USFS seeks historic trail mitigations | SierraSun.com
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USFS seeks historic trail mitigations

ABHUTCHISON, Sierra Sun

Discussions are under way to mitigate the proposed Highway 267 Bypass impact on an important part of Truckee history – the Overland Emigrant Trail.

In 1996, Oregon-California Trails Association trail investigator Don Wiggins discovered a part of the Overland Emigrant Trail created by the first emigrants in the area. He discovered this segment of the trail based on diary accounts of early pioneers and their physical descriptions of the trail.

This part of the trail, however, will be bisected by the long-awaited Highway 267 Bypass, which will alleviate traffic congestion through the downtown Truckee intersection and railroad crossing. Construction on the bypass was set to begin this summer.

The U.S. Forest Service and OCTA are requesting mitigations from Caltrans, the lead agency in the bypass project, that will help preserve this portion of the trail. These mitigations include putting up two interpretive signs on the trail and trail access between the two signs.

“The forest service and OCTA are not trying to stop or delay this project at all. This is just one small component of the big project,” said Truckee Ranger District archaeologist, Carrie Smith, who helped Wiggins mark the trail last year. “I think the trail is important because

this is a very intact segment of the Overland Emigrant Trail. The trail exists in tiny, chopped-up segments and that’s all we have.”

Smith said the forest service first informed Caltrans about specifics regarding the trail late last summer.

“They (Caltrans) submitted a report in January that discussed the significance of the trail and the effects of the bypass on the trail,” said Smith.

She reviewed Caltrans’ report, but said she could not agree with their conclusion that the bypass would not have an adverse impact on the trail.

According to ranger district officials, however, the bypass meets three adverse effect criteria:

– The bypass will physically damage (obliterate) part of the isolated segment under investigation.

– The bypass will isolate property from its setting. The “pristine,” easily identifiable segment will be completely isolated from a key geographic point where the trail came to a bluff edge.

– The bypass will introduce visual, audible and atmospheric elements that will alter the setting irreversibly.

District officials and OCTA hope that Caltrans will “soften the blow” by considering their proposed mitigations.

Caltrans made minor changes to their report, said Smith, and submitted it to the Sate Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in Sacramento. SHPO reviewed the report along with the forest service’s response, and met with Caltrans last week, requesting specific questions answered about the trail, the bypass and possible impacts.

Representatives from Caltrans, Wiggins and U.S. Forest Service officials met yesterday to discuss the impacts and possible mitigations, said Smith. The focus of the meeting was to build a site record and to help Caltrans understand the physical evidence of the trail.

Truckee Ranger District recreation and lands officer, Rick Maddalena said that SHPO has two options: to either agree with Caltrans that there is no adverse impact, or agree with the forest service and OCTA that there is an adverse impact and mitigations will move ahead.

According to Thomas Hunt, a preservation officer with OCTA, Caltrans argued no adverse effect because the section of the trail in question is a short, discontinuous segment that lacks visual and physical connection with other elements of the trail. Caltrans also argued that there has already been construction in that area that has segmented the trail and the bypass project does not appear to cause more of an adverse effect.

“This (argument) is equivalent to arguing that since one may have already lost a finger, it won’t really matter if we chop one’s entire arm off,” wrote Hunt in a letter to Caltrans.

Hunt explained that this segment of the historic trail is important precisely because of what it is and not where it is, “a segment of Overland Trail close to an urban area, a major highway and interstate, and available for interpretation, visitation, and enjoyment by the public.”

“What truly bothers us in this present situation is that we, as a historic trail preservation organization, are not at all challenging the bypass project or the necessary impacts this project may entail for this important part of our nation’s heritage. We are attempting to be reasonable and realistic by requesting a minimal response from Caltrans on this project. We are simply asking that Caltrans not judge itself immune from its mitigation responsibilities under the law,” he said.

“Initially when we submitted our report, that was our finding – that there are no adverse effects on the trail. But that is not the final report. The state preservation office did review our report and they asked us to go out and look again at the trail and review our findings,” said Caltrans Public Affairs Officer Laura Featherstone.

The construction for the bypass project is slated to begin this summer, in late July.

“As far as I know, construction will still begin this summer. The forest service doesn’t want to be the ones that are stalling this project. They want to be team players in this effort,” said Featherstone.

She said that Caltrans is willing to comply with the requested mitigations, and is in the process of discussing them and working out a way to move ahead with the project.

The segment of trail that is in question is located just north of Glenshire Drive, east of Olympic Heights, on forest service land. The trees in this area are already marked and represent the path the bypass will clear, bisecting and obliterating about 100 yards of the trail.

According to OCTA and forest service officials, the geographical point, which overlooks the Truckee River, is easily identifiable as the emigrant trail based on diary accounts. The diaries describe the pioneers arriving at the bluff above the Truckee River and Wiggins has located evidence of a faint swale in the sagebrush and an easily recognizable linear swale in the treeline.

The Emigrant Trail, also known as The California Trail and the Donner Trail, is the original trail created by the first emigrants traveling through the area by way of wagon, said Wiggins.

The Town of Truckee, which is in support of the bypass project moving ahead, hopes the Caltrans can come to an agreement on mitigations with the forest service and OCTA.

“We have not been participating directly in the discussions. But it appears a solution is somewhat readily available,” said Town Manager Steve Wright. “We’re hopeful the solution doesn’t get bogged down in extensive bureaucratic analysis and that the project will move ahead. The discussions are between two very big entities, a state agency and a federal agency, and it’s how they can work through this process in an expeditious manner.”

“There is nobody that wants this project delayed. It’s very likely we’ll be able to find solutions to keep that project on track,” said Maddalena.


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