Officials in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks want to replace three dilapidated backcountry ranger cabins, which, judging from photos, seems like a reasonable decision. But should they be allowed to use power tools and helicopters in the wilderness settings to get the work done?
According to the environmental assessment currently available for public review, three cabins would be replaced: Le Conte Canyon, Rae Lakes, and Crabtree Meadow. All are located in official wilderness, areas that generally are off-limits for mechanized equipment.
Under the parks' preferred alternative, up to 50 helicopter flights per site would be used to transport materials, which include roughly 15 tons of logs, lumber, and tools; possibly 10 tons of concrete and mortar; a 3.5 kW generator to power tools, which would include an "electric cement mixer, small chainsaw, (and an) electric air compressor to run power nailers and roofing staplers."
Additionally, the crews would be able to use electric circular saws and cordless drills if the preferred alternative is signed off on.
While that might seem to be a large intrusion on a wilderness setting, there is a caveat within the Wilderness Act that allows for "mechanical transport" and structures in designated wilderness if deemed "necessary to meet the minimum requirement for the administration of the area..."
At Sequoia, which is roughly 96 percent officially designated wilderness, spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman said park officials believe using helicopters to ferry in the materials and power tools so the cabins can be quickly erected will in the long-run have a much more minimal impact on the wilderness settings than if the park did away with the backcountry cabins and sent regular patrols into the areas.
“This park is very wilderness-focused, because it is such a huge percentage wilderness. It’s really impossible to describe how important this infrastructure is to us," said Ms. Freeman. "I don’t think there’s any doubt that the temporary impact to wilderness is something to consider from our standpoint and also from the public’s standpoint. It’s something that should be discussed and talked about and we really should be able to come up with these kinds of explanations as to why we feel that this is the preferred alternative and this is what we’re hoping to do.”
By being able to station rangers in these cabins during the summer, the parks are able to maintain a day-in-day-out presence with rangers who can monitor the resources and educate the public in those areas, the spokeswoman said.
“For us, that’s our choice for how to manage the wilderness,” she said.
There is, within the Washakie Wilderness just east of Yellowstone National Park, a lodge that dates to 1902-03, when it was built by A.A. Anderson to serve as a control point for overseeing grazing and logging within the Yellowstone Forest Reserve. In 1993, Anderson Lodge was in bad condition. It was slumping, poor drainage was rotting sill logs; in general it was terrible shape.
The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the wilderness area, decided not to go against the general tenets of the Wilderness Act in repairing the two-story lodge and instead sent Bernie Weisgerber, a master craftsman and historic building preservation expert, in to repair the log building. Using hand tools such as broadaxes to cut planks from logs and whipsaws to cut the logs and planks, plus volunteer Sierra Club labor to move logs around, Mr. Weisgerber and his crew got the job done over a number of weeks.
Could something similar be done in Sequoia and Kings Canyon with these patrol cabins?
"I wonder what the cost is, I wonder what the impact is long-term, I wonder about the accessibility of these different places," Ms. Freeman said when told of the Forest Service approach. "I think it’s comparing apples and oranges without knowing the situation surrounding that one. I can’t make a comparison."
However, she did note that numerous mule trips that would be necessary to haul in the materials would create impacts, and in some cases trail conditions would prevent the mules from hauling in some of the logs for the new cabins due to their length.
“A helicopter impact can be much more ephemeral," said Ms. Freeman.
In the end she reiterated that Sequoia/Kings Canyon officials take very highly their responsibility to protect the parks' wilderness character.
“In this case this was decided that it would be the preferred alternative because of the amount of work that needs to be done, the importance of these cabins have in the wilderness," she said. "This is not somebody that we have people that stay out there as they’re on patrol. These are people’s living spaces for years at a time.”
The comment period runs through April 30. You can find the entire EA and submit your comments at this site
Additional background from Sequoia:
The Crabtree, Rae Lakes, and Le Conte ranger stations are located on the John Muir/Pacific Crest Trail, the most heavily used wilderness trail in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Each year, tens of thousands of backpackers and stock users travel all or part of this trail. Wilderness rangers operating from these stations carry out daily hikes of their patrol area, and monitor and rehabilitate wilderness resources during the three or more months they are stationed there. Rangers at each station contact, educate, and assist 2,000 to 4,000 visitors per year, conduct 50 to 100 search and rescue (SAR) operations, and perform more than 100 medical assists for visitors in the wilderness. In addition, under a cooperative agreement, the Crabtree station is used for winter snow surveys by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) under its Cooperative Snow Surveys program.
For the past 60 years, rangers have been based from ranger stations located in the parks wilderness during the summer season to carry out the parks’ wilderness stewardship mandate by providing wilderness resource protection and appropriate visitor services. The regular and extended presence of rangers in the wilderness of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks is instrumental in the preservation of wilderness character and the subsequent experience of wilderness users. In the past 30 years, the effectiveness of this program has diminished as cabin maintenance has increased.
... The existing stations are deteriorating and approaching the end of their lifespan. As a result of the deteriorating structures, rangers must spend considerable and increasing time on maintenance of the stations. This results in less time performing wilderness stewardship and visitor protection activities. In addition, the stations are not in compliance with wilderness aesthetics or the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park: Architectural Character Guidelines (NPS 1989), which define the architecture style appropriate for construction and development within the parks (appendix A). During winter operations, the stations are marginally functional and do not meet health and safety standards. If these facilities are going to continue to be used for the administration of wilderness, replacement or repairs are necessary. The situation at Rae Lakes is particularly acute in that the wooden tent frame has deteriorated and the station is no longer functional.
Because of the parks' size and remoteness, ranger stations have historically been used in the wilderness to allow rangers and other park employees to protect wilderness resources and provide visitor services, including education, emergency medical treatment, trail maintenance, and search and rescue, in the remote wilderness of the parks.