FERNLEY, Nev. (AP) — A proposed industrial park east of Reno could benefit efforts to protect part of a desert trail used by the Donner Party and thousands of others as they journeyed west in the 1840s, historic preservationists and a federal official say.
Known as the Fernley Swales, the deep sand trenches and grooves that are part of the California National Historic Trail were carved by wagons and oxen in the Forty Mile Desert between the Humboldt and Carson rivers just north of U.S. Interstate 80.
The mile-long (1.6 kilometer) swales on the edge of the town of Fernley were protected in 2001 by a U.S. Bureau of Land Management easement that has remained in place despite changes in ownership.
But the site is near a shooting range and often the scene of illegal dumping. Signs marking its historical significance are regularly riddled with bullet holes.
Earlier this year, Mark IV Capital bought land in and around Fernley for its new Victory Logistics Center, including the parcel with the easement.
Jon Nowlin, a member of the California-Nevada chapter of the Oregon-California Trail Association, said approval of Mark IV’s plans would require the dedication of some land to open space.
“The easement satisfies some of that requirement. They may be willing to expand it a bit to commit more,” he told the Fernley Leader-Courier .
Nowlin said the renaming of the project as “Victory Logistics” is recognition of the area’s transportation history. The Victory Highway and original U.S. 40 were on top of the Central Pacific Railroad grade paralleling the Emigrant Trail and today’s I-80.
“So, there may be an opportunity to work in preservation of the Emigrant Trail and railroad grade as part of their development plan,” he said.
Victoria Wilkins, acting field manager for the BLM’s Sierra Front Field Office, said it’s rare for the agency to have a historical easement surrounded by an industrial park, but the development could benefit the swales.
“The thing with the swales is, there aren’t a lot of eyes on it. There’s nothing to really deter the dumping. With development, there’s going to be more eyes on the property,” she said.
Ross Pfautz, Mark IV’s vice president of development and asset management, said the company was aware of the properties’ protections when it bought the land and has been in talks with a local conservation group.
“We certainly recognize it’s part of history and has some significance,” he said.
The Stevens-Townsend-Murphy Party established the Truckee River Route of the Emigrant Trail in 1844. The Donner Party used the route to pass through the area in 1846. Travel spiked around 1849 as thousands of people made their way to California during the Gold Rush.
The trail crossed the last 7 miles (11 kilometers) of Nevada’s Forty Mile Desert, known for its sand dunes that stalled wagons and its scarcity of drinkable water. Use of the route slowly decreased as railroad travel provided an easier way to move west.
Pfautz said the company is focusing on property south of Interstate 80 for its first phase, and development around the swales is several years out.