Inside Coldstream Canyon: Right to access canyon claimed by many factions
One hundred and fifty years ago, settlers on the Emigrant Trail just wanted to get through the Coldstream Canyon and over the Sierra.
Today, with a dozen private landowners, three corporations, two land trusts and an expanding state park all trying to share the same scenic and historic valley, opinions on access, control and appropriate uses of the canyon span the entire land-use spectrum, from an individual’s property rights to preservation of the valley for future generations.
“The primary issue that has caught most people’s attention is the private property owner’s right versus the public’s interest to govern private property rights,” said Mike Kozlowski, a paralegal formerly with Truckee Tahoe Legal Clinic and currently working for the Allstate legal department in Sacramento. Kozlowski owns approximately 9 acres in the valley.
Some of the larger landowners in the valley include Sierra Pacific Industries, the Trust For Public Land, Truckee Donner Land Trust and the United States Forest Service.
Company and agency officials estimate the USFS owns several hundred acres in the valley, SPI around 2,000 and the land trusts own, or have under option, approximately 2,200 acres.
But it is a handful of small land owners who are the most vocal over the expansion of Donner Memorial State Park and the policies of the State of California Parks and Recreation Department.
“In general, we don’t see eye to eye,” said Larry Hahn. Hahn, who owns 55.8 acres in the canyon, is currently trying to subdivide his parcel. Hahn also runs a snowmobile business in the valley in the winter.
Forks in the road
If one were searching for a metaphor for the confusion in Coldstream Canyon, they wouldn’t need to look any further than the primary access road into the valley.
Coldstream Road originates off Donner Pass Road just east of Donner Lake. The dirt road runs approximately three miles through the valley before it intersects with Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
The road skirts the eastern edge of Donner Memorial State Park, crosses the Placer-Nevada county line about one mile south of its origin, then heads into Coldstream Canyon.
In 1996, the State of California Parks and Recreation Department installed a gate on Coldstream Road in order “to control access to the state property back in the canyon,” said Sierra District Superintendent John Knott.
“We are not trying to limit the property owners’ access. And the public still has access to the canyon,” Knott said. “They just have to go through the park and pay a $2 day use fee.”
Prior to the construction of the gate, most, if not all of the landowners in the canyon (some of the parcels have changed hands since 1996) signed an agreement with the state park over its installation and were provided with a key and/or combination to the gate.
In addition, the private landowners in the valley are not charged for the use of the road or for access into the canyon.
Pat Davison, field director with California Association of Business, Property and Resource Owners, a property rights advocacy group, said some of the property owners she has met with don’t mind the gate, largely because it curtails the number of people who drive back into Coldstream, while others are concerned about the effect it may have on future commercial opportunities.
“We are trying to help property owners, private as well as public, reach some resolution over the gate and the ownership of the road,” she said.
But Davison herself questioned the park’s authority to install a gate on a public road if it in any way prohibits the public’s access or “diminishes or curtails the opportunities (of landowners) for future commercial activities.”
Knott, however, said the gate has produced the desired results.
“It’s greatly curtailed illegal dumping or unauthorized camping in Coldstream,” he said.
Ownership and control of the road itself is also uncertain, though most officials agree that the public has a right to use it.
Placer County officials maintain it is a public right-of-way dating back to the Emigrant Trail.
“Placer County’s position, is that, in our opinion, there is a public access easement that is the Emigrant Trail. That (trail) may or may not be Coldstream Road,” said Wes Zicker, deputy director of Public Works in Placer County.
The last formal study done on the location of the Emigrant Trail was done in 1949.
“In any event … it’s not a county-maintained highway and we can’t spend tax dollars on it,” Zicker said.
Davidson said she is encouraging “all the owners to seek equal control of the road. My concern is that one property owner, the state park, is deciding what other property owners can and can’t do with the road.”
Knott said the state park will acknowledge all the pre-existing rights and easements of property owners in the canyon in regards to the use of the road.
Towards the end of the valley, where it begins to meld with the ridge of Anderson Peak and Mount Lincoln, Coldstream Road intersects Union Pacific tracks at a hairpin turn known as Horseshoe Bend.
The right to cross those tracks, like the ownership and control of the road, is muddled.
Southern Pacific Railroad used to maintain a crossing known as Andover Crossing, used by property owners and recreationists to access land on the other side of the tracks.
The crossing, which included signs and warning lights, consisted of railroad ties that were laid down in between the tracks so vehicles could drive over them.
But because of the limited visibility of the hairpin turn, Union Pacific found the crossing unsafe and dismantled it. Once it was decommissioned, property owners and recreationists resorted to using a concrete culvert, designed to allow Coldstream Creek to flow under the tracks, as a way to get past the tracks.
But a Union Pacific spokesman has indicated that the company may soon prohibit vehicular traffic from using the undercrossing as well.
“We will be posting (No Trespassing) signs, and if our security personal catch people using the undercrossing S they will be cited for trespassing,” said Union Pacific Media Representative Mike Furtney. “The existing (under)crossing that is used on a casual basis is not safe. I don’t want the railroad to appear in a heavy-handed way, but safety is the primary concern.”
If use of the undercrossing is prohibited, property owners and recreationists will not have a legal crossing to access lands on the other side of the tracks.
“Someone is going to die trying to get across the tracks,” said Hahn. Since the Andover Crossing was dismantled, Hahn said he has personally pulled four vehicles off the tracks that were stuck after attempting to cross them.
SPI and the USFS both claim to possess deeds and easements from former track owner Southern Pacific, that, should it be necessary, allow them to use the Andover Crossing.
“We have recorded deeds for the (Andover) railroad crossing,” said Tim Feller, Tahoe district manager for SPI. “And we have right-of-way and maintenance easements.”
But Feller said SPI would only make that request if they planned to log their property in the area, then added SPI has no immediate plans to do so.
Joanne Roubique, district ranger with USFS, said the forest service also has legal rights to cross the tracks, but has not identified the land beyond them as needing “vehicular access year round or every year.”
Union Pacific officials said they are reviewing information about the legitimacy of those deeds and easements.
In addition, while USFS and SPI both claim to have the right to have Andover Crossing reinstalled, the users of it would bear the financial burden.
“We can request the railroad put that crossing back in, but we would be liable for the costs, including construction and maintenance,” Feller said.
And that, according to Union Pacific’s Furtney, is the heart of the issue.
“After safety, the bottom line is who is going to pay for (another crossing), and it’s not going to be the railroad,” Furtney said.
Next Week: Part Two – Park expansion, preservation and commercial activities in Coldstream Canyon.
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The U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has begun its annual process of closing recreational facilities around Lake Tahoe for the winter season.