Saturday, May 22, 2004

Placer Trails History

Many times over the more than four years' duration of this "North Fork Trails" email list there has been mention of the (famous) 1953 Placer Co. Board of Supervisors' "Trails Ordinance."

Why was a "trails ordinance" needed? Even in 1953, gates and "no trespassing" signs were becoming all too common. Hikers, hunters, anglers, and equestrians banded together and tried to secure continued use of our old trails, for themselves and for future generations. I hear that Auburn's Wendell Robie was active in the fight to protect the old trails.

This ordinance declared *all* trails depicted on U.S. Geological Survey maps in Placer County to be "public roads," and set forth misdemeanor-type penalties for closing or blocking such trails. Then, sixty trails were named and described within the text of the ordinance, to which various U.S.G.S. maps were appended.

In 1954, the controversial 1953 ordinance was rescinded, and a much weaker ordinance enacted in its place.

Always interested in history, I paid a visit to the Auburn Library this morning, to use their microfilm reader, and see what I might find in the pages of the 1953 Auburn Journal. I knew the Trails Ordinance had been passed in May, so I started there.

The Journal was a weekly at that time. In the May 14th issue one finds articles entitled "Board Backs Water Bill," "Pear Sign Up Will Begin," and "New Television Store To Hold Grand Opening." And among all these is "Action To Determine Validity of Newly Passed Trails Ordinance."

In this article we learn that *within a few minutes* of the BOS' vote, an attorney named T.L. Chamberlain filed suit in the Superior Court to overturn the ordinance. He sought and immediately obtained a temporary restraining order, preventing its enforcement. Chamberlain represented "lumber companies and other large property owners in the upper part of the county." Among others, the Nicholls Estate is mentioned; the Nicholls being a Dutch Flat banking family of the olden days, who had somehow acquired title to some two thousand acres of land in the Devils Peak area.

This land contained much of the length of the historic Snow Mountain Trail, which is one of the sixty trails explicitly described in the 1953 ordinance. Snow Mountain is a remarkable place, quite wild and untrammeled, standing several miles west of the Sierra crest, its summit just over 8000', while the North Fork American flows 4500' below. That part of the canyon is called the Royal Gorge.

The trail, over most of its length, had become a logging road, leading in past Devils Peak to Huntley Mill Lake. The Nicholls eventually gated this road back at the railroad tracks, near Kingvale. This Huntley (saw)Mill does not appear on the 1928 Tahoe National Forest map, but does appear on the 1939 map. I know nothing about it. The lake is well in towards Snow Mountain. It is a natural, glacial lake, tributary to Big Granite Creek.

I made several visits to Snow Mountain and adjacent Big Granite Canyon in the 1970s and 1980s. I remember camping on a glaciated knoll flanking Big Granite Canyon in 1972 or 73; I was by myself, the sun was lowering, and the views over the North Fork canyon were tremendous. Suddenly a low rhythmic huffing noise startled me. Its source was close, quite close, and I was sure it was a bear, come to steal my food, as had recently happened to me above Yosemite. I whirled around, expecting to see the bear a few feet away; but no, there was nothing. The grunting and huffing continued. At last I saw the source: I was being dived upon, repeatedly, by a pair of Nighthawks. The huffing noise is made by their wings as they swoop out of a dive. I must have inadvertently invaded their nesting territory; and I believe these odd, whiskered birds nest on the ground. I moved my camp a hundred yards or so and they left me alone.

On another visit I camped out on the summit of Snow, again alone, and nervous at being ten miles from the road. I chose a noble cliff-top facing north for my spot. A giant Western White Pine stood sentinel there, centuries old. A snow bank dripped water close by. I was all set, until I realized that I had unwittingly camped right beside a bear bed, at the base of that giant pine. So I moved half a mile, in the deepening dusk, to another cliff-top, the East Summit of Snow, with its little grove of Red Fir. I did not find the bear-bed I camped next to *there*, until the next morning. But I was not disturbed.

Snow has always impressed me with its game. It is so far from people, so far from I-80, or any ski resorts. At least, it was back then. But the wildlife seemed more abundant there, than anywhere I had been, in Placer County. Game trails everywhere. Once I found a rattlesnake, right on the summit, over 8000' in elevation. There is quite a jumble of large blocks of talus on parts of the summit ridge. I imagine the warrens of many mice are down below those giant angular boulders. And when there are many mice there are many snakes.

Mentioning my observations about the game out there to old-timers, I learned that Snow was famous for its game and for good hunting. And then, around 1980 or maybe 1985, I was astounded to find two Indian hunting blinds up on the summit ridge. I had only seen one before in my life, on a ridge running up towards 13,000' elevation, in the Great Basin. The two on Snow are scarcely recognizable. One is on what seems the highest of the minor summits. The other, on another little knoll. Both seem to have been torn down somewhat (these hunting blinds are just rings of boulders stacked up, about four to six feet across). Flakes of chert and obsidian and quartz, left from fashioning arrowheads, litter the interiors of the rings. Only a very careful scrutiny will reveal the flakes, however.

So for many reasons I held an almost religious reverence towards Snow. Then disaster struck, twice. I happened to be in the office of a forester who prepared timber harvest plans for Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), over in Grass Valley, about 1994, and saw photographs of petroglyphs near Snow Mountain. I inquired, and learned that a major harvest was planned out there.

I made calls to CDF, told an archeologist there about the hunting blinds, and was assured that I could write letters until I was blue in the face and never stop that harvest. I was also told of a certain formal California archive of archeological sites, which influences timber harvest plans, and thought, "Well, perhaps the harvest cannot be stopped, but at least those who should know, shall know": and I called the archive. To my chagrin I spoke to an ignoramus who told me what I had found were probably not hunting blinds, but house-sites. At 8000' elevation! And of course, it turned out that only a licensed archeologist could actually record any such site into the archive.

And I am not licensed.

The other disaster was the sale of the Nicholls Estate lands to a man named Charlie Jones. This took place, I think, around 1995, or perhaps a few years earlier. Since then some kind of mansion has been built at Huntley Mill Lake, complete with a tennis court. I hear a caretaker lives out there full-time.

It would have been an act of only average intelligence and foresight for Tahoe National Forest (TNF) to have bought the Nicholls Estate lands. The historic trails; Devils Peak, Snow Mountain; the lakes; Big Granite Canyon; it is an especially precious part of the Placer high country.

But Charlie Jones bought it, and built his mansion, and now his wife warns hikers that they are trespassing. So the Nicholls Estate's wondrous dream, of a clear title to two thousand acres of land, unencumbered, unclouded by even the shadow of a public trail; their great dream, came true. For, the genuinely useful and even inspired 1953 Trails Ordinance was rescinded.

I have been afraid to even go out to Snow since learning of the timber harvest(s) and the mansion at Huntley Mill Lake.

And today, well, I could not take the time to try to follow the painful progress of the Trails Ordinance through the Superior Court. Another day, perhaps.

I would like to see TNF try to purchase *all* the private lands out near Snow. Some sections are owned by SPI; one section, of 640 acres, by Croman lumber company; and of course there are the old Nicholls lands. Make it a multi-decade project and, at long last, get it done. Perhaps a reasonable recreation plan would to allow vehicular access up to the edge of the plateau north of Devils Peak, and let people hike in from there (and ride horses, or mountain bikes, on the logging roads, at any rate). And somewhere, out past Huntley Mill Lake, nearing Snow Mountain, but not too close to it, should be the boundary of the North Fork American Wilderness Area.

No comments: