Desolation Wilderness, the 99 square miles of undeveloped land straddling the Sierra crest at Lake Tahoe Basin's southwest rim, can be anything but desolate at times.
Deemed the most-used wilderness area in the United States for its size, Desolation lures even the least daring dayhikers into its depths.
Picnickers, dayhikers and backpackers scurry up Desolation's trails by the hundreds on weekends, earning the area rhyming aliases like "destination" or "desecration" wilderness.
The Forest Service, which manages the 63,960 acres of alpine forests, is attempting to thwart those titles.
Seeking a balance between public use and natural resources, the federal agency has deployed a new management technique for Desolation Wilderness this summer.
The changes, which call for a decrease in public visitation and more regulated use, come as a response to increasing impact on the area's fragile resources, said Don Lane, the Forest Service's wilderness manager in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
"In the high-use areas such as Eagle Falls, Horsetail Falls and the area around Echo lakes, there were flowing rivers of humanity and the campsites looked like bomb zones with compacted soils and damaged trees - that may be acceptable for a city park, but not for a wilderness area," Lane said.
"It was not an appropriate amount of visitation, and it couldn't be allowed to continue. It was degrading the resources."
The new mandate cuts overnight visitor use from the previously allowed 700 visitors a night to 564 overnight campers. In an attempt to spread the use out, the new wilderness permit regulations define 45 zones where backpackers camp on their first night in the backcountry. After the first night, campers are free to move to whatever zone they choose.
The different zones are rated on a scale of one to five by use, allowing visitors to choose the type of wilderness experience they would like to encounter.
"A zone with an opportunity class of one has very, very few people and very little impact, while an opportunity class five area, like Eagle Lake, has been heavily impacted," Lane said. "We're trying to reduce those areas of opportunity class five to a class four to reduce encounters and improve the conditions of the resources."
The Forest Service has a legal obligation to maintain the area's pristine nature as identified by the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Desolation Wilderness, because it sprawls over the mountain crest, is managed by two National Forests, the Eldorado National Forest on the western side and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit on its eastern side.
The agency's bi-forest Wilderness Management Plan, compiled in 1978, wasn't making the grade, Lane said.
In 1988, both Forest Service units opted for an update.
"It was a dated policy and it didn't incorporate the changes in policy and in use," he said. "We decided to update it and expected that would be a long process."
A half of a decade later, a draft plan was introduced that identified seven management alternatives that range from increasing use, leaving the current management techniques and implementing varying levels of decreased use. A score of public meetings in the early 1990s helped the Forest Service identify alternative seven as the preferred action plan.
"The range of alternatives was fairly extreme," Lane said. "Alternative seven is somewhere between where we were last year and having a more wilderness preservation approach - it took the best wilderness protection ideas and provided an opportunity for public access."
In addition to reducing the allowable number of campers in the wilderness and identifying camping zones, alternative seven calls for a longer regulation season which starts Memorial Day and last through September. It also reduces the group size limit from 15 to 12.
The new management approach sits well with the League to Save Lake Tahoe, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Lake Tahoe's environmental balance, scenic beauty and low-impact recreational opportunities.
"They've had to put together some type of comprehensive management plan for that area. It's one of the most used wilderness areas in the country," said Dave Roberts, the League's assistant executive director. "There's a reduction in numbers, but on the flip side of that coin the recreational opportunity is going to be much more enjoyable and much more along the lines of a wilderness area."
Other regulations like the 1990 campfire ban and overnight user fees that went into effect in 1997 are still in place.
Overnight permits are available daily at the Supervisor's Office at 870 Emerald Bay Road in South Lake Tahoe or at the El Dorado National Forest Service Visitor Center, five miles east of Placerville on U.S. Highway 50 in Camino, Calif. The cost is $5 per person for one night, and $10 per person for two or more nights up to 14 days. Reservations cost an additional $5. An annual pass for Desolation Wilderness costs $20 per person. Call (530) 644-6048 for reservations.
Day users also need a permit to enter the wilderness, but can self-register at any of the major Desolation Wilderness trailheads.
Last Year This Year
Group size limit: 15 12
Maximum visitors per night: 700 564
Control of use: By trailhead By 45 first-night camping zones
Permit quota: June 15 through Labor Day Memorial Day through Sept. 30