Saturday, July 30, 2005

More Otters

Of otters and the North Fork I received this:

Hi Russell, Mike Case here. Jason and I saw a otter at the end of Green
Valley in the pool at the big log that is wedged up against that giant
boulder. That was 2 years ago. Sounds like they are multiplying!

And this:

Last spring (2004) I was with a small group on the North Fork at the bottom of the Windy Point trail when we saw a pair of river otters. One slipped into the river from a rock and caught our attention. After that we watched them swim up river and play in the pools for several minutes. It was the first time I had ever seen river otters in any of the forks of the American River. Regards, Paul Whiting

Wow, that's really great, the North Fork is getting its otters back!

I like children's books, and one of my favorite authors is Brian Jacques, with his wonderful Redwall series. And in his world of Redwall Abbey, and the hollow volcano Salamandastron, and Mossflower Wood, otters are the good guys, the best of fellows.

Aye, matey!

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Big Granite Trail, yet again

This morning Catherine O'Riley and I drove up to the Big Granite Trail, via I-80, Yuba Gap exit, Lake Valley Road, Forest Road 19, and finally Forest Road 38 past Huysink Lake to the head of the trail.

Our goal was to clear brush etc. from the trail, which has been severely damaged, obliterated in places, by logging by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), the largest private landowner in California.

There is a lot of work which remains to restore this fine old trail. We worked on the Four Horse Flat section (see the USGS Cisco Grove 7.5 minute quadrangle). Absolutely plagued by hordes of mosquitos, we walked and lopped and lopped and walked back and forth and back and forth along a quarter-mile of trail. Here at least it was not bulldozers rampaging through the forest which had erased the trail, but merely the passage of time, and the complete cessation of the cycle of frequent wildfires which had shaped this ecosystem for so many centuries, until at last we were able to stop the fires.

Now a million trees struggle higher into the light, year by year, especially if a given area has been logged.

And now Four Horse Flat is much more forest than meadow. Once it was more meadowy. Now, thousands of young White Fir and Lodgepole Pine and Quaking Aspen cover acre after acre of old meadow land.

Tahoe National Forest was formed just before 1900. I have tried to understand how it could be that the wildlands of Placer County could be given over to logging without regard to the old, historic trails. Hence the history of Tahoe National Forest (TNF) has been a constant interest, and I have accumulated a series of maps which shed light on the evolution, or devolution, of TNF.

For it does not always happen that a person or a bureaucracy improves over time. There is always the chance that things get worse.

Such seems to be the case with TNF.

I have maps from 1901, 1928, 1939, 1947, 1962 and 1966, and 1995-2003. It is a strange thing: the old-time trails of TNF have been disappearing from the maps. The last good trails map dates to the 1962 printing, and subsequent revisions. It does not show *all* the trails, but most all of the main trails are shown.

TNF policies changed over the decades. Not until after WWII did the most far-flung expansion of logging and logging roads commence. The way I think of it, there were your "old-time" TNF rangers, who actually walked and maintained the trails, blazed the trees with their "small i" blazes, and made sure that sheep and cattle were not over-grazing the meadows, and that timber harvest on private lands did not encroach upon TNF lands.

These old-time rangers were guardians of The Public. Never for one moment did these old-time rangers doubt The Public's right to use the historic trails which criss-crossed the Forest, despite the fact that almost every trail passed from public, TNF lands, into private, Railroad lands.

For the trails pre-dated the Railroad. Hence, these old trails were public. They represented the existing state of public transportation, prior to the transfer of title of the odd-numbered sections, said transfer occurring in the 1870s, for the most part (although the enabling legislation was signed by President Lincoln in 1862 and 1864).

Yes, Congress lavished many tens of thousands of acres of The Public lands upon the Central Pacific Railroad. Had The South not seceded and spawned the long-awaited Civil War, Congress would have continued hamstrung and unable to ever settle upon one particular route for the Pacific Railroad, the road which would at last connect East to West and make one gigantic nation from the far-flung fragments.

But the streamlined wartime Congress was able to get it done. This meant that the builders of the Central Pacific would be rewarded with an enormous empire of land, square mile after square mile.

After WWII came the time to use diesel-powered bulldozers to blade thousands of miles of new roads into timbered regions always before beyond the reach of loggers, and cut the heavy timber our grandfathers could only dream of reaching.

So, in the 1950s, TNF devolved, from a bunch of rangers looking out for The Public, to a bunch of timber monkeys drawing up plans for more and more roads and more and more logging.

Who needed *foot trails* in the day of Atomic Energy? No one. Roads were so much better,

And so the old trails were used, not by people, but by bulldozers, to drag logs here and there.

And one by one the trails disappeared, obliterated beneath the heavy, the deeply-churning tread of the bulldozer.

In 1953, citizens of Placer County saw their old trails disappearing, either ruined outright by bulldozers, or simply gated off by the owners of summer cabins and such-like "improvements." The Public went to the Supervisors and a Trails Ordinance was enacted, protecting all these historic trails from damage or from gates.

The Big Granite Trail was one of these newly-protected trails.

Within minutes of the passing of this Trails Ordinance, a lawsuit seeking an immediate injunction against its enforcement was filed, on behalf of various large land-owners in Placer County.

Fast forward to 1954: the 1953 Ordinance was struck down, in favor of a much weaker Ordinance which did not declare any particular trail to be Public, but which said, more or less, "if a trail is already Public, then so shall it remain."

It is quite a shame that the 1953 Trails Ordinance was rescinded. The underlying philosophy was just that which had guided TNF rangers for so many decades: if a trail pre-dated the Railroad, it was a Public Trail; end of story. I imagine that if the trails court cases of the late 1960s and early 1970s had been tried and appealed already in 1953, the 1953 Ordinance would not have been rescinded. The same kind of criteria the justices of our Appeals Courts employed then, would have proved every trail listed in the 1953 Ordinance, a public trail.


I am quite sure that many a scholarly treatise might be written about the changes in our National Forests, in the 1950s and 1960s. Somehow, some way, the Forests changed from rangers maintaining trails to rangers selling more and more timber and cutting more and more roads.

It might have been around 1955 or 1960, I guess, when residents of Cisco gated off The Grade, the road leading up to Huysink Lake (and hence, the Big Granite Trail). Perhaps we can catch TNF in its transition between rangers-who-protect-trails, and rangers-who-sell-timber-and-build-roads, at this time: for a beaten-up old sign can be seen near Big Bend, reading "Big Granite Trail. Huysink Lake, 4. North Fork American, 13."

That is, we detect some effort, around 1955, on the part of TNF, to ensure continued public access to the Big Granite Trail.

Back to the general pattern, tho.

By the late 1960s, The Public had seen more than enough. The Sierra Club and others worked hard on this issue, and the RARE inventory ensued.

This "Roadless Area" inventory was thrust upon all our National Forests. For, how could it be, that here, there, everywhere, our wildlands were being given over to roads and timber harvests? So, in the first place, what roadless lands are left to us?

The first RARE was done poorly, and legal action brought RARE II, a second inventory.

In the early 1970s, the North Fork American Roadless Area was mapped at about 48,000 acres, the largest unprotected Roadless Area in Placer County, a remarkable beast, extending through the Royal Gorge and on down and west to Giant Gap itself, and the west boundary of Tahoe National Forest.

In other words, the North Fork canyon does not lend itself to roads.

By this time, some logging had likely already occurred near Pelham Flat and out toward Sugar Pine Point, on the railroad lands. This is suggested by the first appearance of a road running past Pelham to Sugar Pine Point, on the 1966 revision of the 1962 TNF map of this area. It is confirmed by the position of the Roadless Area boundaries on the TNF ~1976 RARE II map.


Ah, but the whole story is too long to tell: how the first road reached Huysink Lake before 1901, on the divide between the North Fork American to the south and the South Yuba to the north.

The whole story would record that Bernard Huysinck (yes, with a "c") lived in Dutch Flat, that he loved the mountains and hiked the trails and fished the streams and hunted the forests and would drop off a quarter of deer or a creel of trout at his friends' houses in Dutch Flat, back in the 1880s: or that Huysinck's "shapely head" was adversely agitated by the thunderous clank of the stamp mill crushing heavily cemented auriferous gravel, in Dutch Flat, in the late 1890s.

But we have no time for that!

Today we parked at 6600' elevation, in a pass on the Sugar Pine Point ridge, which divides Big Valley on the west from Little Granite Creek on the east. The forest was most all Red Fir, with a scattering of Lodgepole and Jeffrey pines. Mountain Alder spread in an impenetrable tangle across small ravines, where water could be heard gurgling along. Many flowers were in bloom, many butterflies and bumblebees visited those flowers, and an almost overwhelmingly sweet scent filled the forest air as we descended the old trail.

A scattering of clouds briefly combined somehow to rain, the droplets kicking up dust and sparkling in the bright sunshine. Not a murmur of thunder was heard. Quite odd.

Note: there is no sign, reading "Big Granite Trail. North Fork American River, 6 miles," up in the pass, at the current trailhead.. There is, instead, a bit of a log deck, and log-truck turn-around, where parking may be had, and a road forking south from FR 38, recently bulldozed anew by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). This is the trail. After SPI put in water bars, it presents the appearance, now, of a heap of dirt.

Walking in flowery perfume we passed the Hunters' Camp and reached the foot trail proper, running down into a fine tract of first-growth Incense Cedar, Red Fir, and White Fir. A light selective harvest had taken place in 1990, by SPI. Unfortunately, the Big Granite Trail was severely damaged then, by road-building, skid trails, and log deck construction.

It seems to me that Tahoe National Forest should have taken much care to protect this historic trail, in 1990 or thereabouts, when the first roads were cut into Four Horse Flat, and up Little Granite Creek on the line of the old Cherry Point Trail. TNF receives copies of such Timber Harvest Plans before they are approved by CDF.

Actually, I cannot believe that an intense effort was not made to purchase these lands, before SPI could set saw and bulldozer against them.

For this is one of those old Railroad sections, this Section 9, Township 16 North, Range 13 East (if I recall), and when Southern Pacific sold off its lands, around 1985, they passed first to High Sierra Properties, and thence to SPI.

Of course this is that same SPI famous for clear-cutting, along the Ebbetts Pass Road and all over California, including our own Sawtooth Ridge, near Helester Point. A horror!

Why we The People and Tahoe National Forest did not act to acquire these Railroad lands, in the 1980s when they were cheap, I cannot understand.

So. The Big Granite Trail was first damaged badly around 1990, by SPI logging.

Trail users were forced onto a logging road for a quarter-mile, thence onto a second road via a hard left, and then shortly thereafter, a hard right led back onto the old historic trail, at the west end of Four Horse Flat.

The critical point where hikers were forced onto the upper logging road was at a certain log deck. The old foot trail had been buried beneath slash and granite boulders feet across, during construction of the deck.

Over the last few years, I have repeatedly explored the section between the log deck and the west end of Four Horse Flat, and have gradually, gradually been able to discover the original line of the Big Granite Trail.

It is worth recovering and preserving for a number of reasons:

1. It is the "true" line of the historic trail.
2. It completely avoids the log deck and most all the logging roads, having only to cross the lower road on a slant, and to follow no road.
3. It allows restoration and recovery of the old connector trail across to the Cherry Point Trail, in Four Horse Flat.

So we planned on dropping down the forested hillside just before the Log Deck. The line of the trail had been discovered, down to Four Horse Flat, just a few hundred yards below and south. It is difficult to follow the trail, the ~1990-era slash and boulders have buried it deeply in places.

We descended the problematic trail to the large granite boulder on the upper north edge of Four Horse Flat. Our principal agenda was to open the trail from this Big Boulder, south and west to the Crossing of the Lower Logging Road.

Mosquitos and biting flies were out in major force. We walked back and forth and back and forth, lopping branches and hauling them well off the trail to hide them, thus leaving the trail in a natural appearance.

Various old "small i" blazes mark the trees along the trail.

After re-opening the old trail, we rested and then explored south and east from Big Boulder, where some Quaking Aspen trees were carved with old names and dates.

Here we expected to find a trail connection across Little Granite Creek and its various tributaries and, possibly, distributaries, in a large flood plain. The drier parts of the flood plain had groves of conifers, but the wetter areas were either meadows, or sustained a thick growth of small Lodgepole Pine and Aspen.

Across the meadowy floodplain to the southeast, then, was a vestige of the historic Cherry Point Trail.

Below Big Boulder are many small Aspen, and a couple large Aspen. These large old trees have the inscriptions. Some dated back to 1948, and 1951, where I saw the surname DeBusk, and the Christian names of several DeBusks.

To Google DeBusk + "Placer County" is to find that a certain Wilbur DeBusk of Colfax was killed in action in Korea, in 1952.

There were many names, and many illegible. Some may have been Basque. And then there was the bear graffiti: four grooves from four claws, here, there, everywhere on the Aspen trunks, with their nearly white bark. Sometimes the bear scratches were high above the ground.

Crossing a tiny stream, we found more large Aspens, more names and dates. And then by wandering widely and trying every avenue we eventually discovered a chain of inscribed Aspen trees leading right across the entire flood plain, to the Cherry Point Trail, and one last hieroglyphic tree.

This "Aspen Trail" connecting the Big Granite and Cherry Point trails is not quite correctly shown on the Cisco Grove quadrangle. And the quadrangle does not show the southwestern course of the Big Granite Trail through Four Horse Flat, at all!

We returned along Aspen Trail to Big Boulder and then made a farewell visit to the section of trail, scarce a quarter-mile in length, which we had worked upon. We walked south and west to the Lower Road Crossing, where a small sign reading "Big Granite Trail" is affixed to a tree. During our return, we spotted an old Tahoe National Forest sign marking the fork between the Big Granite Trail and Aspen Trail. Unfortunately, the actual signs themselves, 2X6s no doubt, had been ripped off, and we could not find them in nearby thickets, much as we looked.

I suspect that this sign is of the exact same vintage as the sign at Big Bend, mentioned above. That is, from about 1955.

We also saw some trees which had fallen across the trail and then been sawed clear by TNF, quite a long time ago, by the looks of the cuts. So, what: maintain the Big Granite Trail until 1955, and then, give up on it completely? Is that the TNF policy?

Returning to Big Boulder, we put our packs on and hiked up the old trail, stopping often to toss debris and slash to the side, and lopping small trees from the trailbed if possible. Unfortunately, parts of this section remain about impassable and are hard to follow.

The uppermost section of the trail was a nightmare of mosquitos. No amount of repellent would repel these ferocious beasties. By their quickness alone they would win through, and sink their blood-sucking beaks into our arms, our eyebrows, our eyelids, our lips. But there was not only one quick mosquito. There were five, or ten, or twenty, or fifty, very quick mosquitos, hovering around each of us. They loved going through the back of the shirt. I walked up the nightmarishly bulldozed logging roads in a constant sweating and swatting exercise, batting head and neck and arms and back as best I could, hoping, praying with every breath, that mosquitos were dying under the constant sharp slaps of my straw hat.

My arms were dark with dirt and sweat and crushed mosquitos and blood.

Much as we accomplished today, much more remains undone. Some kind of work party will become necessary. The repair of the 2004 SPI logging damage will be a terribly hard job, to do well, anyway. The 1990 damage above Big Boulder is not quite so bad. Some rather large tree trunks block the trail in places. A chainsaw with a 36" bar would not be amiss.

Just because TNF did not purchase Section 9 (and Section 17, and so many others) in 1985, does not mean they should not purchase it (or them) now.

So please, TNF, see to it.

By the same token, CDF should not allow historic trails to be bulldozed into oblivion, as the Big Granite Trail was, by SPI. It's time to protect the old trails.

So please, CDF, see to it.

To me the only answer here is land acquisition: TNF must buy these SPI lands. The wild, scenic, recreational, trail resources are too heavily and adversely impacted by SPI management of these lands.

For all the trail damage, SPI has logged with a somewhat light hand in this area. The roads are perhaps the worst of it. The Cherry Point Trail has been subsumed into a logging road for a long distance. But quite a number of large trees remain, including some remarkable first-growth Incense Cedars.

Two giant cedars stood in a pair above the north end of Four Horse Flat. The smaller trees nearby hide the monstrous old trunks from view until one is right next to them. Both, I think, are near seven feet in diameter, four feet above the ground. The more eastern tree has huge burl-like growths near its base, reminiscent of the "knees" of the Baldcypress.

So. Placer County sent young Wilbur DeBusk to his death in Korea in 1952. Was he among the group who carved their names into the old Aspen at Four Horse Flat, in 1951? Did he die for a country in which ancient and historic trails, trails over which many a family and many an adventurer had hiked and laughed and camped, are bulldozed into oblivion?

It was, well, spooky, to trace the Aspen Trail from one inscribed Aspen to the next, and see all those initials and dates: 1948, 1951, 1953, 1966, 1975, even 1986.

And now the trail is as if it never existed. A crew of four with some chainsaws might open it back up in a day. SPI bulldozers used a good long part of Aspen Trail as a skid trail.

Who says we're in the business of just giving up on old trails? Why shouldn't we be able to hike the Aspen Trail or the Big Granite Trail just as the DeBusks did in 1951?

We were so glad to get into Catherine's truck and escape those mosquitos. It was a little after 7:00 p.m.

And somewhere on the horizon, or perhaps over the rainbow, we foresee a Big Granite Trail which can actually be hiked and enjoyed.

Otters in the Gap

A week ago friends Peter and Jeff stopped by on their way to Giant Gap for the classic swim and scramble from Green Valley, down the river through the gorge, hiking back up and out on the Canyon Creek Trail.

I had tried to get Peter up to the Big Granite Trail to slave away in the hot sun and sharp-beaked mosquitos, fixing logging damage, but for some reason he preferred the amazing cliffs and pools of the Gap.

Word came back that the two intrepid explorers saw an entire family of river otters in the Gap. Wonderful! I've been hearing reports of otters on the North Fork for a few years now, and saw one myself on the NFNFAR last summer.

I would be very pleased to hear of other otter sightings on the North Fork.

Friday, July 15, 2005

East Fork NFNFAR

Tuesday my son Greg and I met Ron Gould and Catherine O'Riley for a hike down the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River.


The name of this river gave us such fits that a goodly part of the day was given over to the truly intractable problem of making some good abbreviation or acronym. Matters were not helped when Ron brought up the 19th-century commonplace of calling the North Fork, the North Branch.

All I could come up with were idiotic affectionate pet names like "Easty."

We drove up east to Emigrant Gap and then south on Forest Road 19 across Fulda Creek and then over the NFNFAR, past Onion Springs Meadow to the East Fork. It bubbled along quite vigorously for this late in the season, and we hoped to find waterfalls.

A trail leads downstream on river left, staying high in the woods and merging into an old logging railroad grade. However, TNF land is too soon left for SPI land and immediately the railroad grade is obliterated by skid trails. We switched down to a logging road below, paralleling the East Fork until, around a mile down the canyon, the badly named Chert Dome is met.

It is not noteworhy for chert, but rather seems to be mostly beds of light-colored, presumably siliceous, metasandstone, penetrated by numerous veins of quartz.

It is both a Knoll and a Dome so Greg named it the Gnome.

This sheer-walled blade of Shoo Fly Complex metasediments commands great views. We scrambled up steep slopes through a maze of manzanita and Canyon Live Oak, until the rocky top was met and followed west.

Scott Hill rose to our north, Texas Hill to our south, to the west stood Giant Gap.

Below us, the East Fork broke into a series of waterfalls, the last one downstream just preceding an abrupt left turn in the gorge.

Wishing to circle down into this area, we left the summit of the Gnome and followed a faint ravine down and west, into the depths. The canyon of the East Fork seems to almost magically deepen while passing the Gnome.

We reached the East Fork below Gnome Falls, but had quite a pretty little array of six or ten little waterfalls beside us, and good gorge-scrambling terrain ahead. Large masses of Western Azalea were in bloom in wet areas, scenting the air.

Every so often along the East Fork some giant granite egg was nestled into the bank; these are erratics from the upper South Yuba, the icefield of which overflowed south into the North Fork American. They are the same light gray as most of the Shoo Fly, but their rounded shapes are distinctive.

We had chased a family of Water Ouzels slowly down the canyon. The fledglings had very stubby tails.

In following such streams many variables control one's path. If the stream is too high to cross, anywhere, that means trouble. We were fortunate to be able to cross, occasionally, and take advantage of the "easy " side of things.

Almost inevitably, if a stream has any gradient at all, waterfalls and cliffs will be met which demand a steep climb up and out of the inner gorge, until a passage can be found. We made half a mile or so over easy terrain until a 15-foot waterfall plunging into a pool ringed with sheer cliffs stopped us.

We took a long break in the shade; Greg actually swam, and made some slides into the long narrow pool, following strike along the Shoo Fly bedding planes. To continue down the canyon would require a high climb in the hot sun. We decided to retreat, and visit Gnome Falls.

We had hoped to reach the confluence of the North Fork of the North Fork, but stopped more than half a mile short.

In ascending the canyon, we soon reached the vicinity of the lowest of the Gnome Falls. The gorge makes a ninety-degree angle turn here. A waterfall could be seen roaring forcefully out into a deep pool ringed by high sheer cliffs. There could be no entry; that at least was clear. But as we drew near, a little ledge invited us over the last fifty yards to the deep pool itself, and said ledge was fitted with an overhang near waist level, so that one's handholds were all low, and it was a tricky business to sidle along, simultaneously lifting the cliff with one's hands, and driving it down with one's feet.

Lower Gnome Falls were fifteen or twenty feet high, with a lot of horizontal component to the motion; the water shot far out into the dark pool. An amazing place.

We tried, we dared to climb the cliffs lining the spur ridge connecting the Gnome itself to the sharp bend in the creek at Lower Gnome Falls, but the going got very steep and our hopes of regaining a streamside route were dashed.

So the kind of exploration needed was not an option. We ended up escaping the nasty scary cliffs, and slogged slowly up and out to the Range Rover, back on Texas Hill Road.

It had been a very nice day on the East Fork.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Gold Run Mercury

On July 8 I met Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) staff Gina Solomon and Miriam ? at the Dutch Flat exit on I-80, for a visit to the Gold Run Diggings. Gina and Miriam were making a follow-up to the NRDC team I led into the Diggings on May 19th of this year. The NRDC is interested in quantifying mercury contamination in the Diggings, and discovering how much mercury is discharged into Canyon Creek, and therefore, into the North Fork American River.

Land ownership in the Diggings is complex. Broadly, it is divided between public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and 800 acres of private lands owned by Gold Run Properties (GRP). The GRP lands have been for sale for several years, the current asking price being ~$2.1 million dollars. The Diggings extend ~two miles south from I-80 to the rim of the North Fork canyon; BLM lands begin to appear about one mile south of I-80, and make the larger part of the Diggings near the rim of the canyon.

When Congress designated the North Fork a Wild & Scenic River (W&SR) in 1978, is created a special "Gold Run Addition" to the W&SR "corridor," extending more than a mile north of the river, into the southern part of the Diggings. The Dept. of Interior was instructed to purchase the private inholdings within the Addition, if the owners (GRP) were willing sellers.

They were not.

One of the GRP parcels within the Addition is a long narrow tract following Canyon Creek itself over the last mile of its course, to the North Fork. This is an old patented "tailings claim," such claims re-working the gold-bearing gravels which had already passed through the sluice boxes of hydraulic mines in the Diggings proper. It was called the Canyon Creek Placer Mine. Most of the historic Canyon Creek Trail is within this parcel.

By 1870, the regional pattern of consolidation of ownership of hydraulic mines was well under way at Gold Run. The days of individual ownership of small claims gave way to corporate ownership of large numbers of claims. The Gold Run Ditch & Mining Company (GRD&M) typified this pattern. It had the capital necessary to construct the huge drain tunnel from the Diggings to Canyon Creek. The GRD&M tunnel had two branches, beginning in vertical shafts, which branches converged into one giant tunnel, twelve feet wide and nine feet high. Three to five thousand cubic yards of tailings per day issued from the GRD&M tunnel into Canyon Creek, in 1881.

The slurry of gravel passed through sluice boxes of various descriptions, always "charged" with mercury. A single large sluice box might be charged with a ton of mercury, and a flask of a hundred pounds would be added every day; for the mercury, essential to capturing the fine gold, was constantly washing out the ends of the sluice boxes, and hence must needs be replaced.

Mercury is a kind of atomic glue, which attracts gold.

Hence mercury pollution on the grand scale afflicted every river and creek downstream from the hydraulic mines. The main forks of the rivers, the Sacramento River, the Delta, the San Francisco Bay, all were contaminated with mercury, and remain contaminated to this day.

All this was well known, but only in the last few years have serious efforts been made to stop the ongoing release of mercury into these same streams and rivers, from "point sources" in the old hydraulic mines. Usually, these point sources are regarded to be the drain tunnels. Drain tunnels are ubiquitous; there are several in the Gold Run Diggings, perhaps ten in the Dutch Flat Diggings, and so it goes, throughout the northern Sierra.

The NRDC, then, took water samples on May 19th, above the drain tunnels of the old GRD&M, in this same tunnel, and on Canyon Creek, both up- and downstream from the tunnel. Gina and Miriam were more or less repeating this same sampling regime.

On May 19th, following a series of heavy storms, an exceptional quantity of water was entering both shafts in the Diggings, and Canyon Creek was as high and muddy as I have seen it in many years.

On July 8th, very little water was entering either shaft, and Canyon Creek was clear and meek and mild, with a typical low summer flow.

It will be interesting to see what results are obtained from the July 8th samples; they should, I think, contrast sharply with the May 19th samples. My instinct is that the measure of mercury, in nanograms per liter, will be much less in the new samples.

However, just how they will contrast is debatable. Geologist Dave Lawler, very experienced in mercury contamination, suggests that the new samples may in fact show higher concentrations of mercury. That is, imagine if you will that a little pipe is discharging mercury into the GRD&M tunnel at a constant rate. First let one thousand liters per minute flow through the tunnel, and take a water sample at the outlet.

Then let ten liters per minute flow through the tunnel, and take a water sample at the outlet.

The quantity of mercury has not changed, but the quantity of water has decreased. Hence the second sample would show a higher concentration of mercury than the first.

To me, this model does not make sense; to me, the higher sediment load of the higher water flows should be directly correlate to the mercury load. So I expect much lower values of mercury concentration to come back, from the July 8th samples.

I am probably wrong. Time will tell.

Mercury contamination of both the BLM lands and GRP lands in the Gold Run Diggings is important, not only so far as continued pollution of Canyon Creek and the North Fork American (hence also, the Sacramento River, Delta, Bay and ocean), but as it may affect the chances of BLM acquisition of any part of the GRP lands.

It is my fondest hope that the BLM can acquire several hundred acres, at the least, of the 800 acres of GRD lands for sale. However, the BLM is, by rule, forbidden to acquire polluted property.

This rule is, perhaps, poorly defined. Recently the BLM acquired lands along the South Fork of the American. It is a certainty that the sediments--the gravel bars, etc.--on that part of the South Fork have mercury mixed into them, from gold mining in days gone by. However, there is no glaring "point source" to point to, as it were, so there was no obstacle to the acquisition, which will protect open space and public access along a very popular river corridor.

At Gold Run there are point sources of mercury. Just how bad these sources are is not well known. The NRDC sampling program will help us quantify the degree of mercury contamination there.

To my mind, mercury contamination at Gold Run is likely rather complex, and not easily reduced to a matter of a few drain tunnels. Each drain tunnel, for instance, had one or many "sluice cuts" leading into its upper end; such sluice cuts are very likely contaminated with mercury.

One could spend a million dollars cleaning up a tunnel, and the upstream sluice cuts would continue to bleed mercury into it, and through it

Canyon Creek itself, being worked as a tailings claim over the last two miles to the North Fork, is heavily contaminated with mercury. It is virtually impossible to clean up such a stream. For all its contamination, it has a rich complement of riparian vegetation, and is just crawling, teaming, with fish and garter snakes and Foothill Yellow-legged Frogs and all manner of aquatic life.

For that matter, the North Fork itself is heavily contaminated with mercury. It too is impossible to clean up. There may be quite a few tons of mercury in the North Fork, between Gold Run and Auburn. Of course, there is mercury upstream as well, from the mines in Green Valley, at Lost Camp, in Humbug Canyon, etc. etc.

Even the 49ers used mercury in their relatively tiny sluice boxes, long toms, and rockers. There is probably measurable mercury in North Fork sediments all the way up to the Royal Gorge.

To me, the open-space, scenic, and recreational values at stake at Gold Run, are of great importance. I hope the BLM can find a way to purchase the 800 acres of GRD land now for sale, despite its likely contamination with mercury. I am worried that a lot of money could be misspent, trying to remediate mercury contamination there.

Gina and Miriam enjoyed getting a look at the strange old shafts and tunnels and lovely, sparkling Canyon Creek. After they had finished gathering their samples, we made a short jaunt down the trail and across the little bridge to Waterfall View. There is still a nice bloom going on along the trail, with masses of Clarkia biloba and Monardella lanceolata.

Such is some recent news from Gold Run.

SPI Exemption Harvest, Sugar Pine Point

A couple weeks ago Catherine O'Riley and I visited the historic Big Granite Trail, south of Cisco Grove, to examine damage to the trail from logging, which had taken place in the summer of 2004.

We found that the trail had been seriously damaged, obliterated in places, from bulldozer yarding of logs, in Section 9, T16N R13E. This settled the issue of "who done it," as Section 9 is one of the odd-numbered "railroad" sections acquired by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). Another lumber company, CHY, has a Timber Harvest Plan under consideration right now. SPI, as it turned out, was operating on over 2000 acres spread across several sections in the area, under a "10% Exemption" harvest plan, approved by Jeff Dowling of the California Department of Forestry (CDF).

A "10% Exemption" harvest is not subject to public review or comment. It allows land owners to harvest up to 10% of the standing timber; in this case, quote, "Harvesting dead, dying or diseased trees of any size in amounts less than 10 per cent of the average volume per acre, where timber operations will meet the conditions misted in 14 CCR 1038(b)."

A little to the south of this Section 9 is Section 17, where the historic Sugar Pine Point Trail had been obliterated by an earlier SPI harvest, some ten or fifteen years ago. A portion of this fine old trail had escaped complete destruction, and friends of mine and I had worked on keeping it open and passable. It leads, not to Sugar Pine Point itself, but to a magical forest of gigantic trees in Tahoe National Forest (TNF) Section 20, contiguous to Section 17 on the south. This section was designated the Sugar Pine Point Research Natural Area by TNF a few years ago. The magical forest is on mainly gentle slopes, bounded by steep cliffs, and old maps label it Sugar Pine Flat. There are springs, bear wallows, orchids, Goshawk nests, incredible vista points, and many trees up to six feet in diameter, or even larger.

Yesterday I packed my chainsaw into the Subaru and with my son Greg, made the 26-mile drive up I-80 to Yuba Gap, Lake Valley, Huysink Lake, and Pelham Flat. I had noticed that the main Forest Road 38, south of the Big Granite Trail, was blocked by fallen trees.

Hence the chainsaw.

The fallen trees proved to be less of an issue than the water bars SPI bulldozers had cut into Forest Road 38, last August. With many a scary scraping noise the Subie crossed one water bar after another, until, half a mile south of lovely Pelham Flat (CHY property, about to be logged--again), where a pond and wet meadow attract much wildlife, we met a water bar too high and too deep even for the mighty little Subie. So we set out on foot. We were just leaving the TNF portion of Section 8 and crossing into SPI Section 17. A mile to the south we would reach Sugar Pine Flat and the ancient forest.

Immediately upon entering Section 17, we saw much bulldozing. For, despite what on paper seems a minor timber harvest, a tremendous amount of bulldozing had occurred. Giant slash piles were heaped up, ten and twenty feet high. New log decks seemed to have been built, old log decks expanded. Skid trails everywhere. So it went until we reached a certain pass in the south center of Section 17, on the Sugar Pine Point ridge (which divides Big Valley on the west from Little Granite Creek on the east), where the almost undamaged portion of the historic trail can be used.

Although a slash pile had been bulldozed directly over the trail, it was easily crossed, and we found that the fine old trail had escaped any significant new damage. We only had to throw some logging slash off the trail here and there, and where it was cut by a road, a little pick-and-shovel work would render it reasonably passable again.

We visited the ancient forest and the bear wallow, photographed flowers--many of Leichtlin's Mariposa Tulip were in bloom, along with blue penstemons and many other species--and visited one of the prehistoric occupation sites, dating to the Martis Complex people of 1500-4500 years ago. We also wandered out east to some clifftops with fine views of Cherry Point and Snow Mountain. Squaw Peak was also visible, at the head of the Middle Fork of the American, to the southeast.

Breezy, and cooler than normal, there were scarcely any mosquitos.

After a time we retreated back up the trail and through the mile of mild devastation in Section 17. On the drive out, I noted that SPI had opened up the road from Pelham Flat down into Big Valley, through TNF lands in Section 8, presumably to access SPI Section 7. The construction of this road, and the previous SPI harvest in Section 7, had already obliterated the historic Big Valley Trail, from Pelham Flat to Monumental Ridge.

I have asked TNF for years to seek to acquire these exact sections from SPI: that is, sections 7, 9, and 17; and to try to acquire CHY lands in Section 8 and elsewhere, nearby. This area is a fine patch of Placer County high country, semi-high, anyway, with the ridges running up to and over 7000 feet, and a complex of old trails. Many a meadow and many a pond and tarn are in the area.

In fact, I have hiked around in that area for years counting chickens before hatching, imagining that TNF would soon purchase these SPI and CHY lands, and that the last of the logging had already taken place.

As usual, I was exactly wrong.

On July 12, CDF's Inspector Jeff Dowling and SPI's Carl Bystry, along with a CDF archeologist, and a contract archeologist named John Betts, will visit the area to examine the damage to the Big Granite Trail. Betts used to work for CDF and is sympathetic to the old historic trails. I called him a week ago and was not encouraged by what I heard. Betts said that I should not expect much, if anything, to result from the July 12th inspection. He said that any progress in protecting old trails would take place in small increments. I mailed Betts a map I prepared showing the exact locations of the worst of the recent damage on the Big Granite Trail, with many annotations and labels.

Betts suggested that Carl Bystry in particular, and SPI generally, will not take kindly to complaints about damage to trails on SPI lands.

And I know, from past experience with CDF's Jeff Dowling, that I am a despicable tree-hugger who, without any good reason, throws monkey wrenches into the great and important work of cutting trees down.

Nevertheless, Betts will be a voice of reason and, after all, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, ten people with shovels and chainsaws and rakes and mattocks ought to be able to whip the worst parts of the Big Granite Trail back into shape, in a day or two or five.

John Betts has done important work in protecting the ancient petroglyphs of the northern Sierra from timber harvest operations. Usually, that "protection" means tying some flagging around a petroglyph site, so that bulldozers do not grind directly over the rocks and glyphs. But it counts for something, and has made a difference.

I don't know what to do about the CHY Timber Harvest Plan. I should make a field trip and look at the many and far-flung parcels of land involved, amounting to about 1200 acres. Then I could address comments to CDF.

More as events warrant.

Sunday, July 3, 2005

Visit to Lovers Leap

Last December during a visit to Lovers Leap (Lovers Leap is a promontory or spur ridge jutting south from Moody Ridge into Giant Gap; see the 7.5 minute Dutch Flat quadrangle) I observed a large cedar had been felled at the end of Lovers Leap road, on BLM land, and the thickest part of the trunk removed; and later, found two men cutting oak firewood, along a road to the west.

A telephone call to Folsom BLM was fruitless; no one was in the office who had even heard of Lovers Leap, and although I left a phone message, no one called back.

After two months I tried again, and spoke to Area Manager Deane Swickard. He promised to look into the matter.

In a few weeks I called Deane back, and learned that a permit to cut dead and down wood near Lovers Leap had been issued to an Alta man; but the large cedar tree was no part of the permitted use, nor were the two men I'd observed, in December, holders of the permit.

On Saturday July 2nd I visited Lovers Leap with my son and nephew. I noted that the rest of the trunk of the large cedar tree had been sliced into rounds and hauled away. I also noted, as I have for several years now, that OHVs--"quads" and motorcycles--have been driving down the foot trail part of the way to the cliff-top, spinning donuts in the parking area, and so on. And a small cedar tree, scarcely a foot in diameter, had been recently felled to expand the parking area, already much expanded in the last ten or twenty years.

All in all this very special place seems much degraded. I think that a vehicle closure is in order; the parking area should be moved a hundred yards north, or so, and a barricade placed to block both the last bit of main road, and the road to the west, where the two roads fork.

We spent an hour at the Leap, enjoying the lengthening shadows etching out the cliffs in Giant Gap as sunset drew near, and were pleased to see a pair of falcons soaring five hundred or a thousand feet below. I saw them land on the cliffs in two different places. They were vocalizing quite a bit, and I suspect that they are a nesting pair, and that young falcons are in the nest.

Then, to the west, I saw that a house is being built on the summit of Bogus Point. There are roughly ten private parcels on the rim of the canyon in Giant Gap, between the BLM lands at Lovers Leap, and BLM lands to the west of Bogus Point. I have always dreamed of a trail connecting Lovers Leap to Canyon Creek, along the canyon rim, and parts of the trail exist already: a mining ditch follows the canyon rim for a ways west from Lovers Leap Ravine, and an old trail climbs from Canyon Creek to the canyon rim just west of Bogus Point. It would not take much to connect the two existing sections.

But Moody Ridge was rapidly and illegally subdivided in the late 1970s, and "view" parcels were created all along the canyon rim. Since about 1985 I have been urging the BLM to try and acquire any and all of these ten parcels between Lovers Leap and Canyon Creek. Or, suffer the alernative--ten grand houses with million-dolar views, lining Giant Gap?

To see the new house at Bogus Point was like a dagger in my heart.

I wanted to leave, but my son and nephew were enjoying themselves, so I held my peace. Later, walking up the trail over the motorcycle tracks, I thought about the past, present, and future of Placer County and the North Fork, and could really see no way to avert the continued degradation of the most important piece of open space in Placer County, the North Fork canyon. I've spent thirty years trying to protect this canyon, and it has been thirty years of failure.

You can be sure that when such moods strike me, I'm looking to share the blame. I have many acquaintances, residents of this area, who really should have been joining the fight to protect the North Fork and its viewshed and its trails. So I went down the list in my mind, bitterly apportioning some blame here, and more blame, there.

When I am sane I don't think that way. But seeing the wreckage at the parking area, the garbage scattered about, the OHV scars on the old trail, the new house at Bogus Point--it made me crazy.