Friday, September 16, 2005

Letter to Tahoe National Forest

Below, a letter to TNF Supervisor Steve Eubanks. It is too long, or not long enough, I can never tell. The gist of it is, that I want to see a lot more land acquisition in TNF, in particular, around Sugar Pine Point and the Big Granite Trail. And I want to see a number of road closures, and a drastic reduction in the areas open to OHV use.

TNF is engaged in an OHV study right now. I will write something up about that soon. You should know that motorcyclists and OHV enthusuasts are aggressively pushing for as much land and trails open to them as possible. It appears that they are purposely ignoring OHV closures, on the few trails which now have such closures, to force TNF to consider such trails as existing OHV routes.

September 14, 2005

Steven Eubanks
Forest Supervisor, Tahoe National Forest
631 Coyote Street
Nevada City, CA 95959

re: old trails, land acquisition

Dear Supervisor Eubanks,

It was nice to meet you at the Centennial Celebration up at Robinson Flat.

Over recent years I have written to you on several occasions. I am not aware that I have ever received a response. Mostly, my letters have had to do with preserving historic trails, and asking Tahoe National Forest (TNF) to pursue land acquisitions.

I will come to specifics, but please bear with me while I review some generalities.

I have been very pleased with the progress made in acquiring private inholdings in the North Fork American river canyon; but I want to see much more land purchased. In some of my previous letters, I recommended purchase of private lands near Blue Canyon, around the historic townsite of Lost Camp, where the north end of the "China Trail" begins. I remain hopeful that these lands will pass into TNF ownership, although it may be too late for me or my children to enjoy the benefit of that acquisition, within our lifetimes; for Siller Brothers Lumber Company has had a Timber Harvest Plan approved, on 590 acres of land at and around Lost Camp, which will drastically alter the landscape, the forest, and the entire look and feel of that area.

The way I see it, it is now, just as it always has been, the responsibility of TNF to protect its historic trails. Obviously such protection is complicated by the vast private inholdings within TNF. This is as obvious now as it was in 1905. At one time, let us say, before 1960, TNF was more active in maintaining and protecting these old trails.

I should say that I also oppose OHV use on most all such trails. I take the approach that any trail which ever appeared on TNF maps or USGS maps is a public trail which should remain open for foot use. Whether equestrian or mountain bike uses should be allowed on such trails, must be decided on a case-by-case basis. But in the ordinary course of things, OHV use, in my opinion, should rarely if ever be permitted on such trails.

An exception might be when such a trail has actually been changed into a road.

Currently, there is much concern over the Bush Administration's revision of the Clinton-era "Roadless Area Rules," a revision which would allow new roads to be constructed, and would, as I understand it, allow or encourage timber harvests and motorized uses in what fragments remain of relatively pristine parts of our National Forests. I am not only opposed to this change in policy, so far as our own Tahoe National Forest goes, I want quite the opposite to happen.

I want some, or say, many, existing roads closed altogether; I want much less OHV and motorized uses; I want timber harvests reduced, if anything, and I want timber harvest practices to even more stringently protect soils, wildlife, scenery, and (foot) trails.

Let me provide some concrete examples of such road closures.

I want the road out to Big Valley Bluff, forking away south from Forest Road 19, closed to all motorized uses, at a point at least .25 mile north of the Bluff. I also want Forest Road 19 itself closed, between the road to Big Valley Bluff, and a point north from there, near Mears Meadow.

I want the Sawtooth Ridge Road closed at Helester Point, with no motorized uses permitted south of there, on Sawtooth Ridge. I want all private inholdings on Sawtooth Ridge to become TNF acquisition targets with a high priority.

I want the roads between New York Canyon and Tadpole Canyon, north of the Foresthill-Soda Springs Road, closed at least .5 mile south of the cliffs above the terminus of the historic Iowa Hill Canal. I want the same closure to apply to snowmobiles and other OHVs.

I want the road leading north from the Foresthill-Soda Springs Road, on the ridge dividing Wildcat Canyon from Wabena Canyon, closed to motorized uses, where it passes into Section 31; and this Section 31 must become one of the highest priority TNF acquisition targets.

I want the road (FR 38) on the divide between Big Valley and Little Granite Creek closed where the Big Granite Trail forks away, and I want all private inholdings in that area, including SPI-owned sections 7, 9, and 17, and CHY lands in Section 8 and elsewhere in the basins of Big Valley and Little Granite Creek, to have the highest priority for TNF acquisitions.

I want the private inholdings within the main North Fork American River canyon, east of the Mumford Bar Trail, acquired, and the road giving access to some of these lands, following the line of the Iowa Hill Canal, closed at the Foresthill-Soda Springs Road.

The unifying principle motivating such recommendations is that I want more wild and beautiful lands in Tahoe National Forest, not less; I want foot trails, not roads; it almost amounts to saying, I want to turn back the clock about fifty years or so.

This must seem silly. It is not at all silly. Simply because we, or those before us, made mistakes on a grand scale, and built roads and harvested timber and ruined trails every which way, does not mean we have to accept the ensuing conditions as permanent.

Now, I might almost believe that there has been a conspiracy afoot in Tahoe National Forest, to ruin historic trails. I might believe the same about CDF, which oversees timber harvests on private lands. I cannot put my finger on it, but again, at some time, around 1960, say, TNF went from protecting the old trails, to ignoring them.

As an example of this relatively new and terrible mindset, I observed, in the office of TNF archeologist Bill Slater, a nicely printed legend on his wall; an "official" Forest Service legend of symbols, used to record archeological and historic resources.

But there was no symbol whatsoever for "trail." I mentioned this to Bill, and he replied, "Why of course there is a symbol-look, here, see that? 'Linear feature'?"

And yes, at the bottom of the professionally printed legend someone had scrawled, by hand, "linear feature." And Bill explained that a trail is just a linear feature.

OK. It so happens that CDF also has adopted the custom of calling a trail a "linear feature."

I also find, in conversations with TNF employees, that they share a misconception about these historic trails. They wish to paint the old trails as purely practical: such-and-such trail was just how the miners got from Point A to Point B; now we have roads, so the trails have been abandoned.

Of course there were practical uses, having an economic basis, on these old TNF trails. But there was a tremendous recreational use of these same trails, long predating the existence of Tahoe National Forest.

Setting aside Native American uses, which extend back thousands of years-and not a few of our old trails are, at least in part, vastly, incredibly old-purely recreational uses began very early on. One thinks, in this area, of the for-pleasure excursions of famous author Alonzo Delano, from Grass Valley up to the high country around the Sierra crest, with Lola Montez, or, on another occasion, with Chief Weimar of the Nisenan Maidu. These multi-day excursions took place in the early 1850s.

Or, consider the 1870 and later Soda Springs Hotel, in the upper North Fork American, filling with guests every summer, who rambled all over the mountains, and down the North Fork into the Royal Gorge, or up the North Fork and across the crest to Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe. There are many records of such early recreational uses of the historic trails which later became formal parts of the TNF trail system.

People walked and rode and camped and hunted and fished far and wide. What became Tahoe National Forest was a vast park of almost pristine wilderness, afflicted with overgrazing, yes, and in some places, marred by timber harvests and mining operations.

When such a vast and beautiful park is ruined by inches, over a period of a hundred years, there is all too little public outcry.

Almost the first day I moved to this area, in 1972, I encountered problems with TNF's historic trails. I did not realize the magnitude of the problems, at first. I thought that with the rapidly increasing population of California, and the crowded trailhead parking area in the High Sierra, farther south, that-obviously!-recreational uses would come to the forefront in Tahoe National Forest.

But around 1985, the Southern Pacific lands were sold off, and what has happened since then has been the criminal destruction of historic trails, from timber harvests. I recall the first instance I observed of this new round of destruction, in 1986 or so: the trail leading down to Lola Montez Lake from the north was obliterated by bulldozers making skid trails.

Since then, I have directly observed the same pattern of destruction, on the following historic trails: Mears Meadow, Monumental Creek, Big Valley (north-south), Big Valley (east-west), Sugar Pine Point, Big Granite, Cherry Point, Long Valley, and Big Bend-Devils Peak. The last-named trail may have been ruined before 1985.

All these seem to have involved timber harvests on private lands-the old "railroad" lands-at least, for the most part. Some TNF lands were also involved.

Now, Timber Harvest Plans cross the desk(s) of one or more employees of Tahoe National Forest. It seems to me that TNF should have gone directly to SPI, and CHY, or whoever, and demanded that the trails be protected.

Far better still if TNF itself had acquired the old railroad lands, when they were cheap. But that is water under the bridge.

What is not water under the bridge is the continued, ongoing destruction of historic TNF trails. This is also occurring in Eldorado National Forest.

I spent quite a bit of time, over the past few years, trying to find out how and when and why the Big Granite Trail had been so badly damaged, south of Forest Road 38, in Section 9, T16N R13E. I saw that someone, presumably from TNF, had put up new signs, helping hikers past the damaged sections of trail. I made many calls, but did not, then, discover who in TNF had actually cared about the Big Granite Trail.

I found out, this summer, that it was now-retired Bill Haire who saw to the signs.

It turns out that the initial severe damage took place in 1990, during a Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) timber harvest.

Hoping to repair the damage to the Big Granite Trail myself, I inquired with TNF about its "Adopt a Trail" program, but met with a strange obfuscation on the part of the employee with whom I spoke, deriving in part from the impending change in Ranger District boundaries. She hung up on me in mid-conversation, and I left it at that.

About a year ago, in 2004, SPI bulldozers returned to the scene of their earlier crime, and ruined still more of the Big Granite Trail, while executing a "10% Exemption" harvest.

Once again I got on the telephone, to Rich Johnson. I wrote letters to CDF and to Governor Schwarzenegger, for I could not and cannot believe that in 2004 we are willing to throw away historic public trails in the interest of cutting down a few trees.

The Big Granite Trail (BGT) gives access to the North Fork American River, which, of course, is a Wild & Scenic River. TNF has an easement on the BGT, dating to 1950.

Now, CDF had done nothing to protect the BGT. Complaints to CDF about the Siller Brothers' THP at Lost Camp, in which the historic China Trail was actually marked as a skid trail, resulted in very minor changes to the THP, protecting the trailbed itself. I had found, then, that CDF wished to quibble: the ancient China Trail, from Lost Camp down to the North Fork of the North Fork American River, was not a "National Historic Trail," hence could not be offered protection as a historic trail.

This absurdity is so shameful I can scarcely believe that CDF personnel can look in their mirrors in the morning. They seem to have quite a happy club, there, the archeologists at CDF, a club in which they and the Registered Professional Foresters nobly protect Native American sites, and share information. But while they are having such fun, they are driving the last nails into the coffin of our wildlands, our trails, our scenery, our recreational heritage.

So, I am not very pleased with CDF and their Forest Rules. However, there seems to be some slight tendency towards beginning to protect the old trails.

This is coming a little late, inasmuch as every historic trail between Blue Canyon on the west, and Serena Creek on the east, within the basin of the North Fork American River, has been damaged if not entirely ruined, by timber harvests.

Now, after my complaints to CDF about the 2004 damage to the Big Granite Trail, they made an inspection, on July 12, 2005, in the company of SPI's RPF, Carl Bystry. I hear that Carl Bystry is a fine man and a straight shooter. But when asked, during the July 12th inspection, whether SPI would mind if a group of citizen volunteers repaired the damage to the BGT, I am told he replied, "We [SPI] do not want them in here. We would be all the happier if they stopped using the trail and never came back."

I am sure, Supervisor Eubanks, you know that the 1950 easement granted to the United States from Southern Pacific Land Co., on the BGT, specifies that the easement shall become void from non-use of the trail, for a period of five years.

Knowing that (if Carl Bystry is correct) SPI does not want The Public to use the historic public trails crossing SPI lands, how easy it is for SPI to drive bulldozers up and down and across these old trails, obliterating them, and thus keep The Public off the trails for five years, and be free from the encumbrance of an easement, whether deeded (as in the case of the BGT), or prescriptive (as in other historic public trails).

I am not much given to conspiracy theories. Here I must wonder: are the old trails being purposely obliterated, by SPI?

The 1950 easement also specifies that all timber may be harvested from the right-of-way. How neatly this provision meshes with accidentally-on-purpose obliteration of the old trails!

Incidentally, the last reasonably intact portion of the historic Sugar Pine Point Trail, in SPI-owned Section 17, near Sugar Pine Point itself, was not too seriously damaged in the 2004 10% Exemption harvest. It was only blocked by a bulldozed pile of slash and brush, where it leaves the pass immediately north of Sugar Pine Point itself.

However, a consequence of re-opening the roads in that area, for SPI's 2004 10% Exemption harvest, was that OHV use increased, or actually began for the first time, on those roads. And as a result, motorcycles began using the Big Granite Trail itself, and followed it all the way down to the North Fork American River itself, this summer (2005). They damaged the narrow old trail in various places.

Now, as I understand it, and I may be wrong, these particular sections of SPI land (in Big Valley, near Sugar Pine Point, and around Four Horse Flat) form a part of a broad option agreement negotiated between the Trust for Public Land and SPI, in 2003, for the purchase of thousands of acres of SPI lands. The agreement would expire in 2008.

Money for such acquisitions may be slow in coming and small in amount. I would like to commend these lands to you, as deserving a high priority, as acquisition targets.

Currently, the CHY lumber company has a THP under consideration. I have copy of the THP but have offered no comments yet to CDF, in part because so far as I am aware, all the trails which could be ruined within these lands, have already been ruined, and in part because I am lazy. But I am concerned about new damage to the Sugar Pine Point Trail near Pelham Flat in Section 8, for, although it was already obliterated, in the short section between Pelham Flat and its intersection with the Big Granite Trail, it could be easily restored-and I hope that all that area will be closed to motorized uses, and allowed to return to a wild condition, and that, once again, the Sugar Pine Point Trail will come into use, for hiking and camping.

It seems to me that it is long since time for Tahoe National Forest to take an active role in protecting these old trails. It is time for Tahoe National Forest to contact CDF, and to contact CHY's RPF, and make very sure that no further damage occurs to the trails, and for that matter, that no further damage occurs to the scenic values in that area.

The roads, for instance, created by SPI in 1990, to access Four Horse Flat, and Little Granite Creek, south and east of Sugar Pine Point, made scars visible for miles. I see them from the Sailor Flat Trail, and from the 500-foot waterfall in New York Canyon, and from many places along the Foresthill Divide, and I do not concede that those roads should ever have been constructed, and I cannot wait until they are closed, and ripped up, and revegetated in any way. Were they to be buried beneath a rich growth of Huckleberry Oak, I would be thrilled.

These roads were beginning to blend into the forest, slightly, after 15 years, but the 2004 10% Exemption harvest brought them back into prominence.

I talk with many people working for Tahoe National Forest, and generally, I am impressed with their good sense, and feel that we are lucky to have such able and conscientious people on the job. Again and again, I hear that there is not enough money to keep the old trails open, to place signs, to cut trees from the trail, and so on.

Of course, when I ask the California Highway Patrol why they are unable to keep the big trucks from speeding down I-80 at 70 miles per hour, the CHP tells me that they do not have enough money.

And I am sure that when the mud is finally cleared in New Orleans, we shall find that FEMA did not have enough money, to have made a timely response to the emergency, either.

Of course, one of the problems with TNF employees is that they do not know their own lands. They have transferred here from elsewhere. I was always impressed with Rich Johnson's knowledge of the trails in his ranger district. In fact, Rich knew the Nevada City Ranger District far better than that district's own District Ranger did, a couple years ago.

I had occasion to talk with Dave Michael about the recent damage to the Big Granite Trail, this summer. And Dave said, "I'll have to go out there and take a look." I warned him that he would be lucky to find and follow the trail, after what SPI had done, and asked him to take me along. But Dave went out there on his own. He is a man who knows trails, he knows maps, he knows an old Forest Service blaze for what it is, and nevertheless, he never set foot on the Big Granite Trail.

He did find that the lower part of the Cherry Point Trail had been turned into a logging road. And he got horribly enmeshed in some brush after giving up on finding the Big Granite Trail and striking out cross-country for the ridge above, and Forest Road 38.

More recently, my friend Ron Gould and I accompanied Ed Moore of TNF Foresthill out to see the Big Granite Trail, and Ron and Ed are working on an Adopt-a-Trail agreement. Ron and I hope to repair the worst damage to the BGT this year, with the help of various friends.

In summary, I want TNF to act far more vigorously to protect its historic trails, I want TNF to pursue land acquisitions on a vastly increased scale, and I want TNF to increase the extent of its Roadless Areas and its roadless areas, by closing parts of many roads, and drastically reducing the areas open to motorized uses.

These recommendations fall more within the scope of TNF's Forest Plan, and its future revisions, than with any particular "project." Of course, my remarks also have a direct bearing upon the current OHV study, and although these remarks are often very general, I hope they sufficiently express my desire to see OHV use, and all motorized uses, reigned in and reduced.

The people of Placer County were not pleased by President Lincoln's land grants to the Central Pacific Railroad, in the 1860s. But, their recreational uses, of the wonderful, park-like maze of canyons and mountains and meadows and lakes, continued uninterrupted for many decades. After the Second World War, timber harvests and road construction increased dramatically. I have no doubt but that many people who had known Tahoe National Forest before the War, were so shocked and saddened by the wholesale destruction which ensued, that they simply gave up.

Who would have guessed, that an already unacceptable situation, would or even could become so very much worse? But the sale of the railroad lands around 1985 set the stage for more and more destruction of trails, more and more roads, more and more stumps and clearcuts and log landings and skid trails.

I say, just because Tahoe National Forest was half-ruined in the first decades after WWII, does not mean that it should be all-ruined. To set aside some small area as Wilderness (Granite Chief, say), or protect some narrow strip as a Wild & Scenic River (the North Fork American, say), was never near enough, never near what the land itself, the wildlife, the scenery, the long history of camping and fishing and hiking, really deserved.

Tahoe National Forest does not deserve "The Blame" for all that happened. We the People should long ago have realized the obvious, that the private inholdings, comprised mostly by railroad lands, but also by significant acreages of patented mining claims, and so on, held the seeds of the destruction of our wonderful mountain lands.

Who will want to hike the Sugar Pine Point Trail, through a mess of stumps and skid trails? Who will want to camp in fine old Four Horse Flat, now that SPI roads criss-cross it, and it is littered with stumps and logs and boulders rooted from their age-old beds?

The simple truth is, future generations will want to walk these trails, and camp in these once-beautiful areas, which can be beautiful again. And it seems clear to me that we must act to purchase the private inholdings, and not stop, and never give up.

Thank you for your consideration of these matters.

Sincerely yours,

Russell Towle

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