The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors voted last week to take control of and responsibility for a U.S. Forest Service easement of the Rubicon Trail, a decision that tries to balance between the desires of the off-road community and environmental groups.
The four-wheel drive trail traverses the Sierra just west of the basin, winding its way from Georgetown to Lake Tahoe near Tahoma. It's 22 miles of challenging off-road terrain, and recent heavy use and lack of maintenance had put the historic trail in jeopardy.
In 2001, El Dorado County was notified of sanitation, spill, safety and sedimentation issues on the trail, what CAO Administrative Analyst Vickie Sanders called the 'four S's.'
Toilet paper clusters, dubbed "white flowers" by Sanders, lined the route, while lack of maintenance had created serious erosion and water quality issues.
"It was horrible," President of the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation Karen Schambach said.
The conservation group encouraged the county to apply for the easement.
In 2009, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a cleanup and abatement order to the USFS and El Dorado County. According to Sanders, the county took the opportunity to step in and take over the route.
"Instead of fighting it, our supervisor Jack Sweeney said, 'We'll take it,'" Sanders said.
Since then, the Rubicon has undergone something of a facelift. There are new rock barriers and a bridge for erosion control, water bars, bathrooms, spurs where recreationists can camp, and there are more projects underway. Officials will close the route if and when use would contribute to erosion, usually during heavy precipitation periods. They have already closed some user-created trails.
Today there are fewer "white flowers" along the route and families are coming back to the trail, according to Sanders.
"The beauty of the area has been maintained. There aren't toilet paper clusters everywhere. It's great to see the Rubicon back for all forms of recreation," she said.
John Arenz, vice president of the Rubicon Trail Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the route, said that the easement is a positive step forward that will end years of finger pointing between the County and the USFS regarding who has responsibility for the trail.
"It means two things. For the people who don't drive off-road, other people will continue to use it and that's good for the community. For the people who do spend time on the trail, they're going to see trail improvements," Arenz said.
Schambach said it's a much-needed move that has been in the works for too long.
"The outcome was good. The users should be pleased. They're going to get the maintenance and it'll protect a recreation resource while it's protecting the environment," she said.