Coast Range Wilderness on Path to Preservation

BY PAUL MCHUGH
Special to The Bee

Brush grew so thick on the ridgeline I could not see a hiking companion just 20 feet away from me. I looked down at cuts on my hands and rips in my shirt, then gazed back up at the summit mesa of Cedar Roughs Wilderness. Despite our hours of effort, we apparently hadn’t drawn a whole lot closer.

“This is nuts,” I shouted to Andrew Fulks. “Let’s stop, and call it good.”

“No,” he said. “You wouldn’t take a boat onto Lake Mead, then claim you’d seen the Grand Canyon, would you? We can’t quit until we actually touch those famous cedars! So don’t wimp out on me.”

Osprey. Photo by Paul McHugh.
Osprey. Photo by Paul McHugh.

In truth, I’d invited Fulks to join me on an exploration of one corner of California’s newest proposed national monument to provoke exactly this kind of response. The man’s a bushwhacker of huge experience and vast enthusiasm. I could predict that he’d flog me every bit as much as this undergrowth would. When he insisted we had to keep going, I took a deep breath and thrashed forward.

Fulks is also president of Tuleyome, a local conservation group that promoted designation of this 6,300-acre wilderness area in 2006. Today, with a much broader range of support, Tuleyome promotes designation of a Snow Mountain-Berryessa National Monument. This would encompass roughly 350,000 acres sprawling east, west and north of Cedar Roughs. Fans of this huge new preserve claim it would award long-deserved fame to an ignored region of the Coast Range that actually holds impressive natural and recreational resources. If the push succeeds, they say, new economic activity in surrounding towns should be invigorated by enhanced visitation.

But for that to work – as our foray into Cedar Roughs demonstrated – improved access must speedily become a top priority.

The first 2 miles of our uphill route lay on a rustic, volunteer-built path; the next mile consisted only of faded trail tape knotted to twigs; but our fourth mile had been a brutal, improvised slog.

“I love this,” Fulks said, as he leaned down to take a close-up photo of a wild flower with his iPhone. “No exotic species, just native plants doing their thing. This is a real wilderness.”

The proposed new monument would run 100 miles northward from the cool, trout-fishing waters of Putah Creek on the edge of Solano County to the rocky crest of Snow Mountain, at 7,000 feet, the highest point on the shared border between Lake and Colusa counties. It would embrace oak woodlands, grasslands, conifer uplands, wild and scenic streams, three off-highway vehicle recreation areas, and fling arms of protected land around the 21,000 acres of the Lake Berryessa reservoir (which itself would not be included). The whole region is a home to tule elk and black bear, osprey and eagles.

“It’s a spectacular place for all kinds of recreation, it’s got diverse and beautiful wildlife and native vegetation – especially the spring wildflower displays,” says U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield, whose 3rd District holds most of the proposed monument. “It will become widely known as a special place in California if we can only get this done, then integrate a unified management for the whole area.”

He points out that more than 9 million people are living within a two-hour drive of the proposed monument. Lake Berryessa itself is just 40 miles from Sacramento, 20 from Napa and 50 from San Francisco.

Garamendi credits Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, of the adjoining 5th District with launching and spearheading the bill for this new monument and says they are both trying to whip votes for it in Congress – either with a stand-alone bill that’s in committee, or by bundling it into a lands omnibus package.

Simultaneously, a parallel route to designation – via presidential proclamation – is also being sought. President Barack Obama’s naming of three more national monuments in February, including the 21,000-acre Browns Canyon preserve in Colorado, brings the president’s total to 16 named during his administration, and inspires hope that he might see a Snow Mountain-Berryessa monument as one more part of his legacy.

Another cause for optimism on the part of proponents is simply how many proponents there are. “Our town hall meetings have been packed with supporters,” says Sara Husby, the executive director of Tuleyome, and its manager of the monument campaign. “We’ve gathered expressions of support from 80,000 individuals, 200 local businesses, and gotten resolutions in favor from five of the most affected counties.”

The support ranges across stakeholders and user-groups, including the off-highway vehicle advocacy organization, Blue Ribbon Coalition, that signed on after negotiating assurances that a major BLM (federal Bureau of Land Management) riding area in Knoxville and areas in the Grindstone and Upper Lake districts of Mendocino National Forest would remain unaffected.

This does not mean that nobody objects. Colusa County, which includes a small slice of existing wilderness in the Mendocino National Forest, is not in favor.

Nadine Bailey is the operations officer for the Maxwell Family Water Alliance, with more than 2,000 members – primarily drawn from ranchers and farmers from the Sacramento Valley. “We don’t support monument designation,” Bailey says. “It’ll just put one more layer of government on a landscape that already has too many hoops to jump through when you’re trying to get something done – like thinning out overgrowth to lessen fire danger. Fuel loads already are way too high in those hills. If they burn, it’ll wreck the watersheds.”

Garamendi counters that management of monument lands – which would bring together federal, state and local agencies with concerned stakeholders and user groups – would just unify government, not add a layer. And it would tend to preserve water quality, not only through joint projects like controlled burns, but mainly by sponsoring concerted efforts to rid the region of illegal marijuana grows.

Other doubters, such as the tiny Lake Berryessa Chamber of Commerce, wonder if the claimed economic benefits of a monument designation can materialize. Over the past dozen years, Berryessa has undergone an upheaval that saw several shoreline resorts dismantled, and visitation plunge from 1.5 million people a year to a third of that number. That change also removed a jumble of private trailers and corresponding access and pollution problems. Their replacement by public campgrounds, day-use areas and new concessionaires is underway, but visitation has yet to rebound.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the lake, plans a 165-mile-long multiple-use trail to encircle the lake, providing not only a route for hikers, but also a venue for running, equestrian and mountain bike events – adding to the lake’s traditional draws of power boating, angling and waterskiing. This rim trail will have spokes that radiate out to other attractions in the monument, some already under construction. Tuleyome volunteers have built a 7.5-mile route to Berryessa Peak, routes up onto Blue Ridge and begun a link between Putah and Pope canyons, as well as establishing the 2-mile north entry to Cedar Roughs.

Napa County’s Regional Park and Open Space District presently is concluding negotiations for a parcel that would allow a much shorter east access into the Roughs, directly from a site on Berryessa’s shore.

That means it might not be much longer than a year or two before other visitors – but expending far less effort than Fulks and I did – can enjoy the fragrant cedar groves we found up on the mesa. Truth be told, these are not really cedars, but Sargent cypresses, trees endemic to California and particularly fond of serpentine soils that are thoroughly inhospitable to many other types of plant.

We broke out of the brush and into a quiet swale dominated by a grove of shaggy trunks twisting up out of a thick carpet of brown duff. Six stories over our heads, vivid green needles formed a canopy framing ragged patches of blue sky. I sat on a mossy rock to relax, and inhaled the spicy aroma of resin, and listened to breezes swishing through the boughs. We had come to a peaceful and magical spot. All around the rim of the grove, vistas of Coast Range hills rippled out to the horizons.

I rubbed some of the stout, fragrant needles between my fingers, and beckoned to Fulks.

“Well, as it happens, you were right,” I told him.

IF YOU GO

Cedar Roughs Wilderness – Access is via a trailhead near the Canyon Road, 2.2 miles west of the junction with the Knoxville Road. Get map and directions from BLM Ukiah, www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/ukiah/cedarroughs.html

Cache Creek – A 7-mile, mild whitewater run on this stream in the proposed monument will have enough water for flows through most of June and July. The outfitters are: Cache Canyon, www.cachecanyon.com/Home/Welcome.html; Rubicon Adventures, http://rubiconadventures.com/riversrubiconruns/; and Whitewater Adventures, www.gotwhitewater.com/rafting-in-california-info/rafting-trips.

Tuleyome – This Coast Range conservation group provides a comprehensive list of trails, hikes, recreation opportunities and volunteer activities: www.tuleyome.org/index.php/get-outside

Lake Berryessa – Recreation directly around the big lake is managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, www.usbr.gov/mp/ccao/berryessa; contacts with area resorts and visitor-serving businesses are also supplied by local chambers of commerce, winterschamber.com, www.napachamber.com and www.lakeberryessanews.com.

Mendocino National Forest – Manages the Snow Mountain Wilderness and other recreational assets in the northern portion of the proposed national monument: www.fs.usda.gov/mendocino