The Rubicon Trail, a county road, is arguably the most famous four-wheel-drive trail in the world. Unfortunately, it is also a source of a million cubic yards of soil that has eroded into streams and lakes on Eldorado National Forest. Oil and transmission fluid also find their way into the environment because vehicles often suffer damage to their oil pans, differentials, and transmissions when negotiating boulder-strewn sections of the Trail.
The trail dates back to the 1800s, when it stretched from Georgetown to Lake Tahoe. Today the trail runs from near Wentworth Springs to near Tahoma on Lake Tahoe's northwest shore,but many 4x4 users access the Trail from Loon Lake via the Ellis Creek Trail.
In winter the paved road to Loon Lake is plowed only to the first dam. The additional mile of unplowed pavement up to the second dam, where the Ellis Creek Trail actually begins, forms the popular Polaris ski and snowshoe route. This route is routinely rutted by 4x4 users in winter.
Snowlands Network and the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation are advocating for the development of a management plan for the Rubicon Trail that contains adequate measures to ensure restoration of the Trail and a halt to motorized use during the wet season (fall through spring), when most erosion occurs.
When El Dorado County dropped their efforts to complete a multi-year planning process for the management of the Trail, Snowlands and CSNC took a new approach. The result came on April 23, 2009 with a stunning unanimous vote of the seven-member Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board in favor of a Cleanup and Abatement Order (CAO) for the Rubicon Trail that set in motion a series of tasks that El Dorado County and the Forest Service must perform to protect the environment through which the Trail Passes.
The CAO describes a list of milestones that must be met by the County and the Forest Service. Snowlands will be monitoring their progress. Please read the Rubicon Trail article on page one of the Summer 2009 Snowlands Bulletin for more information.
The environmental problems of the Rubicon Trail can be tied to the change in the use of the Trail. Historically, the Rubicon Trail was traveled using 4x4s, either stock or slightly modified. These traditional users have been displaced by non-street-legal 4x4 vehicles customized to navigate the increasingly difficult route caused by erosion and purposeful changes. These vehicles, some called "rock crawlers" for their ability to navigate up a rock face, have displaced traditional uses and are turning the trail into an extreme-off-road-vehicle park.
At the September 20, 2007 meeting of the state Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Commission, environmentalists were joined by traditional jeepers in speaking out against the madness of radical 4x4 owners who have taken over the Trail. This unusual alliance highlights the extremeness of those who are abusing the Trail.
Rubicon Trail Deal
Will Protect Water Quality
Time to celebrate a victory!!!
Years of effort by Snowlands Network, other environmental organizations and concerned individuals culminated in an agreement between the Forest Service and diverse interests that will close the Rubicon (Off-Road) Trail at times to protect water quality and prevent erosion like this:
The agreement will also allow improvements to the Rubicon Trail to move forward.
Eight Appellants, including conservation and off-road organizations, as well as El Dorado County, dropped their appeals of a U.S. Forest Service Decision that grants the County an easement for the route of the historic Rubicon Trail and approvals for trail improvements. Changes to the Decision, negotiated and agreed to by the eight appellants, will require the County to close the Trail when weather conditions are likely to result in runoff of sediment and petroleum products.
"This agreement is a win for everyone", said Karen Schambach of Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation and California Field Director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "It allows the County to proceed with bridges and erosion control, and includes a winter closure that ensures those improvements will not be destroyed by irresponsible use."
"The trail improvements along with the agreed to procedures for needed closures will significantly increase protections to water resources and the many riparian and aquatic species that live depend on these waters, including the California red-legged frog and Sierra Nevada yellow legged frog." said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Five conservation organizations jointly appealed the decision: Snowlands Network, Winter Wildlands Alliance, Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation, based in Georgetown where the Rubicon Trail originates, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Center for Biological Diversity. The primary concern for these groups had been the erosion and water quality issues that result from winter and early spring use of the trail, especially by so-called "extreme off-roaders." Currently the Trail is under a Regional Water Board Cleanup and Abatement Order, due to water quality issues such as sedimentation and petroleum products contamination.
"It took last minute efforts of all participants and a willingness to compromise on a plan that everyone can live with in order to make the settlement a reality, said Marcus Libkind, Chairman of Snowlands Network. "My only regret is that this same outcome was not worked out long ago."
A special thanks goes to Monte Hendricks, Snowlands' Highway 50 Coordinator, Rich Platt, retired Forest Service employee and Snowlands volunteer, and all of you who submitted comment letters over the years.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement can be found at: