As the snow melts and wildflowers bloom along the banks of the rising Truckee River, locals experience their own transitions as winter turns to spring, then summer, and the shoulders along Highway 89 become lined with bike rack-equipped vehicles as mountain bikers head out on their favorite trails.

But this summer, you’ll be more likely to see heavy machinery, logging trucks, tree felling crews, and mastication equipment along Highway 89 than to witness Subarus and Sprinter vans vying for parking.

All U.S. Forest Service trails and roads west of Highway 89 South between West River Street and Goose Meadow Campground — including the popular Donkey Town (aka Jackass) and El Burro trails — are closed for a forest health and wildfire resilience project.

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“The general goals of this project include creating defensible space around nearby wildland urban interface zones while strategically protecting the town of Truckee and surrounding communities from the threat of wildfire,” wrote Rich Steffke, vegetation management officer for the Truckee Ranger District, in an email.

Known as the Cabin Creek Wildfire Resilience Project, this 1,900-acre section is just one element of a larger system of projects scheduled and approved over the next 8 years in the Middle Truckee River Watershed. These projects are collectively planned and managed by the Middle Truckee River Watershed Forest Partnership (MTRWFP), which consists of the Tahoe National Forest’s Truckee Ranger District, the Truckee River Watershed Council, the Nature Conservancy, Truckee Meadows Water Authority, and the National Forest Foundation.

“Recent high-severity fires like the Dixie and Caldor [fires] completely obliterated recreation sites, many of which will never return, and this scenario is what we are doing our very best to avoid,” Steffke added.

In addition to being home to popular recreation areas for mountain biking, hiking, rock-climbing, and camping, Highway 89 South contains private residences, commercial developments, the Eastern Regional Landfill, and is a critical transportation and escape corridor between North Tahoe and Interstate 80.

“We know these are popular trails and (we) are trying to minimize the recreation impacts while also implementing critical forest health projects that will make our region more resilient to wildfire,” wrote Anne Graham, the National Forest Foundation’s Sierra Nevada program coordinator, in an email.

In a similar past project known as Big Jack East, agencies caught a glimpse into the delicate balance between projects and recreation. Big Jack East, which is adjacent to the Cabin Creek project along the east side of Highway 89, was completed in August 2021. Its proximity to populated areas like Martis Camp and Ponderosa Pines resembles the wildland/urban interface of the Cabin Creek project.

That year, agencies decided to close areas only while active logging and mastication work were taking place to allow recreation to resume in areas not being actively worked on at a given time. But confusion over what areas were open and what areas were not created a couple of close calls where recreationists entered closed areas during active work.

“We took the lessons learned with Big Jack implementation and reluctantly elected to operate Cabin Creek under a full area closure for public safety,” Steffke said.

The silver lining? The MTRWFP recognizes the impact of closing such a popular trail system.

“We are well aware of the popularity of the system trails like El Burro and Donkey Town along with the many non-system, public built trails within the closure area,” Steffke said. “We see this as short-term pain for long-term gain.”

Steffke added that once the work in the Donkey Town and El Burro areas is completed, those trails will reopen, possibly by summer 2025. At that time, however, recreationists are encouraged to utilize the uphill cycle route rather than the popular Forest Service 01 road as machinery and equipment from other active units will be in the area.

The significance of a project of this scope hasn’t been lost on residents, either. While the MTRWFP is proactively disseminating information about the closures and helping recreationists find nearby alternatives, locals are gearing up to make other plans as well.

“That project is my backyard,” said Ryan Cribbin, who lives in the area and already has plans to ride on other area trails this summer.

“I totally understand the risk with fire and the actions needed for fire prevention,” said Cribbin, who works at Pacos Truckee. “I’m bummed that I can’t ride my local trail, but it’s something that needs to be done.”

“There’s also many other amazing trails in the Truckee/Tahoe area,”Cribbins added, citing the Sawtooth as a nearby alternative for him this summer.

The Forest Service’s closure notice also identifies Sawtooth, along with the Big Chief, Commemorative Overland Emigrant, Western States, and Donner Lake Rim trails as alternatives during the Cabin Creek closure. These trails are all within about 25 minutes of Donkey Town.

The National Forest Foundation has been working with the Truckee Dirt Union and Truckee Trails Foundation to share information about the closure and give alternatives to residents searching for new trails.

In a way the collaboration between the agencies involved mirrors the cooperation between those agencies and residents in the area who have and will be forced to make other plans this summer.

Graham wrote that residents of the area have expressed their love of these outdoor locations, “but also understand the real threat (that) fire is to our region and want to see projects like this be implemented to protect our recreation and other community assets for the long term.”

Notices posted at nearby campgrounds and trailheads offer alternatives to Donkey Town and El Burro, as well as a map of the project area, details on the description and purpose of the project, and links to further information from the Truckee Dirt Union, the Truckee Trails Foundation, and an overview from the MTRWFP of the entire Five Creeks project.

~ Bill Hatfield is a freelance writer specializing in travel, nature, and outdoor sports. After over 20 years in the tourism industry as a ski patroller, backcountry camp manager, and park ranger, he decided to slow down a bit and now delivers the mail and rides bikes when he can across countries. Follow him on Instagram @bike_rack_on_tour.  

Author

  • Bill Hatfield

    Bill Hatfield is a freelance writer specializing in travel, nature, and outdoor sports writing. After over twenty years in the tourism industry as a ski patroller, backcountry camp manager, and park ranger, he decided to slow down a bit and now delivers the mail and rides bikes when he can—across countries. Follow him on Instagram @ bike_rack_on_tour.

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