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Court sides with packers

June 4, 2012

Sierra commercial guides and packers, like this Rock Creek Pack Station group shown winding its way up a steep grade, received a favorable court decision this week, allowing high-meadow grazing and commercial permits in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks. Photo courtesy Rock Creek Pack Station

With commercial permits almost assured by legislation, the final chapter on the High Sierra Hikers Association’s lawsuit against the National Park Service that threatened to shut down stock packers in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks may have been written.
Tuesday, just six days after the May 23 hearing in the United States District Court, Judge Richard Seeborg handed down a decision that leans heavily in favor of the NPS and stock packers, coming out for a less restrictive definition of appropriate activity in designated Wilderness and allowing grazing in high-elevation meadows. The only glitch is a 20 percent reduction in Stock Use Nights from 2007 levels, from a base of 3,200 to 2,650.
The Sequoia Access Act, H.R. 4849, passed by the House in mid-May, had set use limits at 2011 levels, a short season for packers and guides due to heavy winter snowfall. Any language regarding use parameters was eliminated in the version passed by the Senate, and approved by the House May 18. As of May 31, the bill was waiting for President Obama’s signature. In his decision, Seeborg asked that briefs be filed within 20 days of the statute’s enactment “directed to the effect, if any, of such law on the terms and conditions set forth in this order.”
Damon Nelson, Rep. Devon Nunes’ (R. Calif.) legislative aide, described the court ruling as “a knee-jerk reaction by the court” to the pending bill, co-sponsored by Nunes.
Craig London, owner of Rock Creek Pack Station and Mt. Whitney Pack Trains, wasn’t surprised by the decision. “I have faith in the federal judiciary,” he said. “I was never worried what the court would do. Judges rule on the evidence they see and the Park Service has done a great job at managing Sequoia.”
Apparently, the NPS attorneys also did a great job. In his Remedy Order, Seeborg stated that HSHA failed to provide evidence to support their claims and in some instances, failed to address pertinent issues of the case.
Robert Parker of Sierra Mountain Center, a hiking guide who often uses stock packers for spot trips or dunnage, attended the May 23 hearing in San Francisco and came away the picture of cautious optimism. According to Parker, Seeborg’s response to the HSHA’s demand for pristine wilderness was to interpret the definition as restrictive to any human presence in the backcountry. In regards to HSHA’s request that unnecessary items, like ice chests and chairs, not be allowed in designated Wilderness Areas, Parker, paraphrasing Seeborg, said, “from 17 floors above San Francisco, I shouldn’t tell anyone what they should do in the wilderness.”
In regards to “unnecessary items,” Parker said economics and current stock restrictions are already a limiting factor in what is brought into the wilderness.
In what had to be music to the packers’ ears, Seeborg wrote, “It is not appropriate for one group of park users to impose its vision of wilderness etiquette over others. While plaintiff is correct that the Wilderness Act’s purpose is to maintain the primitive nature of park areas, the Ninth Circuit has repeatedly explained that in complying with the Act, agencies must engage in a ‘delicate balancing’ because Congress ‘did not mandate that the Service preserve the wilderness in a museum diorama … Instead, Congress stated that the wilderness was to be preserved as wilderness and made accessible to people devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation and historical uses.’”
HSHA’s request for injunctive relief asked that commercial grazing be banned in mountain meadows above 9,700 feet and in Evolution Valley. Seeborg’s decision had already laid the framework of “unintended ecological consequences” in denying a request to entirely set aside the NPS’s General Master Plan and applied the same concept to high-elevation grazing. In this case, the unintended consequence would be overuse of lower meadows on the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails. NPS also made the case that 16 additional pack stock would be required to carry the 2,400 pounds of food for an eight-day trip involving 12 animals, not to mention the numbers required to carry food for those 16. “This would ‘logarithmically increase the number of pack mules on the trail,’” London’s written testimony was quoted.
Seeborg found that NPS already had protection for sensitive meadows and rest-rotation remedies in place.
Seeborg also denied HSHA’s request that day use of stock be limited and that a punitive system of compliance monitoring be put in place to track commercial stock activity. The judge requested that NPS take into consideration limiting day use and to continue to develop stock day monitoring programs in its Wilderness Stewardship Plan, the detailed plan for managing Sequoia Kings Plan, setting a deadline of Jan. 31, 2015 for that plan.

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