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California and the West

Cross-State Trail Plan Faces Uphill Climb

Environment: Naturalist finds that his vision of a heritage pathway showcasing the region's diversity from the coast to the Sierra is a tough sell.


NEVADA CITY, Calif. — This vision has consumed half a life, so far, but John Olmsted isn't about to pack it in. For three decades, the gray-bearded naturalist has plotted and pleaded, begged and borrowed, told anyone who bothered to listen about his dream.

Olmsted wants the state to establish a heritage trail across California's midsection. His reasoning is simple. While existing paths, such as the rugged Pacific Crest Trail, highlight a region of geographic and biological similarity, a cross-state corridor would spotlight the state's stunning diversity, from the foam-washed Pacific coast to the Central Valley prairie to the towering granite of the Sierra.

As engaging as the idea might seem, Olmsted has had only limited success at cementing his vision on solid ground. Both his triumphs and failures say much about the man.

The victories have been quiet but convincing. Olmsted parlayed a family inheritance--his grandfather developed much of Encino and built Hollywood's erstwhile Garden of Allah hotel--into a small nonprofit land trust that helped save several ecologically sensitive tracts. Olmsted fancies himself an "undeveloper," reversing the course set by his growth-minded ancestor.

Among the spots Olmsted's group, the California Institute of Man in Nature, has helped preserve is the rare pygmy forest now enshrined at Jug Handle State Reserve on the Mendocino County coast. Up in the Sierra foothills, several scenic swaths gobbled up by the group now are part of a state park along the South Yuba River, not far from Olmsted's homestead outside Nevada City.

Perhaps his most endearing success was establishment of the Independence Trail, a unique wheelchair-accessible path built along a narrow system of mining canals and wooden flumes hugging a steep gorge beside the South Yuba. Erected during the Gold Rush to carry water downhill for hydraulic mining, the flumes now let everyone from toddlers to paraplegics reach stunning waterfalls and soaring vistas typically reserved for robust hikers.

Olmsted would like to see such treasures of land and history linked with other spots along California's midsection to form what he calls the Tahoe-Pacific State Heritage Corridor. He first got the idea in the late '60s, while teaching ecology classes. A century earlier, John Muir had walked from the coast to Yosemite, and Olmsted felt a permanent trail across California would be a fitting tribute.

With California's building boom and skyrocketing land prices of recent decades, Olmsted has dropped the notion of an unimpeded trail. Instead, he is pitching a heritage corridor along California 20, one of the few state highways that winds from ocean to Sierra.

Olmsted says the road would link key spots of beauty, biodiversity or historical significance "like beads on a necklace." The corridor would help shine a spotlight on under-appreciated parcels, Olmsted said, including several decaying historical sites as well as unprotected lands he hopes to see preserved.

But the proposal, despite Olmsted's ceaseless promotion, has fallen largely on deaf ears in state government, failing to attract the sort of high-powered advocate needed to score a victory.

"There's a Don Quixote element to what I'm doing," Olmsted said one recent day while hiking the Independence Trail. "I haven't been very good working the highest levels."

State officials have heard about Olmsted's idea for a cross-California trail, but either dismiss it as impractical or unimportant.

Even Olmsted's fervent supporters concede that the 61-year-old naturalist can sometimes be his own worst enemy, uncompromising to a fault and a bit scruffy for the buttoned-down world of state politics. They say Olmsted's mistake has been in failing to pass the baton to someone better equipped to navigate the corridors of power.

"John is a classic visionary," said Phil Horning, a U.S. Forest Service landscape architect who sees merit in Olmsted's concept. "His vision is so large, when it gets down to implementing it he's not so practical. But he's a pretty amazing guy who has accomplished a lot."

Olmsted discovered nature at age 9, when his family spent the summer at a Mammoth Lakes cabin. He attended Pomona College to study geology and ecology. Instead of pursuing a doctorate, he decided to teach teachers about natural history, working for 20 years through UC Berkeley Extension.

He moved to Nevada City a decade ago and has become part of the fabric of the quaint Gold Rush town. Olmsted is a local character, a tad eccentric, tall and thin with a bushy beard, his gray hair covered by a white canvas hat.

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