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Trail tactics

Zac Cavaness uses a special excavator to carve an ATV trail in the old Bull Ranch area, just north of Mount Fleecer, Tuesday afternoon. The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest contracts with companies like Cavaness’ Land Tech Montana to build trails.

Zac Cavaness understands why hikers and mountain bikers might get alarmed when they see him building trails with his excavator.

“I’ve had people freak out when they come up and see me using that machine on a trail that’s going to be non-motorized,” Cavaness said Tuesday afternoon near Mount Fleecer, southwest of Butte. “They say ‘What are you doing, building a highway in here?’ but I tell them to relax.”

And for good reason.

The torn up look of those trails gives way in a couple years to beautiful single track. For mountain bikers and hikers who need proof, they only need to bike or hike the Continental Divide Trail from Homestake to Pipestone southeast of Butte to see the results.

The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest contracts with companies like Cavaness’ Land Tech Montana to build trails. The advantages of using 

mechanical equipment versus a crew doing the construction with Pulaskis are enormous, said Jocelyn Dodge, recreation forester for the Butte Ranger District of the forest.

“You can build a trail much quicker, more efficiently,” she said. “It has a blade and a bucket and you’re moving rocks rather than blasting them, and your costs go down.”

In less rocky sections Cavaness said he can build up to 800 feet of trail per day. That goes down considerably in rocky areas, but it’s still far quicker than hand work.

For several weeks Cavaness, of Bozeman, is carving a new ATV trail in the old Bull Ranch area, just north of Mount Fleecer. A portion of the Norton Creek trail is being rerouted to avoid a piece of private land within the forest and avoid wetland areas, Dodge said.

Dodge said the old route didn’t meet the standards the Forest Service sets for trails. It includes sections that are too steep and goes through wetland areas.

The newer trail will be less steep. And when it comes to wetland areas, Cavaness installs culverts and raises the trail bed by putting in wood beams and filling with dirt.

In addition, the Forest Service uses “drain dips,” which divert water off the trail and don’t fill in with sediment like the old water bars. Dodge said they not only work better, but are cheaper to maintain.

“It protects the resource and it minimizes the annual, long-term maintenance costs,” she said.

Cavaness’ excavator is impressive the watch. The machine has a small bucket used to dig out dirt, roots and rocks. It also has a small blade that smoothes the trail.

The excavator then compacts the trail. He said once he’s passed over the route a few times it’s well established.

“It weighs about 4,000 pounds, which is far heavier than anything that will be moving on the trail,” Cavaness said. “I figure if it’s not moving around, the trail isn’t going anywhere.”

But the machine can’t do it all.

Cavaness also uses dynamite in heavily rocky areas. He said at times he expects an area to have few rocks only to find it riddled with boulders.

A freshly cut trail looks like a mess, with debris and dirt to the sides. But Dodge said because that soil is loose, the grasses in it re-root and grow up within a couple years.

Harold Lear, a local ATV enthusiast who helped lay out the route for the Norton Creek section, said the connector trails being built up are appreciated by motorized users.

“It’s not as much fun when you have to come back down the same road,” he said. “If you’ve got a nice big round loop, it’s a lot better.”


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— Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at


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