Notes from the Tahoe Rim Trail – beautiful Desolation not so desolate
August 6, 2007
The Tahoe Rim Trail passes by many beautiful and illustrious places on the 165-mile loop of the Tahoe Basin, from the popular Mount Rose Wilderness to the venerable Pacific Crest Trail.
But no location the trail wanders through receives as many visitors as Desolation Wilderness, a 100-square-mile, federally designated wilderness area that straddles the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and Eldorado National Forest on the southwestern end of the Tahoe basin.
While Associate Director Erin Casey of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association said the Mount Rose Wilderness stretch of the rim trail is more popular than the Desolation segment, Desolation outstrips Mount Rose ” and every other wilderness area in the country ” in overall number of visitors.
“Desolation gets more than 130,000 people per year,” said Don Lane, recreation forester for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “I look at Desolation as a battleground of values ” people want, and should want, to use public land, but we also need to preserve its wilderness character.”
Lane said the area was first designated the Desolation Valley Primitive Area in 1931, and was then identified as a wilderness area in 1969. Shortly thereafter, it became clear something would have to be done to regulate the number of visitors, Lane said.
“Starting in 1971 we implemented a permit system; we were getting over 2,000 visitors per day in the summer,” Lane said. “This wasn’t wilderness; it was like a city park.”
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Permits were free, and were simply a tool to make people stop and think before heading into the wilderness, he said.
Later the Forest Service adopted a reservation system, but its personnel discovered from the reservations that campers all tended to occupy the same spots, Lane said, leading to a quota system of 700 daily campers in 1976.
“We started the first restrictive protective step on campers ” wilderness was at stake,” Lane said.
Five years ago, Hall said the Forest Service once again looked at the quota system, trying to find a way to spread users out from the usual areas of concentration near lakes.
“We realized we couldn’t just control the total numbers,” Hall said. “We divided the area into 45 zones, each with their own quotas to spread people out more.”
The quota goes into effect on the Friday before Memorial Day, and lasts through the end of September, according to the Forest Service Web site.
The quotas vary by zone, with some as limited as two people per night, according to the Web site.
The Forest Service has looked beyond the numbers of visitors in an effort to minimize impacts on Desolation Wilderness: The federal agency also evaluated what the users were doing.
Lane said in the 1990s a study found the most destructive practice by backpackers was the campfire.
“The lakes were just being destroyed; campfires were causing enormous resource decimation,” Lane said.
Now campers are required to use portable stoves instead of campfires, Lane said.
While in some high-altitude wilderness areas human waste has been a problem, Lane said as long as campers follow Leave No Trace principles, it isn’t a big problem in Desolation.
“We’ve done water-quality testing in the Desolation lakes and discovered no contamination,” Lane said. “There were more problems from beaver and marmot than from people.”