Hi everyone… I’m a volunteer with the High Sierra Hikers Association (the group that filed the lawsuit that initiated this discussion). I read all of the above comments, and respect all of your opinions. However, there are a few misconceptions, so I would like to set the record straight. I’m writing to provide some of the key history, and the current situation, for those who want to know the facts.
This story begins in the 1960s, when recreation use exploded in High Sierra wilderness, due in part to a greater appreciation of the area by young people of that era, and also largely due to the advent of lightweight backpacking gear. In response to the escalating use (and accumulating impacts in many areas resulting from over-crowding and over-use), the agencies responded (beginning in the 1970s) by adopting limits on the number of people that could enter each day. By 1980, “trailhead quotas” were in place for most popular trailheads. But those quotas did not
apply to commercial outfitters, such as mule packers. The quotas applied only
to the “noncommercial” public (i.e., private wilderness trekkers, like you and me). The commercial outfits were allowed essentially unlimited access, and mule packers were even allowed to write their own wilderness permits for both themselves and their clients.
By 1980, some folks began to question why the trailhead quotas were not being applied equally to commercial vs. noncommercial visitors. In response, in February of 1981, with no public notice and no opportunity for public comment, a back-room deal was struck between the High Sierra mule packers’ association, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service, in which the agencies agreed that the quotas “will not reduce historical levels of business conducted by the outfitters.”
Further, the agencies committed that “should future business of packers increase,”
the agencies would “reassess the situation and make necessary adjustments.”
And that is exactly what happened. (This back-room deal is memorialized in a 3/2/81 letter from the Regional Forester to the president of the packers’ association.)
After that deal was struck, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the agencies systematically reduced the trailhead quotas for you and me, while allowing ever-greater access for commercial outfits. Here’s just one example to give you a flavor of the pattern that has occurred throughout the High Sierra: In 1979, the quota for Piute Pass was 65 persons/day. That quota (which applied only
commercial visitors) was further reduced in 1982 to 40 persons/day, and a few years later it was again reduced to 32 persons/day. In 2001, the USFS adopted a new Wilderness Plan that reduced this quota once more, to 30 persons/day. In response to criticisms from non-commercial visitors that their access was being unfairly restricted while commercial outfits continued to enjoy unlimited
access, the USFS adopted a so-called "quota" on commercial visitors of 15 persons/day for this trailhead -- but that is a phony
limit. The plan is full of loopholes that allow the commercial outfits to exceed their "quota," essentially whenever they want. The result is that private hikers & stock users are routinely turned away by strict trailhead quotas on noncommercial visitors, but anyone who hires a commercial mule packer can go just about anywhere and anytime they want.
To make matters worse, wilderness rangers, natural resource specialists, and scientists from both agencies have for decades documented significant harm to High Sierra wilderness caused by mule packers (i.e., water pollution, spread of invasive weeds, erosion of wetlands & trails, etc.). But agency managers are generally afraid, unable, and/or unwilling to enforce even the existing rules against the commercial packers because the outfits have friends in high places, they have many political connections, and they hire high-priced legal help to fight any attempts to rein them in, or limit their abuses.
The High Sierra Hikers Association is a nonprofit group that represents thousands of hikers (including many stock users) from all over the United States who simply want fair treatment for all, and for the agencies to obey laws that mandate protection of our wilderness areas from harm. We want the agencies to control the ongoing exploitation of the High Sierra by commercial businesses, many of whom routinely violate wilderness regulations with impunity. Throughout the 1990s, the HSHA implored the agencies to adopt fair quota systems, to end the unfair favoritism of commercial outfits, and to enforce wilderness regulations against scofflaw packers. HSHA volunteers traveled long distances to discuss these issues with agency personnel and the mule packers themselves, but they responded mostly by attacking us (see: http://www.highsierrahikers.org/essay_clear.html
) rather than addressing the issues. In the end, the HSHA took legal action only as a last resort
The current situation is this: The only real limits on commercial mule packers in the High Sierra are due to legal action taken by the HSHA from 2000 to date. In HSHA's case against the Forest Service (see: http://www.highsierrahikers.org/NewsWinter0708.pdf
the court imposed (for the first time) hard limits on commercial outfits that may not be exceeded by bureaucratic loopholes. And in the most recent case against the National Park Service (see: http://www.highsierrahikers.org/NewsAutumn09.pdf
the court ruled in January of this year that the NPS has long violated the Wilderness Act by allowing essentially unlimited commercial packstock uses at Sequoia & Kings Canyon NPs. The court is currently considering how to remedy the situation at Sequoia-Kings. Stay tuned.
If you want the agencies to adopt fair trailhead access quotas for all, to reasonably limit commercial enterprises, to protect the High Sierra from those who would exploit it for private gain, and to pressure the agencies to reform their own outdated management practices, consider joining us !!