Park remakes Greenpicker (Point Reyes Light, 02.05.2009)

Photo by Eli Hamann

Photo by Eli Hamann

One day last November, hikers in the Point Reyes National Seashore noticed freshly sawed tree trunks and an orange Kubota backhoe. The trail had been dug up, and prints of the metal track wheels were visible on the loosened dirt. They alerted a local environmental group, which wrote a letter to the park.

Over the winter, an old logging road that was part of Greenpicker Trail was torn up and the trail was partially rerouted. Greenpicker starts at the end of Stewart Trail, which is about a mile from Five Brooks Ranch. It is a designated wilderness, but despite prohibitions to operate heavy machinery in such areas, park staff determined that the long-term benefits of removing the road justified the short-term disturbance. The backhoe work is complete and the trail should be reopened this spring.

“It’s a great project that has tremendous long-term benefits with some short-term impacts,” said Don Neubacher, superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS). “We’re trying to increase the wilderness character of the landscape.”

Greenpicker Trail is made up of dense second-growth Douglas fir stands. Slightly over a half-mile of it suffered from unsafe conditions and severe erosion due to poor road design. The logging road, which formerly served Sweet Lumber Mill, was cut into a steep stream drainage on the Inverness Ridge. As a result, water had cut ruts and gullies into it.

Several years ago, PRNS approved a plan for Greenpicker. The project, which cost over $87,000, aimed to protect habitat and provide safe access for park visitors. The new design slopes outward so water flows off the trail instead of being trapped.

“By arresting the unnatural erosion from the former logging road and developing a sustainable wilderness trail profile we protected the wilderness as a whole and allowed for safe continued use for future generations,” said John Dell’Osso, a spokesperson for PRNS.

Since Greenpicker is within a wilderness area, the park must comply with the “minimum requirement” mandated by the Wilderness Act. According to the act, motorized equipment may only be used to achieve the purposes of wilderness character preservation or in emergency situations; if significant impact is unavoidable, localized and short-term adverse impacts are acceptable.

PRNS staff decided there were three options for Greenpicker: close the trail, use only hand tools to stabilize erosion problems or tear out the eroding section of road using heavy machinery. Closing the trail would have meant detouring hikers to Stewart Trail, which is shared with horses, bikes and park vehicles. Hand tools could have been used to fill eroded parts of the trail with rocks, but this would have required annual upkeep.

“There’s no way to use hand tools to correct these problems,” Neubacher said. “It needed some major rehabilitation.” But others questioned the decision.

“For the most part, motorized equipment is mostly antithetical to wilderness areas,” said Fred Smith, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. Fred wrote a letter to Neubacher after learning of the project in January. “I wanted to ensure they followed the proper procedures to make their decision.” In the end, he believes they did.

A hydrologist, plant ecologist, research biologist and historian were consulted, and their lists of potential disturbances were addressed. Some trees that could not be transplanted were cut and some noise was unavoidable. The area was surveyed for three rare or threatened species—redlegged frogs, Spotted Owls and California bottlebrush grass—and only Spotted Owls were found. Incidentally, the owls have benefited from the trimmed trees where lower branches use to impair their hunt for dusky-footed wood rats.

The work was completed in December. From here on out, workers—including Adopt-a-Trail volunteers who have maintained sections of the trail since 1992—can go in with hand tools.

“National parks have conflicting mandates—on one hand, they protect natural resources and on the other hand, they must satisfy public access and visitor enjoyment,” Smith said. “Satisfying both these interests is basically impossible. I think the end result of this project will likely be beneficial. My only question is: was this the best way to do it?”

Last week, the low-hanging branches of Douglas firs were piled among uprooted tree stumps and lichen-covered bark on either side of Greenpicker. The trail is now about six feet across and covered by compacted rocks.

“Give it a little time to heal. We don’t want it disturbed until it is stabilized. We want to let it rest,” Neubacher said. “When it opens, it will be better than ever.”

~ by Janet Fang on February 8, 2009.

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