Yosemite & Kings Canyon National Parks


Wilderness Stewardship Plan Approved by National Park Service

by Bob Turner

On May 27, 2015, nine days before the deadline decreed by Congress to finalize the plan, the Record of Decision for the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Wilderness Stewardship Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement was signed by Patty Neubacher, Acting Director of the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region.  Several years in the making, with input from wilderness users, other concerned citizens, and numerous scientific experts, the report details a framework of goals, methods, and actions that will be used by park management staff to protect the parks’ wilderness, which comprises 97% of the total acreage of the two parks, for the next 15 to 25 years.

Anyone interested in reading parts of the planning document can view or download an electronic copy of the Record of Decision and the supporting materials by visiting the National Park Service (NPS) Planning, Environment, and Public Comment website at www.parkplanning.nps.gov/sekiwild.  You can request a compact disk with the documents be mailed to you by calling Nancy Hendricks, Environmental Protection Specialist, at 559-565-3102, or by sending a written request via email to seki_planning@nps.gov.  Because Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are adjacent to one another, they are administered together by one superintendent and staff.

Sierra Club contingent meets with Parks Superintendent

Since Kings Canyon National Park lies within the region covered by the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Sequoia National Park is within that of the Kern/Kaweah Chapter, members from both chapters were actively involved in offering substantive comments about the various alternatives originally proposed for study and about the policies that would follow from the implementation of the preferred alternative.  Several times over the past few years, Sierra Club members from both chapters, as well as from national headquarters in San Francisco, gathered together as a delegation to meet with Sequoia/Kings Canyon (SEKI) park staff and discuss the overall scope, direction, and details of the plan as it was being developed.

The most recent gathering was April 29, 2015 at Ash Mountain Park Headquarters in the offices of Park Superintendent Woody Smeck.  Supt. Smeck is a genial fellow who has graciously taken a couple of hours at each of our meetings to answer our questions and address our concerns, bringing to the meetings with him other responsible staff who have been delegated to oversee both development of the Wilderness Stewardship Plan (WSP) as well as various ongoing projects in the protection of SEKI’s wilderness, such as wildlife and ecosystem restoration, fire management, trail maintenance and stock use, and visitor capacity.

Definition of Key Terms — Trail Classes

Class 1:  Minimally developed.  These trails provide for the highest level of on-trail challenge, the greatest opportunities for solitude, and the most self-reliant type.

Class 2:  Moderately developed.  These trails are typically more challenging to travel and provide access to less-visited areas of the park, providing opportunities for primitive recreation to people who are seeking more challenge and/or solitude.

Class 3:  Developed.  These trails require the least self-reliance, and provide opportunities for primitive recreation to people needing or seeking less challenging travel in wilderness.

Five alternatives for wilderness stewardship studied

Addressing each of these areas of focus, but with a heavy emphasis on patterns of visitor use, five alternatives were explored during the planning process, ranging from Alternative 3, which would increase trailhead quotas by 10% so that many more backpackers could enjoy the SEKI wilderness, to Alternative 5, which would have decreased quotas by as much as 30% wilderness-wide in order to enhance the quality of solitude for those lucky enough to get a permit.  Another, Alternative 4, would have enhanced the undeveloped quality of wilderness by removing many physical improvements and drastically reducing commercial services throughout the wilderness.

Each of these three approaches would have involved a greater degree of regulation in one form or another, whether in controlling the numbers of visitors or in some other aspect of the means of enjoyment.  An emphasis on solitude and a purer wilderness experience, for instance, would mean keeping camp groups apart from one another by instituting more campsite-specific restrictions, or so-called “destination quotas,” although other regulations would be loosened.  Campfires would have been allowed anywhere in the wilderness except in sequoia groves under this alternative, and stock use would have been allowed throughout as well, although party sizes would be smaller than in other alternatives.  Increasing visitor capacity, on the other hand, would entail allowing larger party sizes, but would restrict them to designated campsites in popular areas and shorter night limits.  Campfires would be restricted to lower elevations, and more food-storage lockers and privies would have to be built.  Alternative 4, emphasizing the undeveloped quality of wilderness, would have further restricted stock use across the wilderness and not allowed campfires anywhere in the wilderness.

Sierra Club supports the NPS-adopted Alternative 2: a continuation of current visitor use capacities with site-specific adjustments based on measured impacts

While all parties concur in a desire to keep wilderness untrammeled, the Sierra Club expressed our wish that visitor enjoyment not be excessively controlled, beyond that necessary to protect the wilderness and its native ecosystems.  To that end, we spoke against the additional development and regulation that would have accompanied the substantial increase in visitor capacity at the heart of Alternative 3, as well as the increased restrictions of Alternative 4 and the severe cutbacks in visitor numbers of Alternative 5.  In general, we support the NPS-preferred Alternative 2 that was chosen (Alternative 1 was the status quo, with no changes in current management strategies), though we would like to see some slightly stricter standards implemented for campsite impact, trail encounters, and party size, especially parties with stock.  The adopted plan, to its credit, does have the flexibility to allow for specific revisions in use patterns when impacts detrimental to either the wilderness resource or the visitor experience are observed.

Alternative 2 of the draft wilderness stewardship plan is essentially a maintaining of the status quo on the numbers of visitors allowed into the wilderness, with site-specific management changes directed at areas requiring intervention due to measured environmental degradation over the years since the implementation of the previous plan.  The Rae Lakes Basin, for instance, is heavily used because of its relatively easy approach from the eastern Sierra escarpment over Kearsarge Pass or from Road's End in Kings Canyon along either branch of the Rae Lakes Loop.  Camping at various places along the loop trail and at Kearsarge Lakes is currently limited to two nights, with certain spots closed to camping altogether.  Under the new plan, the limit for camping in the Rae Lakes Basin will be reduced to one-night per lake, and the area could become subject to destination quotas, so that permission to camp there at all would have to be part of one’s entry permit.  A similar destination quota may be established for Dusy Basin, and restrictions similar to those at Rae Lakes may be instituted in Sequoia National Park for lakes on popular trails close in to the trailheads.

Revisions in trail classifications help protect natural qualities of wilderness from excessive human impact

Another example of a site-specific change in management practice under the adopted plan is the redesignation as a class 1 trail of the path over Lamarck Col, which is currently an unmarked cross-country route.  Trails are classified from class 1, the least engineered, through the moderately-developed class 2, to class 3 trails, which are graded with stone walls, switchbacks, and wood & masonry bridges over dangerously heavy rivers.  Classes 4 and 5, which may even involve asphalt paving like the trail to the foot of Lower Yosemite Fall, are not found within wilderness boundaries.  Lamarck Col merited an upgrade (or downgrade, depending on your point-of-view) because its increased usage over the years has resulted in the growth of multiple worn trails through the meadows of Darwin Canyon.  It was determined that the area along the route would benefit from a funneling of the cross-country traffic onto a specific marked path wherever the environmental damage was most pronounced.  Travel over Lamarck Col will remain for hikers only.

There are several designated unmaintained routes currently open to stock travel that will be upgraded to Class 1 or 2 trails.  A number of other trails, on the other hand, once maintained but long neglected, will now be officially “abandoned.”  While not really representing a change in policy, these routes, the longest being the one over Cartridge Pass, will disappear from the official trail map altogether.

Other similar tweaks to prior management practices include lowering elevations of regimes restricting campfires, freeing certain meadows from stock grazing, eliminating half of the large, fixed food-storage boxes to reduce camper concentration and impact (portable bear-proof containers are already a requirement in heavily-used areas of the park wilderness), as well as the removal of numerous, but not all, stock use structures (hitch rails, fences, and gates) and privies.  Recreational campfires will be allowed up to 10,000 feet in elevation in the San Joaquin, Kern, and Kings River drainages, and up to 9,000 feet in the Kaweah and Tule River drainages.

Protection of native species, such as the Yosemite toad and mountain yellow-legged frogs, will necessitate additional restrictions on grazing in known toad and frog habitats.  In order to limit encounters between humans and bighorn sheep, the plan proposes new Class 1 trails through their habitat to concentrate visitor use, making human activity more predictable for the bighorn sheep.  Class 1 trails are not really “constructed,” but are established with small, light-on-the-land crews.  The effects on bighorn sheep of establishing these trails are expected to be short-term and negligible.

The Sierra Club also expressed disapproval of wilderness use fees for backpackers, most of whom have already paid once at the front gate to enter the park and who may have had to pay yet again for an expensive campsite in orderto secure their wilderness permit the night before so as to get an early start.  While it is appropriate to institute a fee for making advance reservations online, we feel that entering the wilderness on foot ought to be free, if only to encourage the public, rich and poor alike, who share ownership of these lands (if anyone truly can be said to own them), to frequently enter them.  Lately, most popular parks have instituted a fee to obtain the required permit for overnight backcountry visits, including Sequoia and Kings Canyon, which will be charging $10 per permit plus $5 per person in 2016 during the quota period of May 27 to September 24.  The fees collected directly aid in wilderness preservation, helping, for instance, to fund the monitoring of visitor use impact.

Determining the appropriate and necessary level of commercial activity within the wilderness is a complex task for the National Park Service 

Much has been left unmentioned in this brief summary of a document numbering 656 pages (not including a second volume of appendices).  The Sierra Club, with our own fee-based summer outings program, is a primary stakeholder in determining the degree of limitations to be imposed upon commercial activity in the wilderness, an issue too complex to go into here.  The management of natural and prescribed fires is another complex issue deserving more explanation.  All fires, regardless of their initialization, have a major impact on air quality in the parks and adjoining urban areas.  However, more than a century of fire suppression in the parks has disrupted natural processes, creating a situation that requires attention.

Summit registers — historical relics or unwanted intrusions on the wilderness scene

Another issue which generated some minor controversy involved the widespread presence of climber registers on mountain summits.  There is a fundamental opposition between their cultural and sometimes historical value and their intrusion on the undeveloped quality of the wilderness experience, though the registers, typically buried among rocks at the summit, are far less intrusive than a communication tower, which we occasionally find atop a wilderness peak in some parks.

Despite a few major interventions in the interest of impact reduction (the new and upgraded trails, for instance) and native ecological restoration (the fish eradication project), the overall approach of park staff is away from an active management of wilderness, promoting instead a hands-off style of wilderness stewardship that allows for the ongoing self-regulation of wild systems.  “The Wilderness Act makes it clear that the wilderness resource itself is not to be managed.  What needs to be managed is the human use of wilderness.” (from Sierra Club comments on the Draft Environmental Statement for the SEKI Wilderness Stewardship Plan)  For wilderness to truly remain wild it must be controlled by natural processes only.  This is the best approach to holding onto the quality and character of untrammeled nature.  The National Park Service is to be commended for taking seriously and adhering rigorously to the mandates of the Wilderness Act, which seeks to minimize the impact of humans on the wilderness, especially by way of our invasive technologies, while still allowing for and encouraging our enjoyment of these most precious wild lands.