June 27) until moisture conditions improve and fire risks are reduced, according to forest officials. When the forest does reopen, here is the way to reach the trail.
Devisadero Trail (Carson National Forest Trail No. 108) begins across U.S. 64 from El Nogal parking lot, located just under three miles from the intersection of Kit Carson Road (US 64) at Taos Plaza. It is a mostly moderate climb with some steeper sections. At about a half-mile, the trail divides. Go right for a steeper, shorter climb and left for a longer more gradual hike with more shade.
The trail gains approximately 1,100 feet and the total loop is about five miles through juniper, piñon, cholla, and blooming yellow cactus. Even though this is a busy trail, it is peaceful at the top with birds and butterflies visible in the forest near the peak. There are views from the trail north to Taos Mountain and west towards town. The trail borders private land in sections, so stay on the trail to avoid crossing onto private land. It gets hot here during the summer, so an early morning or evening hike will likely be the most enjoyable.
For more information
To contact the Carson National Forest, visit the website at fs.usda.gov/carson, call (575) 758-6200 or stop by the office at 208 Cruz Alta Road, Taos.