Within the space of a few hours on Wednesday, Sept. 26, the Mountain Democrat had received well over 100 e-mails — copies of letters sent to each of the five members of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. Most in a similar format, the writers pleaded, asked politely, urged, cajoled and begged supervisors not to move ahead with planned maintenance on the Rubicon Trail scheduled for Friday, Sept. 28.
Many of the letters came from off-roading clubs and residents of Northern California, but a significant number were sent by folks from Utah, Georgia and parts in between. The following is representative both in tenor and style:
I am a resident of OHIO, but I come visit the Rubicon annually. We drive 39 hours one way to California just to recreate at the Rubicon and Fordyce Creek area and spend $1,500-2,000 locally every trip for fuel, food, groceries, lodging, and entertainment. There are a lot of other out-of-state residents who also travel to California for OHV recreation.
Please do not crack the large rocks in Little Sluice or the other areas slated for permanent destruction. Please do not fill Little Sluice with imported rock. I am still planning to travel to your area with my kids over the next couple of years to show them this pristine alpine recreation area. I doubt I’ll make the trip or invest in your local economy if the spectacular and beautiful challenging features are obliterated.
Describing the area called Little Sluice Box as “iconic” with national and international appeal to off-roaders, the writers generally tried to convince the board that the work was unnecessary and the modification to a small but treasured stretch of the trail would be irreversible as well as unforgivable.
The crux of the current matter goes back to the spring of 2009 when the county received a Clean-up and Abatement Order from the state’s Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. Known in short as the CAO, the order directed the county and to a lesser extent the U.S. Forest Service to work together to clean up and abate a range of environmental threats along the Rubicon Trail.
The order further threatened the county with substantial financial penalties for failure to comply and included timelines within which certain mitigations would have to be completed.
Citing water pollution from dirt and sediment caused by traffic near streams and at popular fords across waterways, the CAO directed the county to reroute parts of the trail and reduce the direct movement of earth into the water. Bridge construction and repair are also part of the order.
Toxic fluids such as gasoline, oil and lubricants spilling from overturned or disabled vehicles were also listed as pollutants that need to be eliminated under the CAO.
Trail users now range from regular, street-legal 4x4s to specialized vehicles engineered for rock-crawling and “extreme” off-roading. The Little Sluice area has been modified over time to represent a significant challenge to drivers of the specialty machines. The family Jeep or 4×4 truck is incapable of running Little Sluice because of giant boulders that have been winched onto the right of way to increase the “extreme” challenge.
Consequently, the area has become a network of bypasses and detours outside of the traditional route and therefore an increased threat of pollution and environmental damage, according to the CAO.
In addition to water pollutants, the state described scenes of general environmental degradation, including human waste and toilet paper strewn along the trail, bottles and cans and trash of all kinds. Reports of drunkenness, discharge of firearms and rowdy behavior on the Rubicon had circulated for years as there had never been a regular law enforcement presence on the route.
The Rubicon Trail has been a public road since the 1860s. Traveled by miners, timber concerns, rockhounds and tourists for decades, the trail became a four-wheeling destination after the 1950s. The Jeepers Jamboree, created at that time, spread the word to the nascent off-roading community, and the trail became the “Crown Jewel of Four-Wheeling.”
El Dorado County became the actual “owner” of the road after years of neglect, wrangling with the Forest Service and right-of-way uncertainties. A recent agreement with the Forest Service officially granted the county certain easements which allow local authority to regulate and maintain the approximately 22 miles of trail within its jurisdiction.
That agreement was generally necessary before the county could undertake significant efforts to comply with the CAO, and the work scheduled for last week was part of that larger project.
Vickie Sanders, administrative analyst with the county’s Chief Administrative Office, has been the staff person tasked with much of the “red tape” involved with the water board’s order. The county’s Department of Transportation is responsible for planning and carrying out the specific projects on the ground.
Sanders returned calls from the Mountain Democrat that day as the emails were piling up all over the county. She described the scheduled work as a combination of timing, weather and good luck. The latter referred to the unexpected availability of an Erickson Air-Crane, a super heavy-duty helicopter that can lift tons of material and complete work in a few hours that would take road crews up to two weeks or more.
The big chopper was scheduled to fly from its headquarters in Oregon to a job in Southern California, and Sanders explained that she and her team were able to get the machine detoured for two hours to work above the Rubicon. The air-crane was used to haul tons of rock and gravel from other areas of the original trail to fill-in parts of the Little Sluice Box in accordance with the Cleanup and Abatement Order.
“We’re doing trail maintenance per the CAO,” Sanders explained. “We have to cover areas of soil that have been affected by oil from vehicles on the trail. It’s an environmental as well as a safety issue and complies with the CAO.”
Sanders acknowledged that she was somewhat perplexed by the flood of protest letters as she noted that the project has been on the books for more than two years and should not have been a surprise to any of the trail’s user community. The sense of urgency was only related to the sudden window of opportunity to use the air-crane that day, she said.
“We’re not trying to do this to oppose the user community, and we want to keep the challenge of the trail as best we can,” she said. “I hope they’re just venting, and we have high hopes that they’ll be satisfied with what we have to do. But we’re a little concerned and we’ll have backup from law enforcement.”
Despite the avalanche of e-mails and earlier concerns about potential conflict at the site, Sanders reported via e-mail Tuesday that the project “went off without a hitch,” and there were no “protesters” on the scene.
It was anticipated that the helicopter would be able to make eight “drops” of up to eight tons each, Sanders said. Then crews from DOT would spend several days spreading the new rock around the area and use a “boulder buster” to blast some of the largest rocks into two or three smaller pieces.
She repeated that soil, safety and environmental issues are driving the overall effort and “not in any way, shape or form meant to anger anyone or be adversarial to trail users.”
John Arenz, vice president of the Rubicon Trail Foundation and a life-long four-wheeler, has been involved with the issue for years. The foundation has maintained an agenda of realistic compromise with the county and is most adamantly opposed to any outright closure of the trail.
“We have concerns,” Arenz admitted. “No matter what you do, some people and groups are not going to like it. We don’t represent the wishes of all the trail users, and there are legitimate ‘wheelers’ who vehemently disagree over how the trail should look.”
His group was part of ongoing negotiations that resulted in the withdrawal of lawsuits that could have led to closure of the trail.
“The Board of Supervisors directed DOT to reduce the rock size at Little Sluice, and now they’re going ahead and doing it. We asked that the county add more fill to lessen the amount of rock-blasting and the board made that decision,” Arenz said.
In legalese, the trail is an “attractive nuisance,” Arenz noted and the RTF “made compromises on behalf of most users.” He said the county is using “best management practices to achieve the Cleanup and Abatement Order.”
“The county has done nearly everything we asked, and we feel that they have done what they needed to do, and we’ve done what we needed to do.”
Arenz acknowledged that there are “extreme views” on both sides of the issue, that is the “environmentalists” and the extreme off-roaders. He said the work to be done by the helicopter is the cheapest and most efficient way to move the material and added, “we expected this (the reaction from some users) and that some will be unhappy about it.”
County staff at the Clerk of the Board’s Office were “bombarded” by the number of e-mails coming in to supervisors and to their department. Supervisor Jack Sweeney said “tying things up and flooding the front desk does not help.”
Sweeney is the board member most involved with the Rubicon Trail issue and he told the Mountain Democrat that he has “fond memories of riding on the trail in a stock Jeep in 1958.” He envisions a return of the trail to its earlier condition “to allow nearly stock vehicles” to again be able to drive the entire route.
“This is a public road after all. It’s not anyone’s special playground that excludes everyone else from using the trail,” he said. “We are doing exactly what we said we were going to do back in January of 2010 and what came out of the negotiations to drop the lawsuits and to comply with the CAO.”