Photo of the High Sierra
What is it?
What does this plan say?
How did we get here?
HSHA's recommendations
What You Can Do

Sidebar: Buried in waste

Comic: The Adventures of Wendy and Willie Wilderness

A similar description of the draft plan, but with more detail

Hiker Alert

High Sierra wilderness severely threatened—Please help!

The U.S. Forest Service has released a draft management plan for the John Muir, Ansel Adams, Monarch, and Dinkey Lakes wilderness areas. Once adopted, the plan will guide the management of nearly one million acres of wilderness lands between Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon national parks for decades to come. The draft plan would allow for unlimited expansion of commercial mule-packing outfits, while failing to include adequate restrictions on grazing or other high-impact activities as needed to protect the High Sierra from over-use. Some commercial outfits and livestock interests are leading an aggressive campaign to pressure the Forest Service into granting them greater access to these High Sierra wilderness areas—while hiker access would become even more restricted. Please take a few minutes to educate yourself on this issue.

What is it?

The wilderness management plan prescribes the numbers of hikers, horseback users, and commercial outfits that may use the wilderness. The plan is also required by law to include all restrictions on grazing, campfires, and other activities that are necessary to protect the wilderness from over-use.

What does this plan say?

The draft plan allows for large increases in stock animal (horse, mule) use, while adopting stringent restrictions on hikers. For example, the plan would allow up to 25 stock animals per group, while limiting hiker groups to 15 persons. In addition, hiker use of most trailheads would be strictly limited to 50 people per day, while 10 stock groups with up to 25 animals each (i.e., as many as 250 animals) would be allowed each day before stock users would be turned away. The plan would also entirely prohibit commercial llama tours. (Llamas cause less damage to trails and meadows than horses and mules, but the mule-packing outfits don't want the competition.) These are just a few examples of what the plan says. But it's what the plan doesn't say that is even more troubling.

The plan fails to place any upper limit on the eventual expansion of existing mule-packing businesses, and it fails to adopt even the most reasonable restrictions on grazing and stock animal use—such as requiring stock animals to stay on designated trails to prevent erosion, and requiring stock users to carry packed-in "feed" for their animals prior to meadow "opening dates." (Opening dates are needed to prevent stock animals from grazing and trampling sensitive alpine meadows and lakeshores during the spring and early summer when soils are wet and meadows are most susceptible to damage.)

How did we get here?

In 1991, a handful of concerned hikers founded the nonprofit, all-volunteer High Sierra Hikers Association (HSHA). The HSHA was formed due to concerns that the agencies charged with managing the wilderness of the High Sierra are biased in favor of stock users and the commercial interests that earn their living by using our cherished national lands for private gain—often to the detriment of those on foot, and at great cost to the public. Consider a few examples:

  • Commercial pack outfits pay very little—only 3% of gross profits—to operate in our national forests, and they pay even less (as little as $60 per year) to operate in our national parks. These low fees are not even sufficient to cover the government's costs to process and administer the necessary permits. Commercial packers pay nothing toward trail maintenance, they are exempt from trailhead quotas, and they are allowed to write their own wilderness permits

  • Between 1982 and 1996, trailhead quotas for the general public have decreased by 38% on trails managed by the White Mountain Ranger District (Bishop office) of the Inyo National Forest. During that same period, the number of commercial stock animals in operation in that area increased from 328 to 403 (a 23% increase)

  • One pack station based at an east-side trailhead was recently granted a 50% increase in the size of its operations, at about the same time that hiker quotas for the same trailhead were reduced from 50 to 20 people per day (a 60% reduction)

  • The Forest Service and Park Service decided recently to allow commercial mule trains of up to 25 mules per group, even though scientists have documented substantial environmental impacts from such large groups. (This new policy has taken effect throughout the High Sierra, except in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, where a lawsuit filed by the HSHA prevented the increase.)

  • Domestic sheep that graze in the High Sierra threaten the survival of the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. (Domestic sheep often spread fatal diseases to the wild bighorn.) Yet pressure exerted by sheep ranchers has prevented the Forest Service from eliminating this threat.

HSHA's recommendations for the John Muir - Ansel Adams wilderness plan

It is crucial that hikers be heard at this time. (See the back page to learn how you can help.) Following are several points that need to be raised:

  1. The draft plan must be supplemented to include clear upper limits on all commercial uses. No more increases (permanent or "temporary") should be granted to any commercial pack outfit until the Forest Service studies the impacts of current levels of stock use, and enforces measures to adequately protect wilderness resources.

  2. The plan should include a "Needs Assessment" for commercial uses. The Forest Service has never conducted such an assessment, as required by law, for these four wilderness areas. The agency has instead illegally allowed commercial pack stations to increase in size while hiker quotas have been steadily reduced. A well-conducted "Needs Assessment" could more fairly allocate use between commercial outfits and the public-at-large.
  3. "Opening dates" should be adopted (and enforced) for all meadows where grazing is allowed. Opening dates are needed to prevent grazing and trampling impacts to high-elevation meadows and lakeshores in the early season when soils remain saturated due to snowmelt.
  4. A modest network of hiker-only trails should be designated to provide a quality hiking experience for those who wish to avoid the dust, manure, urine, and flies that often pollute trails used by stock animals.
  5. Stock animals should be required to remain on designated trails. Numerous scientific studies have documented the potential for severe erosion when stock animals leave maintained trails, and scientists have recommended that off-trail travel with stock animals be avoided. "Cross-country" travel with stock animals should not be allowed unless the Forest Service can make a supported finding that a specific route(s) can be opened for this activity without damaging wilderness resources.
  6. Commercial pack outfits should be required to compete with the general public for wilderness permits. The practice of allowing pack outfits to write their own wilderness permits is unfair, and it results in problems such as overcrowding at wilderness destinations. (Such problems can be illustrated with a brief example: One pack station recently issued permits for 57 visitors to camp at Hilton Lake, and it used 72 head of stock for that purpose. However, because numerous pack outfits use the same area, on that same weekend there were at least 78 visitors at Hilton Lake that were supported by commercial outfitters. Yet the quota for the general public who want to visit that area is only 20 people per day.)
  7. Campfires should be prohibited in subalpine areas where necessary to protect wilderness resources. The draft plan fails to close high-elevation areas to campfires. Fallen wood from trees is crucial to soil formation at high elevations, and downed wood also holds moisture, moderates soil temperatures, and performs many other important ecosystem functions in harsh, subalpine environments. After careful consideration, the HSHA recommends that campfires be prohibited above 9,600 feet elevation in the north, and 10,000 feet in the south. (This would coincide with campfire limits in the adjacent national parks.)
  8. The draft plan should be supplemented to incorporate noise standards to protect the natural quiet. The ongoing expansion of military training flights over these wilderness areas is making it increasingly difficult to have a "wilderness experience." The military has often used the argument that it cannot moderate its activities over wilderness areas unless the applicable wilderness plan identifies a quantitative threshold for acceptable noise. The Forest Service needs to hear from the public that: (1) "quietude" is an important reason why so many of us visit wilderness, and (2) the wilderness plan needs measurable standards to fully protect the natural quiet.

What You Can Do

  1. Send a letter to the Forest Service (postmarked by November 2, 1998), saying that you are commenting on the "draft wilderness plan for the John Muir, Ansel Adams, Monarch, and Dinkey Lakes wilderness areas." Express support for the adoption of a strong wilderness plan that fully protects these areas for future generations. Then give your own opinions about how you think these areas should be managed. It would be very helpful to mention in your letter some or all of the 8 points raised in the preceding section entitled "HSHA's recommendations."
  2. Write to:
    Sierra National Forest
    Attn: Wilderness Direction Comments
    1600 Tollhouse Road
    Clovis, CA 93611

  3. Join the HSHA. We'll keep you informed of current events and provide timely "action alerts" when critical issues arise. Our mailing list is strictly confidential. Together, we can make a difference.

For more information, contact:

High Sierra Hikers Association
PO Box 8920
South Lake Tahoe, CA 96158