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December 28, 2020 – This past August, the Jones Fire, ignited by dry lightning in the South Yuba River canyon, burned 705 acres and destroyed 21 structures. Independence Trail and its beautiful wooden bridges were destroyed in the fire. The community has been quick to put energy into the renovation and restoration of this beloved landmark.

The Independence Trail was the first wheelchair-accessible wilderness trail in the country. It was conceived of and brought to life by tireless advocate and conservationist, John Olmsted. The trail consists of two parts: Independence Trail East, and Independence Trail West, which are owned by the Bear Yuba Land Trust (BYLT) and State Parks. The trail was notable for its accessibility and the striking views it provided of the South Yuba River from unique wooden bridges – formerly flumes that carried water through the Excelsior Ditch for hydraulic gold mining. The eastern portion of Independence Trail was closed in 2019 due to landslide concerns, and now the western portion is also closed, due to the fire. 

A damage assessment has been conducted and early hazard mitigation has begun. Both State Parks and BYLT have applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster assistance and are working with FEMA representatives. While the damage to the trail, estimated at approximately $5 million, is included in a FEMA disaster declaration, it’s not yet clear whether FEMA will pay for damage to the West portion of the trail, which is where most of the bridges were located.

The restoration effort is likely to roll out in two phases: 1) hazard mitigation, debris removal, and design of the restored trail; 2) reconstruction. We hope this will take place in 2021 – 2023, but the timing will be dictated by project funding. BYLT has launched a fundraising effort to get the project moving. You can contribute here: https://www.bylt.org/support/donate/

Community partners, including State Parks, BYLT, Sierra Gold Parks Foundation, the FREED Center for Independent Living (FREED), Nevada County and the South Yuba River Citizen’s League (SYRCL), will work together to ensure the trail’s reconstruction best serves the community’s needs. Most recently, County staff is investigating how it can contribute to this historic and important trail for our community.  

Editor’s note: Excerpted from Supervisor Hall’s District newsletter.