LAKE TAHOE — A steady stream of hikers made their way up the Eagle Falls trail and into Desolation Wilderness Friday afternoon, eager to see the area's pristine alpine lakes and seemingly endless granite expanses.
The more than 63,000-acre area on the southwest side of Lake Tahoe boasts some of the best scenery the Sierra Nevada has to offer.
Under its wilderness designation, Desolation also includes some of the most restrictive rules regarding what is and isn't allowed — permits are needed, campfires are banned and some forms of recreation are prohibited.
Whether additional wilderness areas should be added to the Lake Tahoe Basin has been a source of debate surrounding the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit's Forest Plan update, which is making its way through the environmental review process.
Proponents of adding wilderness areas to the basin — including the California Wilderness Coalition and the Sierra Club — contend the classification will provide the highest level of protection for some of the best natural terrain in the area.
“The bottom-line benefit is that the wildest portions of the Lake Tahoe Basin would remain wild for perpetuity,” said Ryan Henson, senior conservation director with the Wilderness Coalition.
But some groups who could lose access to popular spots if additional areas became wilderness, such as mountain bikers and snowmobilers, have voiced concerns about the idea.
The Forest Service's proposed option in the plan's environmental document, Alternative B, does not include any recommendations for additional wilderness areas.
New wilderness areas require the approval of the U.S. Congress. The Forest Service can only recommend the creation of wilderness areas.
Two of the alternatives in the plan's environmental document, C and D, do include new wilderness areas.
Alternative C proposes the Dardanelles Roadless Area become a new wilderness area. Alternative D proposes that both the Dardanelles and Freel roadless areas receive wilderness designation.
The Dardanelles area includes more than 14,000 acres at the southernmost tip of the basin. The area is popular with hikers and horseback riders and, in recent years, mountain bikers, according to Forest Service comments.
The Freel Roadless Area includes more than 15,000 acres and contains the 10,881-foot Freel Peak. The area includes some of the most popular snowmobiling areas and mountain biking trails, including Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, at the South Shore.
The Wilderness Coalition and Sierra Club have urged the Forest Service to recommend the creation of wilderness areas around Meiss Meadows, Hell Hole and Trimmer Peak at the South Shore and extend the Granite Chief Wilderness at the North Shore.
The conservation groups' proposals would create wilderness on either side of existing, legal mountain bike trails, but would keep the trails open, Henson said.
Although officials with the Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association have said they agree with the conservation groups on many levels, the group has not endorsed their proposals, according to a statement addressing the Forest Plan.
“The proposed Wilderness areas shown on their maps would generally keep existing mountain bike trails open in Alternatives C and D, but would surround them by Wilderness, thus limiting the potential for reroutes and future connections,” according to the statement. “These Wilderness proposals are not part of the Draft Forest Plan on any formal level and are not endorsed by TAMBA.”
Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck said keeping existing mountain bike trails open through newly designated wilderness areas, a process known as “cherry-stemming,” creates problems with consistent enforcement on public land.
Although Congress could potentially allow cherry-stemming, the Forest Service does not believe it is an option under its policy, Heck said.
The Forest Service will hold a series of meetings on both shores this week to answer questions regarding the Forest Plan update. The ultimate plan could be one of the existing alternatives or a combination of the options, depending on the specific feedback the Forest Service receives, Heck said.
Comments on the plan's draft environmental document are due by Aug. 30. A final environmental document is expected for release near the end of 2012, with a decision by the Forest Service's regional office scheduled for the middle of 2013.