An effort to promote the Rubicon Trail to the National Register of Historical Places took an abrupt detour during the March 4 El Dorado County Board of Supervisors meeting.
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Running into large boulders of potential opposition, the project was sidelined for further “exploration.”
The Rubicon Trail is a public route that roughly connects Georgetown to Lake Tahoe. It winds for about 22 miles (about 12 miles make up the 4×4 trail portion) through the Eldorado National Forest and private land and is under the jurisdiction of the county. Most of the road is at elevations from about 5,000 feet to about 6,800.
U.S. Forest Service archeologist Katy Parr explained to the board the rationale and the process for seeking the Historical Place designation. Calling it a “long, tedious process,” Parr said the application would be based on four criteria for eligibility that include the historical value of (A) Events; (B) Persons; (C) Methods of Construction; and (D) Research Potential. She noted that in her experience, it is rather unusual for an application to contain a number of strong points in all of the criteria.
Elements of the trail’s historical significance include the fact that it was used in prehistoric times by Native Americans to access hunting grounds and food staples, especially acorns. After the discovery of gold in 1848, the route became well used by miners, supply wagons and for mining-related transportation. From the mid-1880s into the 1920s, it was an important route to and from the area’s growing tourist attractions, including the Rubicon Springs Hotel.
In the 1930s, the trail was relatively unused, but after World War II, it took on new life as a challenging off-road driving experience (for “GIs coming home from the war with their Jeeps”), and acquiring special notice as a “Jeepers” destination. In fact, part of the trail is still used as a testing ground for Jeeps and provides the name for the popular Jeep Wrangler — “Rubicon.” The Jeepers Jamboree rocketed the Rubicon Trail to national and even international prominence as the “Crown Jewel” of off-highway “four-wheeling.”
As described by Parr, the important “Events” associated with the Rubicon included the trail’s role in the development of local tourism and the Jeepers Jamboree. Mark Smith, the co-founder of the Jamboree and off-road pioneer, represents category B, “Persons.” The location, relocation and construction of the trail should be considered for their historical value, she said. The trail and its surrounding environment are rich in “Research Potential,” she noted. Due to the three distinct periods of its use, Parr said the trail represents a “unique situation” compared to other places of historical significance.
The trail could qualify as a Historical Place under the program’s guidelines because of the history, variety and continuity of its use, Parr explained. Its ongoing use means that “it won’t be hidden away” like some treasure. She likened the trail to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, whose historical value is maintained by its use by the public.
Supervisor Ron Mikulaco said, “The use of the trail is what we’re recording,” and he wanted an assurance that future “use” of the trail cannot be compromised, that is, what might be done by the current Board of Supervisors could be undone by a future board. Later, he asked Parr to choose the historical value of “wagon ruts” versus “Jeeps” on the trail. Without equivocation, she responded, “Jeeps are more important than ruts because of the ‘use’ (issue).”
Supervisor Brian Veerkamp expressed doubt about the success of the project. “I’m skeptical about potential conflicts from biological (environmental) interests,” he said.
Former District 3 Supervisor Jack Sweeney spoke passionately in favor of the project. “It’s our chance to have something nationally acclaimed,” Sweeney said. “This is very important … It broadens our economic development and tourism … like the Wagon Train.” He also recommended the project be looked at by the Rubicon Oversight Committee (ROC) and to consider the input and concerns of the OHV community.
Several property owners along the trail spoke with concern, saying they had not been informed in advance of the agenda item. Frank McGuire, president of the Rubicon/Soda Springs Property Owners, asked for more time to “find out what this is about.” Another owner, Merlin Scott said, “I can’t agree with Katy about tires versus wagon ruts. There’s a lot of apprehension by property owners.”
El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Laurel Brent-Bumb agreed with Sweeney about “national acclaim,” but added, “I’m skeptical about preservation and protection versus use.”
Coloma resident Melody Lane advised the board to “take a bigger look at the picture” and be more aware of private property adjacent to historical property and “access to public lands through private property.” She noted easements and eminent domain as particular areas of concern and suggested that greater government involvement might be seen as an example of the United Nations’ “Agenda 21.”
One ardent trail user (assuming that more federal and state oversight and involvement would come with the Historical Place designation) quipped, “When has adding another level of bureaucracy ever helped?”
Rubicon Trail Foundation Vice President John Arenz also asked the board to take time out, noting that successful actions and outcomes related to the Rubicon have “always been a collaboration.”
“My legal counsel says this is not a good idea,” Arenz said.
In a phone conversation later, Arenz explained in more detail that the RTF “is not officially opposing nor supporting the plan” at this time. His group’s concern is that the designation today might not protect the trail’s use off into the future, as Congress could alter the current guidelines and the manner in which the Forest Service manages the affected land.
Supervisor Ron Briggs apologized for the apparent lack of notification to land owners and urged the board to give more time to study the impact to them and assured supervisors and the audience that, “this is not the last time this issue will be before us.”
Eldorado National Forest Supervisor Lawrence Crabtree clarified, “We’re only talking about U.S. Forest Service land.”
Forest Service jurisdiction extends in “discontiguous segments” of approximately 5.3 miles, according to county Parks Manager and Rubicon Trail specialist Vickie Sanders. Sanders noted that the 4×4 portions of the trail within El Dorado County total about 7.5 miles approximately between Wentworth Springs Campground and the Placer County line. Katy Parr later confirmed that information with a map showing the Forest Service’s trail sections within the county.