November 16 (1977, 1985, 1987, 2000, 2002, 2004)
Good People ~ Wilderness Report for the N. F. American ~ “NFART”

11/16/77   dawn. another beautiful day, a clear sky save for some cirrocumulus bands in the east.

i never made it to neil's last night […] he may come by this morning though, and if so we'll make an attempt to reach the keyhole. […] during our adventure with gary over in giant gap, when the situation looked bad, gary's foot was broken, we were a long way from the car, neil was steady and calm. i was relatively upset, and gary of course was very upset. but once gary managed to crawl up to where neil sat, i was really digging how steady and compassionate neil is. gary was rambling on with his anger and self-recriminations, and neil was able to talk to him in such a way that, bit by bit, gary calmed right down and we all mellowed out. i was impressed by the way neil patiently kept on flowing with gary, letting him blow off steam, calmly philosophical about the whole matter. my inclination was to get serious about the whole thing. neil somehow kept it light. ”

[Russell Towle's journal]

November 16, 1985

Saturday evening at home. The Toyota is finally shoveled out, parked near the beginning of Moody Ridge road.


[Russell Towle's journal]

11/16/87   Morning; rainy. Cozy in here with a fire at pl y. Yes the "A" still sticks -- but not so badly, since it's warm. 


[Russell Towle's journal]

Date: Thu, 16 Nov 2000 08:30:01 -0800
To: North_Fork_Trails
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Gene Markley

Hi all,

There has been no response to the Gold Run Extension (of the North Fork American Wild & Scenic River) land acquisition proposal sent to the Trust for Public Land a couple of months ago.

The Foresthill Ranger District of Tahoe National Forest is considering a rather extensive program of "fuel load reduction" in the general vicinity of the Placer County Big Trees, out on Mosquito Ridge Road. This is called the "End of the World" project. At the last minute I obtained a copy of the Environmental Assessment and submitted comments before the deadline expired. The general aim of the End of the World Project is to thin the forest in various places so as to reduce the chance of an all-consuming wildfire. Such a fire would likely originate in the adjacent canyon of the Middle Fork American.

Some of the fuel load reduction will be accomplished by large machines. Similar projects have recently been completed out along Forest Road 19 near Texas Hill and Big Valley Bluff. I had hoped to trace the line of the historic trail from Cisco to Mumford Bar in that area, but the impact of the heavy equipment, scrambling every which way through the stands of white fir, has put an end to any chance of locating the old trail in many areas. In my comments to District Ranger Richard Johnson I raised the issue of historic trails in the Mosquito Ridge/End of the World area. I myself am not very familiar with that area, but suggested that the old General Land Office maps might offer information about such historic trails.

Forest Archaeologist Nolan Smith called me and we discussed the trails issue. As it happens, the day before he had met with Gene Markley, who had also raised the issue of historic trails, within the End of the World Project. I have known Gene for a long time and gave him a call.

As I expected, Gene is well-acquainted with that area. I doubt whether anyone knows the trails of Placer County as well as Gene Markley. He knew of (and had hiked himself) five or six historic trails in the End of the World area. Gene has been walking the wilds of Placer County for over 40 years and has published a number of books on the old mining camps and history of the area. Gene mentioned to me that he has long intended to buy fresh copies of the 7.5 minute topographic maps and draw in the courses of the old trails he knows. Perhaps Placer County itself ought to help Gene Markley record these old trails.

It seems to me that Tahoe National Forest, the Placer County Planning Department, the Placer County Department of Parks and Recreation, the Placer Legacy, and the BLM, all ought to have access to this kind of trails data.

Date: Thu, 16 Nov 2000 11:43:53 -0800
To: "Terry Davis", Tina Andolina
From: Russell Towle
Subject: North Fork Wilderness Report, draft

Hi Terry and Tina,

Here is a draft of a Wilderness Report for the North Fork American. Comments as to additions deletions etc. welcome! Also, I am trying to reach Deane Swickard of BLM to get his take on extending the wilderness boundary west through Giant Gap to Pickering Bar or a little west thereof.

The draft:
North Fork American Potential Wilderness Area

Name of Potential Wilderness: North Fork American
Acreage Estimate: 40,000
Ownership: Tahoe National Forest, Sierra Pacific Industries, and other private parties.
RARE II Name, Number, and Acreage: North Fork American (#5262), 49,100 acres.
Status: Released
County: Placer.
Congressional District: 4th District, Representative John Doolittle.


The great canyon of the North Fork of the American River forms the core of one of the larger of the unprotected Roadless Areas within the Sierra Nevada, and for all that is surprisingly close to Interstate Highway 80. The North Fork itself received Wild & Scenic River designation in 1978. It has been famous for its wildness and scenic beauty since the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1866, and has attracted the attention of many artists, including Thomas Moran and Lorenzo Latimer. With elevations ranging from below 2000 to over 8000 feet in elevation, a broad spectrum of plant communities and wildlife habitats are found within the North Fork American Potential Wilderness. The rugged cliffs of the main canyon provide prime habitat for golden eagles and prairie falcons, and areas of primeval forest support spotted owls. Waterfalls abound on the North Fork and its tributaries. The almost miraculously wild qualities of this 3000-foot-deep canyon and its surrounding Roadless Area would have led to its designation as a Wilderness Area decades ago, but for the checkerboard private inholdings, a legacy of railroad land grants. It is frankly conceded that a North Fork American Wilderness must reasonably depend upon acquisition of these private inholdings, a process which has already begun and continues to this day.


The North Fork American Potential Wilderness embraces an area of roughly 40,000 acres, within Placer County in California’s Sierra Nevada. Its principal feature is the canyon of the North Fork of the American River, known as the American River Canyon, but the potential wilderness also includes portions of various tributaries, some of which have been proposed for Wild & Scenic River designation, such as Little Granite Creek, Big Granite Creek, and New York Canyon. At the head of Little Granite Creek are the Loch Leven Lakes, sparkling jewels set in a broad expanse of glaciated granite. These lakes are among the most popular hiking and camping destinations in Tahoe National Forest. Other notable features within these tributary canyons include the Sailor Meadow old growth forest, and a 500-foot waterfall in New York Canyon. The main canyon itself is a kind of Slate Yosemite, with tremendous cliffs and waterfalls. Several exceptional scenic overlooks flank the canyon, such as Big Valley Bluff (3500 feet above the river), Snow Mountain (4500 feet above the river), and Wabena Point (2500 above the river, with ancient petroglyphs carved into the rock). In the Royal Gorge, flanking Snow Mountain, the North Fork itself plunges over cliffs in a series of stunning waterfalls.

There is no road into this Slate Yosemite, and the lateral approaches are guarded by deep snow until late spring or early summer, thus, few people ever see the many waterfalls in and around the canyon at peak flows. Vegetation is typical of the west slopes of the Sierra, but the great range of elevations within the North Fork potential wilderness is mirrored in a broad spectrum of plant communities, from the red fir and lodgepole pine of the higher elevations, to a patch of blue oak woodland in Green Valley, near the western boundary. Wildlife flourishes in this large roadless area, with its wide variety of habitats. In a part of the Sierra which has been heavily impacted by mining, timber harvests, and hydropower developments for over a century, the very existence of such a large, intact ecosystem seems almost impossible. Yet it remains.

The National Park Service web site’s Wild & Scenic River section contains this description of the North Fork American:

“This fairly inaccessible wild river flows through spectacular Sierra mountain scenery, and it is noted for its outstanding scenic, remote recreation, and historic gold mining values. Approximately half of the river is accessible by steep historic trails. Gorge scrambling is the most popular activity, along with hiking, fishing, and rafting.”

On October 13, 1999, the White House directed the Forest Service to increase protection for remaining roadless areas, and released a fact sheet in which the North Fork American was at the top of a short list of roadless areas meriting increased protection, which read:

“The North Fork American River Roadless Area (Tahoe National Forest, California) -- The area encompasses the canyon lands on both sides of the North Fork of the American River, a designated Wild and Scenic River. The canyon rises from an elevation of 2,100 feet to more than 8,000 feet and contains a wide mix of trees including sugar pine, ponderosa pine, white fir, black oak, chaparral and even Douglas fir. Old growth is quite common especially in Sailor Meadow. The roadless area also provides habitat for peregrine falcon, Sierra Nevada red fox, fisher, marten, and the California spotted owl. This area is extremely popular for primitive forms of backcountry recreation.”

The future of the North Fork American Potential Wilderness is very much in doubt. Land grants made to the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s left portions of the main canyon and its tributaries in a checkerboard land ownership pattern, the odd-numbered sections belonging to the railroad. A corporate takeover attempt, in the 1980s, led to the sale of the old railroad lands, and since then, sustained efforts to acquire these private inholdings, by Tahoe National Forest and the Trust for Public Land, have had only limited success. Helicopter logging has occurred within the main canyon and its tributaries, and tractor logging has also occurred in places near the periphery of the RARE II Roadless Area. Wilderness designation combined with substantial appropriations of money will be required to ensure adequate protection for this remarkable and historic area.

Date: Thu, 16 Nov 2000 13:23:57 -0800
To: Evan Jones
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Re: Gene Markley
>I have urged Gene for years to record the historic
>trails he knows in the area. He laments that these
>trails are being lost, and there are those of us
>willing to reverse the trend if we know where the
>trails are. I am willing to pursue this avenue.
>I personally know of an historic trail which went from
>Placer Big Trees to Duncan Canyon. Part has been lost
>under a road, but part still exists. I could take you
>out there when snow conditions permit.
Hi Evan,

Could this be the Pine Nut Trail Gene mentioned? I would like to see it.

I suppose we ought to make a master list of trails. The nucleus of such a list exists in the 60 or so trails described in the 1953 Placer BOS resolution, of which I have a copy. Gene could probably add another 60 to the list. From a computer GIS standpoint textual info should be in plain text format (like most email). Each trail should have name, Township Range Section info, as a header. Eventually we could GPS each trail as a string of UTM coordinates for GIS mapping purposes.

Date: Thu, 16 Nov 2000 16:39:04 -0800
To: Tina Andolina
From: Russell Towle
Subject: Re: North Fork Wilderness Report, draft
>I am thoroughly impressed with how concise you made this!!! This is
>great. I would like to combine this proposal with one page sheets on
>WS for the tribs. Kathie can help draft this part. And we can
>combine the maps. What do you think? See you Saturday. Tina
Sure, great. I haven't tried to write any thing about the W&S yet.

November 16, 2000

November 16, 2002

This is a digital rendering of the N. Fk. American canyon, from west to east, created
with the ray-tracing software POV-ray using DEM (digital elevation modeling) data.

Giant Gap is the pinch in the canyon at foreground; Green Valley just beyond,
in shadow; the peaks of the Sierra crest are in the far distance.

November 16, 2004
Lawsuit Blocks New Trail
by Russell Towle

I enjoy hiking here in Placer County, often somewhere in the great American River Canyon, that is, the canyon of the North Fork of the American River. There are many old trails, historic trails, which give access to the canyon. Some of these have been abandoned, and offer quite a challenge to find and follow.

For instance, over the past several years, with various friends, I made seven expeditions in search of an old trail from Humbug Bar to the summit of Sawtooth Ridge. This trail is but a few miles east of Dutch Flat, and harks back to the days when mining camps way up by Burnett Canyon and Texas Hill were supplied by mule trains from Dutch Flat. When roads from Emigrant Gap penetrated that area, about a century ago, the need for the trail declined, and it fell out of use. The bridge across the North Fork at Humbug Bar, connecting to the Euchre Bar Trail, washed out, and the fine old trail, graded for loaded mules, with massive stone retaining walls in places, lapsed into complete obscurity.

This Humbug-Sawtooth Trail could and should be restored.

Others have been blocked by gates, or ruined by logging. Concern over loss of our old public trails led Placer County residents, Democrats and Republicans alike, to propose a Trails Ordinance, which was enacted by our Board of Supervisors (BOS) in 1953. The ordinance decreed that all the trails and roads depicted on old Geological Survey maps were “County roads,” and could not be blocked in any way.

Within minutes, large landholders in Placer County filed suit to overturn this Trails Ordinance, and in 1954 it was rescinded.

I could go on and on about the ongoing loss of our historic trails. What I really mean to say is, I love hiking, and I love old trails. Hence I find it somewhat strange to find myself talking part in a lawsuit to stop construction of a trail.

Placer County proposes to build a ‘multi-use” trail 12.6 miles up the North Fork canyon from The Confluence, below Auburn, to Ponderosa Bridge, below Weimar. It has been named the “North Fork American River Trail,” which has the unfortunate acronym, NFART. The idea is to build a sort of level road, four to nine feet wide, cut directly into the canyon wall, so that mountain bikers, equestrians, and hikers can easily penetrate the wildest area left anywhere near Auburn.

I oppose this NFART for many reasons, not the least of which is that I would much prefer the County spend its limited funds on protecting our existing historic trails, rather than building new trails. The BOS approved the project in August, 2004, and in September, I joined with Dutch Flat’s own Bill Newsom, Michael Garabedian of Citrus Heights, Colfax’s Jay Shuttleworth, the amazing Catherine O’Riley, and others, to file suit to stop construction of NFART, and force an Environmental Impact Study.

There is quite a suspicious smell to NFART, an odor of cigars and back rooms and worse. For NFART is in fact Phase One of the proposed Capital-to-Capital Trail (CCT), from Sacramento to Carson City, Nevada. Never mind that we already have a trail from Auburn all the way up and over the Sierra crest to Squaw Valley—the famous Western States Trail—Supervisor Rex Bloomfield decided that a new trail was needed. It would be five feet wide, as level as any amount of dynamite could contrive, blasted from the very cliffs of Giant Gap and the Royal Gorge, all the way up the North Fork canyon from Auburn.

Bill Newsom remarked that this would be like building the Central Pacific Railroad all over again, but over much more difficult terrain. Many people objected strenuously to the CCT; I remember Rex telling me that I was a “radical” and selfish, to boot, for I wished to deprive mountain bikers of a chance to coast down the length of the North Fork American River.

Placer County forged ahead, seeking grant money from the California Resources Agency, and obtained preliminary approval for 1.5 million dollars from Mary Nichols, Gray Davis’s Agency Secretary. The CCT, in Placer County, had been divided into three “phases,” of which the twelve miles from The Confluence to Ponderosa Bridge was Phase One.

This was a more than major project, which would require a painstaking and expensive environmental review. To avoid such costs, the Resources Agency and State Parks advised Placer County to carry it forward bit by bit, and treat Phase One as a “stand-alone” project.

Hence, suddenly, black-magically, Phase One of the CCT became stand-alone NFART. To Rex and his mountain bikers, little environmental review was needed; so a “Mitigated Negative Declaration” (of environmental impact) was conjured up and approved by the Supervisors. It was confusing to talk with County staff about NFART. These are men of integrity who have served our County well, like John Ramirez of Public Works, long involved with the Boy Scouts. On the one hand, it could not be denied that Placer County was still pursuing the CCT, across the Sierra to Squaw Valley and beyond; on the other hand, Phase One was a “stand-alone” project.

Doubletalk at its finest.

Were NFART in fact a stand-alone trail project, I might not have joined in the lawsuit. I rarely visit that part of the canyon, and, “out of sight, out of mind,” as they say. There are so many threats to the North Fork and its historic trails, it is irksome to spend time and money fighting NFART. Right here in Gold Run, 800 acres is now for sale which includes one of the loveliest of all ancient paths, the Canyon Creek Trail. It is irreplaceable; its loss could not be mitigated in any way. This is where Placer County should be spending its money, to protect open space, preserve a historic mining district, and secure continued public access to existing trails.

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