Lightly: Protect the Fragile Alpine Ecosystems
A Challenge to Federal Land Managers to Protect the High Country From the Impacts Caused by Pack Animals (10/10/04)
The following letter and set of recommendations, to help reduce the impacts associated with pack and riding stock in the backcountry, was sent to the Park Superintendents of Yosemite National Park and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and the US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region on October 29, 2002. In summary, I am not recommending restricting the use of pack animals in the backcountry but recommend ways to reduce: (a) the public health effects, bacteria, and pathogens from horse manure from entering the water supply, (b) damage to sensitive alpine habitats from grazing, and (c) repair of trees damaged from barbed-wire (for fences and gates) wrapped tightly around tree trunks.
To address these concerns I suggested the following: (1) a ban on open range grazing in wet alpine meadows and sensitive habitats, (2) require packers supply the necessary weed-free feed for their animal's for the duration of their trip, (3) require packers to use tail bags on their stock at all times to catch the excrement coming from the rear end of their animals. Feces collected in these tail bags should be buried and covered with at least 6 inches of soil 200 feet or more from streams, lakes, springs, and trails. (4) NPS personnel should remove all wire gates and drift fences and take appropriation action to tend to trees that have been seriously damaged by wire wrappings. I am eagerly waiting for their responses.
On November 5, 2002, I received an incredible response from Mr. Richard Martin explaining that horses are restricted to roam and graze in only 300 alpine meadows in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks while humans are allowed to go practically anywhere in the park. Because of this he concludes,
"Park management policies and regulation are much more restrictive for stock use than hiker use. Hikers may access and camp in almost all park areas. They and stock users are both restricted in where they may have fires."
Yes, that is a direct quote from Mr. Martin's letter and there are no typos in what you just read. Obviously Mr. Martin did not address the real issues raised in my letter.
The NPS, USFS, and BLM joint website contains an informative article on pathogens in horse manure--http://www.yosemite.org/naturenotes/Derlet1.htm
Mr. David Mihalic, Yosemite National Park Superintendent
P.O. Box 577
Yosemite National Park, CA 95389
Mr. Richard Martin, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park Superintendent
47050 Generals Highway
Three Rivers, CA 93271-9651
Mr. Jack Blackwell, Regional Forester Mr. J. Bailey, Inyo Forester
U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region Inyo National Forest
1323 Club Drive 873 North Main Street
Vallejo, CA 94592 Bishop CA 93514
Dear Federal Land Managers,
Over the years I have grown increasing concerned about the use of pack stock and riding stock in the backcountry and wilderness areas of the National Forests and National Parks. Horses play an important role and provide a great opportunity for those that cannot hike great distances to also enjoy the wonders of the backcountry. However, if not controlled adequately, stock animals can cause significant impacts to our natural resources and sensitive alpine ecosystems.
Federal land managers have been placing increasingly restrictive regulations on backpackers under the motto "Tread Lightly: Protect the Fragile Alpine Environment". Yet pack stock and riding stock are still allowed to roam about (with few exceptions) trampling meadows, riparian habitat, defecating in streams, campsites and lake shores. Under current policy of Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and the wilderness areas managed by the US Forest Service, the rules are so permissive that impacts continue unabated to a large degree. While strictly restricting human access and promulgating rules to protect the fragile environment and the impacts from human use, 1,200-pound beasts of burden are allowed to roam about trampling ecosystems and riparian corridors, and polluting streams and lakes with their feces.
Hikers and backpackers are loosing confidence in the ability of the federal land mangers to protect our precious resources and are growing weary of the vast inconsistencies between the rules applied to backpackers and a much lesser standard applied to commercial packers and riders. This is leading many to ignore the National Park Service and the Forest Service and their rules that are so unevenly applied.
I have attached a short discussion paper on his topic and recommend you implemented four simple new rules in time for the 2003 summer hiking and backpacking season. I would be interested in your comments and whether you plan to implement these for 2003. I would enjoy your feed back and would be more than happy to speak with you on the matter. However, if swift progress is not made for the 2003 season, I plan to submit a proposal to the National Geographic for an article on the subject and I will included a discussion of this subject in my upcoming book.
I look forward to your response and possibly talking with you on this matter of great concern to thousands of hikers and backpackers that are puzzled by your uneven application of the principal, "Tread Lightly: Project the Fragile Alpine Environment". Heretofore, stock have not been required to Tread Lightly. With the suggested changes in the rules, packers, riders, and pack stock will begin to tread a little less destructively.
PAUL RICHINS, Jr.
Backcountry Resource Center
Author, "50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits in California: Mount Shasta to Mount Whitney" (published 1999), "Mount Whitney: The Complete Trailhead-to-Summit Hiking Guide" (published 2001), and "Best Short Hikes in California's Southern Sierra" (coming in March 2003)
Tread Lightly: Protect the Fragile Alpine Ecosystems
A Challenge to Federal Land Managers and the Use of Stock in the Backcountry
With increased numbers of hikers heading into the backcountry to enjoy the wonders of the wilderness, federal land managers have developed increasingly restrictive rules for backpackers all in the name of protecting the fragile alpine environment. Wilderness permit quotas have been mandated limiting the number of hikers allowed to enter the wilderness. Once in the backcountry, experienced wilderness travelers are familiar with, and support, the litany of common sense rules: camp 100 feet from water, do not camp in meadows; camp only on mineral soil avoiding grasses, wildflowers, and riparian habitat; defecate at least 200 feet from water and bury bodily waste under at least 6 inches of soil; stay on the trails; and do not cut switchbacks; etc. To ensure compliance, backcountry rangers roam their designated area checking for wilderness permits and ensuring that the common senses rules of the wilds are followed.
While the Forest Service and National Park personnel zealously enforce the rules applied to backpackers in the name of protecting the fragile environment, they are reticent to impose much-needed commonsense restrictions on the use of stock in the backcountry. This is indefensible given the damage inflicted by a single pack train.
Riding and pack stock in Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and the wilderness areas of the Sierra Nevada are allowed to open range graze (with few restrictions) throughout the Parks and wilderness areas resulting in trampled meadows, springs, fragile plants, wildflowers, and riparian habitat while defecating in the lakes and streams. Stock have turned some popular hiking trails into dust bowls and pulverized horse manure trenches resulting in increased erosion.
On a trail not heavily used by pack stock, I counted 36 piles of horse excrement in half a mile, some of it so fresh it was raw, wet, juicy, and smelly with flies swarming for a meal. I have often observed areas that are posted, "No Camping, Area Under Restoration" while horses and cattle roam nearby or on the very camp site being "restored".
There are other less obvious impacts of stock in the high country. Wire (including barbed-wire) drift fences and gates have been constructed across certain trails and around some meadows to restrict the movement of stock. Trees have been used as fence and gate posts. Fences and gates are constructed by tightly wrapping wire around the trunk of a nearby tree to secure the fence or gate. As the tree grows and the trunk expands, the wire cuts deeply into the bark and the tree's cambial layer cutting off the flow of life-giving water and nutrients.
On a recent trip to Benson and Rodgers lakes in Yosemite National Park, I observed trampled meadows and damaged riparian vegetation. Horse feces had been deposited indiscriminately in many of the campsites, along the sandy beach of the lake, in the wet meadows, and in the stream flowing into the lake. An utterly disgusting sight and a vivid visual testament to the mismanagement of our natural resources by the Park Service. Fecal matter contains bacteria, viruses, and pathogens (any agent, especially microorganisms, able to cause disease) that eventually enter the water supply polluting nearby lakes and streams.
The inconsistencies abound. While severely restricting human access and promulgating rules to protect the fragile environment from human use following the mantra "Tread Lightly, Protect the Fragile Environment", 1,200 pound beasts of burden are allowed to roam about trampling ecosystems and riparian corridors in our National Parks.
Hikers and backpackers are loosing confidence in the ability of the federal land mangers to protect our precious resources and are growing weary of the vast inconsistencies between the rules applied to backpackers and a lesser standard applied to commercial packers and riders. This is leading many to ignore the National Park Service and the Forest Service and their rules that are so unevenly applied.
If the National Park Service and Forest Service are serious about protecting the fragile wilderness environment, the rules that apply to backpackers should apply equally to the packers, riders, and their stock. The following practices should be immediately adopted.
1. Discontinue the practice of allowing open range grazing for pack stock and riding stock in the backcountry and wilderness areas. Require packers and riders to supply the necessary weed-free feed for their animal's needs for the duration of their trip.
2. When unpacking and overnighting stock, the animals should be restrained from areas dominated by trees, meadows, plants, and riparian vegetation, and only be allowed to stand, paw and trample mineral soil.
3. Packers and riders should be required to use tail bags on their stock at all times to catch the excrement coming from the rear end of their animals. Feces collected in these tail bags should be buried and covered with at least 6 inches of soil 200 feet or more from streams, lakes, springs, and trails.
4. NPS personnel should remove all wire gates and drift fences and take appropriation action to tend to trees that have been seriously damaged by wire wrappings.
"The fragile alpine vegetation grows an inch at a time and is destroyed a foot at a time". This popular slogan observed in the wilderness is equally applicable to the human foot as it is to a horse's hoof.
I challenge federal land managers to make immediate changes to the rules that govern the use of livestock, pack stock, and riding stock in our National Parks and wilderness areas by implementing these common sense rules for the summer 2003 season. This matter is of great concern to thousands of hikers and backpackers that are puzzled by the uneven application of the principal: Tread Lightly: Project the Fragile Alpine Environment. Heretofore, stock have not been required to Tread Lightly. With the suggested changes in the rules, packers, riders, and pack stock will begin to tread a little less destructively.
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