Tourism on pack animals to stay in California national parks

McClatchy NewspapersApril 27, 2012 

— In a rare show of bipartisanship, lawmakers joined forces Friday to keep commercial horse-and-mule packing operations open in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks for at least the next two years.

Acting with unusual dispatch, moving from bill introduction to passage in less than a day, House Democrats and Republicans agreed on legislation directing the National Park Service to issue permits for 2012 and 2013. The legislation, approved by voice vote, will let pack operators continue taking vacationers into the parks’ designated wilderness areas while a wilderness plan is completed.

“Time is very crucial here,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “We must act now if there is any hope for preserving the season.”

The legislation, initially pushed by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, Calif., and subsequently modified by Democrats, essentially overrides a park service decision not to issue permits for the pack animals.

The park service’s decision was issued as a result of a 2009 lawsuit filed by the High Sierra Hikers Association, which is challenging the agency over park and wilderness management.

In January, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled the park service violated the Wilderness Act because its 2007 general management plan for the neighboring national parks did not adequately deal with commercial stock such as pack horses. In response, the park service said it would not issue the permits until the question was resolved in court.

“I was highly disappointed by the park service’s refusal to work with the federal court on an agreement to issue permits in time for the current season,” Nunes said Friday morning. “There are hundreds of jobs at stake.”

The Senate still must approve the legislation, which could happen quickly. There is no known opposition, and National Park Service spokesman David Barna on Friday called the measure “a workable solution while we continue progress” on wilderness planning.

“For many, the only way to experience (parks) is through the use of pack animals,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Calif., said. “If we can’t agree on this, what can we agree on?”

Sequoia and Kings Canyon national park officials now are preparing the formal Wilderness Stewardship Plan to govern management of the approximately 835,000 acres that is managed as wilderness in the two parks. Environmentalists contend the parks need to pay special heed to preventing damage from pack operations.

“Commercial outfitters run pack and saddle stock throughout the parks, where the animals continue to trample soils, pollute the water and provoke numerous complaints from park visitors,” argued the original lawsuit, filed by attorneys with the San Francisco-based firm Morrison Foerster.

Justice Department attorney Charles Shockey conceded at a Jan. 11, 2012, court hearing that “no one questions that having animals walk through areas of the park is going to have some…undesirable environmental impacts,” a transcript shows, but he added that the “overall impact” has declined.

Neither the High Sierra Hikers Association nor individual pack operations could be reached for comment Friday morning.

Nunes and other Republican lawmakers, including House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, Calif., initially wrote Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on April 17 about the permits. House Democrats followed up last Tuesday with their own letter urging congressional action. Nunes introduced the three-page bill Thursday night, and negotiators worked out the final language Friday morning. The subsequent debate lasted only a minute or so, on a largely empty House floor.

“It’s a very good deal for families and visitors to the parks,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, Calif., adding that “packers will have certainty.”

At the same time, the handling of the legislation also showed how underlying differences endure. House Democrats put out a joint press release declaring that “Democratic lawmakers achieve quick House action,” while Nunes and three other California Republicans issued their own, competing release taking credit for the GOP.

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