Commercial stock packers have found themselves, again, between a rock and hard place.
In response to a lawsuit filed by the High Sierra Hikers Association, the federal court has curtailed permits for commercial stock operators in Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park and that ruling may extend to all commercial uses of designated Wilderness areas within the Park.
“The economic impact would be devastating,” said Craig London of Mt. Whitney Pack Trains and Rock Creek Pack Station. “If packers are shut out of the Park for a year or two, we can’t recover. This is a business, not a hobby.”
The HSHA filed a similar lawsuit against the Inyo National Forest Service in 2000 that resulted in new mandates and limits on stock operations. In response, Sierra packers have had to make adjustments in services offered to stay in business.
The original suit, filed against the Department of Interior and the National Park Service in late September 2009, alleged the General Master Plan for Sequoia Kings Canyon violated the National Environmental Policy Act by “not conducting the proper environmental assessment of the impact of stock use.” Judge Richard Seeborg of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, ruled in favor of the National Park Service on that aspect of the suit, stating that the Park Service “complied with (the National Environmental Policy Act) by fulfilling the Act’s procedural requirements.”
The Wilderness Act provides an extra layer of protection for designated Wilderness and requires “a determination as to the proper extent that commercial pack stock operations were necessary to realize the wilderness purposes,” according to a letter explaining the status of permits sent to Robert Parker of Sierra Mountain Center.
The suit maintained that the Park’s plan also violated the “necessity” tenant of the Wilderness Act. Judge Seeborg agreed that the Park Service did not fully define “the extent necessary” and will hear arguments on that point May 23.
However, a final ruling may not be handed down May 23, leaving commercial operations in limbo until the court says otherwise, according to Dana Dierkes, public affairs specialist for the Park. The National Park Service process, said Dierkes, involves developing “over-reaching guidelines” in the Master Plan that direct park management 15-20 years into the future. The next step is the more specific Wilderness Stewardship Plan that would implement those guidelines and determine “the extent necessary for commercial services in the Wilderness.”
The HSHA suit seeks to “throw out the illegal (General Master Plan) and require the Park Service to consider a broader range of reasonable alternatives … to allow permit-holders to continue operating until the agency prepares a new plan and issue a mandatory injunction imposing appropriate limits and controls on stock use …” according to the organization’s website.
HSHA was contacted via e-mail as the group has no telephone contact number. In response, Peter Browning, president of HSHA, maintains that the organization “has never advocated the elimination of commercial stock use from our national parks.”
However, it is difficult to find a packer or a commercial guide service who would agree with that statement.
One of the ways packers have adapted to limits enforced within the Inyo National Forest is to provide spot trips for hiking groups: Pack stock transports gear to camp sites and the group walks in. Ironically, the biggest market for this service is organizations like the Sierra Club and other non-profits, said London, whose outfit also contracts with Sierra Mountain Center’s Parker.
Parker has been in business in Bishop for 15 years and began expanding his market to adjust to the sluggish economy. Currently, he has 10 trips with approximately 80 people booked to go on a five-day hike into the Mount Whitney area with the assistance of stock packers. The Whitney approach goes through Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park.
“We’ve had to work hard to broaden the appeal,” he said. “Pack stock makes it easier for families, older people or those with health issues who can’t lug a 60-lb. pack.” Parker is currently working on a trip for breast cancer survivors. “I believe in the healing value of the mountains. They just make life better.”
Parker considers himself an environmentalist, “but HSHA takes it one step further,” he said. “They use one of the best law firms in San Francisco; they know how to play the game.”
London has been through this before, caught between wanting public support for packers expressed to the Park Service but afraid if the word gets out that reservations are up in the air, business will suffer.
“The Park Service has done a very good job,” he said. “They’ve managed very well. They’ve done all the work necessary. I hope the court will rule to authorize permits.
“The Wilderness was established to allow people to continue to go into wilderness, to maintain the sense of wilderness before civilization came West,” London continued. “Another issue is people who can’t travel without assistance.
“These groups are trying to change the intent of the Wilderness Act. The people who realized the need to protect wilderness got to that wilderness on pack trips.”