Sunday, October 31, 2004

Halloween Garbage Party

Ten in the morning of Halloween Day, Gay and I met Tom and Barbara Molloy, Dave Lawler, and Patrick Kavanaugh at Iron Point, for an expedition into the great canyon to clean up one of the nastiest garbage sites I have ever seen.

On the road to Iron Point, I saw the new house under construction on the 40-acre parcel above Iron Point. This parcel had had non-residential "Forest Production" zoning, which, under California law, is designed both to preserve open space and recreational opportunities for the general public, while affording the private land owner with property tax relief. The parcel is surrounded on three sides by Tahoe National Forest (TNF) lands, and touches the top of the Euchre Bar Trail, one of the most popular trails in TNF, giving access to the North Fork American Wild & Scenic River.

A prospective purchaser of the parcel applied for a Special Use Permit to construct a 2000-square-foot house on a manzanita-clad ridge crest overlooking the canyon and trailhead back in 2001, as I recall. She said she needed a house to "manage the timber" on the 40 acres. The Planning Department approved the permit. I was one of several people who wrote letters to oppose the Special Use Permit, and we expended $500 to appeal the decision. Our appeal was heard by the Planning Commission, who ruled in our favor, and withdrew the permit. The prospective purchaser hired an attorney, completed her purchase of the 40 acres, and appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

The BOS overturned the Planning Commission decision, and allowed the residential construction on the non-residential-zoned parcel. They were all in favor of it, more or less saying, "You want to bulldoze down the manzanita and plant pine trees on the steep slopes above Iron Point, and build a house overlooking the American River Canyon, a house visible from miles around? That's wonderful!"

It is the stated aim of the BOS to rename Placer County "Parcel County." In this I jest, of course, but only weakly.

The day was bright and clear and cool, and I myself had a sweater on as we started down the Euchre Bar Trail. Dave set a fast pace and I babbled about the strange distribution pattern of that strange conifer, Torreya californica, the California Nutmeg, or Stinking Yew, as we hiked along. This sharp-needled tree with its one-seeded, olive-like fruits, not held in cones at all, is found most typically in shady, cool, moist canyons, but, oddly, can also be seen on sun-blasted rocky slopes with thin soils, growing amidst Canyon Live Oaks and scrubby Bay Laurels. The genus Torreya dates from at least the Jurassic, was once widespread, and is now reduced to but a few species in small enclaves, scattered here and there around the world.

I noted that TNF does not maintain this popular trail, and that no water bars keep water from following the trail, and that this fall's storms have done more damage than I have seen in any one year since 1976. I suspect that illegal use of the trail by a gang of motorcyclists, over this past summer, exacerbated the lack of water bars, their tires cutting the trailbed. For a hundred yards at a time, or two hundred, or more, storm runoff follows right down the center of the trail, curving around switchbacks.

Hounds bayed across the canyon, as tho a bear had been treed; we could hear them most of the way down the trail. They seemed to be directly across the river from the base of the trail. They howled as we arrived, and howled as we left. Their owners were no doubt slamming down Budweisers up on Elliot Ranch Road, 2000 feet above the river and a mile or so south.

Perhaps a hundred yards past the old house site near the bottom of the trail, we broke hard left on a faint trail which leads onto an old mining ditch. This ditch took its waters from the North Fork of the North Fork, and seems to have served only the small hydraulic diggings at Euchre Bar itself. For many decades it has served as a trail leading up into the North Fork of the North Fork (NFNFAR), which joins the main North Fork just upstream from the Euchre Bar Trail.

In about a half mile we reached the garbage site. Here it seems that a cabin had been built, a hundred years ago or more, right in the line of the ditch; portions of its dry-laid stone fireplace and other stone work remain. Various lengths of black plastic pipe were scattered about. We had already accumulated a wheelbarrow, a foam mattress, and sundry other garbage before even reaching The Site.

The Site is on old terraces, likely built a century-and-a-half ago directly above a gravel bar beside the NFNFAR. Two motorcycles, various engines, parts of gold dredges, white PVC pipe and black plastic pipe, and an almost incredible amount of just plain junk, trash, garbage, littered a broad area.

A strange sort of basin or pool lined with rotting tarps had been made on the edge of the river; Patrick said it looked like a meth lab operation, tho I myself can't say why that would be. The tarps were anchored with many heavy boulders which had to be rolled aside before the slimy dripping shreds could be pulled free. That was quite a job in itself.

The five of us set to work and gathered the gigantic mess into a few main piles on the old terraces, which stand above high water levels, bagging up the small stuff. We worked hard for about four hours before wending our way slowly up and out of the tremendous canyon, quite lovely in the slanting golden rays of afternoon light. The NFNFAR had quite a respectable flow; we never even saw the main North Fork. The renowned Steve Hunter and a friend happened by on the old ditch trail, peered down at our ant-like industry, and passed by, wise enough to stay clear of a ton of nasty work.

The aim of all this was to ready the garbage for removal by a helicopter. We made a good job of it, but the very process of loading the helicopter's cargo net will itself be strenuous and time-consuming. One the miserable mess is gone, innumerable fragments of plastic, odd beer cans, pieces of rotten tarp, etc., can be gleaned from the forest floor and packed out.

I stayed behind for a time, tying off some of the garbage bags, discovering another foam mattress and carrying it up to our piles on the terraces, picking up beer cans from a thicket of poison oak. As I left, I met Steve and his friend Dan, who had been fly fishing and releasing their catch, up and down the NFNFAR. We chatted for a while before they went their way and I went mine.

The North Fork of the North Fork American well deserves Wild & Scenic River designation. A mile upstream from The Site is the old Rawhide Mine, where a small patch of private property blocks access to a historic public trail climbing to the crest of Sawtooth Ridge. Tahoe National Forest should purchase the Rawhide Mine, and clean up its own particular gigantic mess of garbage, which as it is now, is washed down the river during flood events. The NFNFAR is littered with Rawhide garbage all the way down to the North Fork, and, I would imagine, the main river has its own portion of junk washed down from this same source. So. Let's encourage TNF to buy the Rawhide, clean up the giant mess, and open up the old trail.

We reached the top of the trail around four o'clock. It had been a rather fine day down in the great canyon, as usual. I hope that somehow funds can be found to get a helicopter in there soon. The Site is a very pretty place, or will be, once the garbage is gone.

No comments: