The Stanislaus National Forest might be one of nature's garden spots, but that doesn't mean it lacks issues.
Whether it involves new rules for privately owned cabins or the futures of the check dams or the Cooper cabin in the Emigrant Wilderness, the place draws controversy just like it draws tourists.
Is the Stanislaus National Forest all that much different than any other when it comes to problems? Probably not. But to those who live, work and play in the mountains, it's the only place that concerns them.
It's a gorgeous, green forest often mired in bureaucratic red tape that leaves some folks frustrated as they deal with ever-evolving rules. Consequently, some folks question the Forest Service's approach and motives whenever an issue arises.
Last year, the 745 owners of cabins on government-owned land received letters after Summit Ranger District rangers Karen Jo Caldwell and Julie Martin did assessments to determine whether the cabins conform to the new restrictions. Permits for these cabins — the buildings are privately owned but are on federal land — expire Dec. 31, 2008.
Many of the cabins needed only minor tweaks even though some were built as long ago as 1920. But some require the removal of items for which a permit wasn't issued — outbuildings, additions, etc. — along with anything made of concrete. Owners also are being told to tear out lawns and landscaping that deters from the rustic look of the forest. In some cases, they've even been told where and how to stack their firewood.
Failure to conform could mean losing their permits.
"I live in constant fear of doing something wrong and having them kick me out of my cabin," said cabin owner Pat McCarty of Copperopolis.
Some owners expressed frustration with the process, particularly the accessibility of the rangers. Cabin owners complained that they could not reach Caldwell or Martin personally, instead getting funneled into voice-mail or being treated rudely by staff when they visit the ranger station.
In turn, Caldwell said her staff has taken a beating from angry and frustrated cabin owners who come into the station seeking help.
"They're just the messengers," Caldwell said. "Julie Martin and I aren't available when they walk in the door."
And some of the cabin owners said they view Caldwell as a ranger who simply is imposing her personal will on the forest.
"I think it's a perception," she said. "Sometimes, perceptions are escalating because we haven't been able to go out and visit them one-on-one. When we can go one-on-one, we can show them what we're doing, and it's been very good."
Some of the owners said they were given verbal OKs for outbuildings and other additions by Forest Service officials decades ago. But without paper documentation, it's now the rangers' call to determine whether the changes meet current standards, to allow them to remain or demand their removal.
It took Ken Krause of Oakdale several attempts and five months to get documentation after a meeting with Martin in October 2006.
Krause has been doing the compliance work for his father-in-law, 77-year-old cabin owner Ken Mitchell of Cedarville, which is in California's northeast corner. Some of the outbuildings on the Mitchell property, Krause said, were verbally OK'd by former Forest Supervisor Blaine Cornell, who retired in 1990.
Krause said he asked for notes of his meeting with Martin to ensure he had the documentation the Forest Service would require in the event that issues arose in the future.
He said he called the ranger station three times and stopped by once, never able to speak with Martin or Caldwell. Finally, he wrote a letter to Martin and others, sending a copy to Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, among others.
In May, Caldwell responded with a letter bearing the information he requested. But she also wrote that she no longer would deal with Krause, since his name was not on deed, and would work only with Mitchell. Krause said it was retribution for his diligence in pursuing the information.
"All I wanted was the same documentation they would want," Krause said. "We're trying to comply, and in trying to comply asking that we get verbiage back from the Forest Service of what we discussed."
Tom Quinn, Stanislaus National Forest supervisor, defended Caldwell and her work, saying she was assigned to handle the assessments — a massive task — on top of her normal ranger duties.
"There's nothing she'd really want more than to pass it along to someone else," said Quinn, who also said only a few of the cabin owners have complained. "She's bent over backwards for them."
Caldwell said she is merely doing her job and is willing to work with the cabin owners.
"This is the direction I have, and I didn't make this up," Caldwell said. "It's not whatever standard was in place 50 years ago. It's what the standards are today."
Kurt Vander Weide, a field representative for Radanovich, has been touring the area, talking with cabin owners and Forest Service officials.
As Radanovich's eyes and ears in the field, he said the Summit district doesn't score as highly in customer service as the Mi-Wok Ranger District a few miles to the west.
"In the Mi-Wok district, people are happy with the administration there," Vander Weide said. "They work cooperatively. At Summit, all you get is the bureaucratic runaround. At least, that's what I hear."
Vander Weide also is acquainting himself with other issues in the forest, including the check dams built between 1920 and 1951 to regulate stream flows and enhance fish populations. Eleven of the 18 dams were designated to be maintained — until a federal court judge ruled that wasn't the intent of the 1964 federal Wilderness Act.
And Vander Weide is monitoring the Forest Service's progress on the cabin at Cooper Meadow, a historic cow camp in the Emigrant Wilderness.
The cabin is a treasure, built in 1875 by a craftsman hired by cattleman William F. Cooper. The camp's barn was built as the original cabin in 1865, the year President Lincoln was assassinated.
The cabin's walls do, indeed, talk. Hundreds of visitors dating back to the 1800s have inscribed their names on the walls, beams and wooden shingles over the past 132 years. That includes a group of Chinese laborers, brought in to work in 1907, who scribbled their names on a wall.
Both buildings still stand and are in use. But they need help, said Lynn Sanguinetti, whose father, Marion Sanguinetti, holds the grazing permit for the Cooper. The Sanguinetti family has run cattle on the Cooper range since 1912.
Although it got a new roof last year, the cabin has weathered badly over the past decade. Some of the timbers are rotting on the cabin's west side, and the building is slumping because of settling problems. The doorway, still plumb-square just a few years ago, has shifted noticeably.
The Sanguinettis are hoping the cabin can be stabilized and ultimately restored, and soon.
The Forest Service has the final say on repairs or restoration, and it brought in a cabin restoration expert to inspect both buildings. The cabin report is done, but the barn review hasn't arrived.
Historical and environmental analyses should be completed this year, with the stabilization work beginning next summer, according to Caldwell.
"We're in the process of nominating it for the National Register of Historic Places," she said. "We recognize its value."
Vander Weide said the Forest Service could use some prodding to ensure the work gets done before the cabin declines much further.
"It needs to be preserved," he said. "It's a critical historic structure. To let it atrophy to the point where it's not worth saving anymore isn't acceptable. This is a slow bureaucratic process. I hope to at least help to move the process forward in any way I can."
Just another issue in a forest full of them.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.