Warren Wittich, a retired Wonder Bread truck driver from Fair Oaks, drives two and a half hours round trip to maintain the Independence Trail.
Raised in Colfax, Wittich volunteered as the head of trail maintenance for Sequoya Challenge for 12 years until the group disbanded.
Since the dissolution of the group founded by naturalist John Olmsted, Wittich has worked with volunteers from South Yuba River Parks Association to keep the trail open.
Since 2011, volunteers have replaced about 50 to 60 rotten, unsafe boards on the trail’s wheelchair ramp by Rush Creek and South Yuba River Overlook. They have cleared brush. They do the work that the budget-strapped State Parks no longer has the resources to do.
“If he doesn’t do it who’s going to do it?,” asked Ron Ernst, a docent with SYRPA who has volunteered at Bridgeport for seven years.
Most of the volunteers are retired and some have health issues.
On May 17, the youngest in a typical work party was 68. On Fourth of July, Wittich will be 80.
“I’m 70. I’m one of the youngest guys,” Ernst said, who also volunteers with his church and local fire department. He’s concerned for the future of the trail if younger volunteers can’t be recruited.
“There’s a need. There’s a need for this… If we don’t find replacements all these projects are going to die,” he said.
Bear Yuba Land Trust and State Parks partner to maintain the trail until the parks is in a position to take on full responsibility.
“Because of their budget difficulties, they’re not able to do significant capitol improvements,” said BYLT’s Executive Director Marty Coleman-Hunt.
In 2012, the Land Trust took ownership of 207 acres of Sequoya Challenge property – the east and west sections of the trail, including Rush Creek.
“We’re holding the land until the state is ready to take the rest of it. It’s anybody’s guess at this point. Right now everything is up in the air,” Coleman-Hunt said.
Independence Trail contains a lot of lumber - upwards of 27 wooden flumes carry visitors along its length. One good landslide in the right spot can close down the trail and there is no money to rebuild, said Supervising Ranger Don Schmidt, of Sierra Gold Sector Parks.
In the last two years, the state has closed the wheelchair ramp built by John Olmsted numerous times as a safety precaution. About a dozen volunteers did the work to get the ramp re-opened.
“It’s huge. It’s absolutely huge. We don’t have the maintenance staff now to send a maintenance worker or two out to do that sort of work,” said Schmidt.
State Park trail crews went away a long time ago, he said.
The lower section of the ramp is boarded off. In December, a swollen Rush Creek washed away the bottom section of the ramp during an early winter storm.
“It’s just gone. It got washed out. We’re not sure how we’re going to get that fixed. It needs to be engineered, and that’s a big project,” said Larry Gruver, BYLT trails coordinator.
Peering under the ramp reveals precarious footings dating back to a time when John Olmsted built the ramp using whatever hodgepodge resources he had. Over the years, state parks have replaced some with concrete. Others still rest on boulders.
It’s a project that would take thousands of dollars to soundly construct and is beyond a volunteer patch job, he added.
“There is that section down by the creek we might take out all together,” said Schmidt.
Right now, Independence Trail simply is not a priority for the parks.
‘Only a crumb’
In a budget sense, though an important local destination for recreation, Independence Trail is a small piece of the pie.
“It’s only a crumb,” said Schmidt.
Independence Trail illustrates a much larger problem visible at many of the 280 parks statewide where deferred maintenance costs are estimated at $1 billion and growing. Within the Sierra District, deferred maintenance costs are up to $58 million.
The cost to rebuild the covered wooden bridge at Bridgeport alone is $1.2 million. It remains a top priority in a district that stretches from Mono Lake to Plumas, said Schmidt.
The toll of time is endemic to state parks in the Gold Country, where many are historic in nature and date back some 150 years.
At Empire Mine, the Bourn Cottage needs a new roof, a project that could easily cost $150,000.
Tape and barricades block off two popular trails at Malakoff Diggins where Blair Lake Trail and Humbug Trail are closed. There’s no money or people to do the work needed to fix broken bridges on the trails.
At Donner Memorial State Park, dry rot is suspected in the wooden frame of the monument first unveiled in 1918.
If it goes away, will people care?
That’s a question that will have to be asked in coming years, said Schmidt.
Communities are going to have to consider what’s important to them and whether or not they want to pay to keep their state parks intact.
“Are people really going to support the expenditures it’s going to take to keep these places open and viable?...The deferred maintenance backlog never gets any smaller. What are the priorities going to be?,” asked Schmidt.
Much of the $20 million from the State Parks and Recreation Fund Governor Brown directed parks use for making critical maintenance fixes and keeping parks open has been gobbled up.
Roughly $45,000 of that money filtered into Nevada County to the nonprofit groups, South Yuba River Citizens League and Malakoff Diggins Park Association for their work to keep Malakoff Diggins State Park open. Some state money exists to help fund the pricey Bridgeport project.
In an era when the state is overwhelmed by upkeep of all its acquisitions, the donated labor of volunteers like Warren Wittich and Ron Ernst help to keep public lands accessible.
As they walk the Independence Trail, Wittich and Ernst make note of tasks ahead — brush that needs clearing, drainage that needs attention, railings smashed by down trees that need replaced.
When asked why he’s so devoted to the trail, Wittich shrugs his shoulders.
He likes the challenges, though he admits disappointment for not doing more.
“I’ve kept it open. That’s all I can say,” he said.
Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at 401-4877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.