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.

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