Republican leadership in the House of Representatives could resolve the horse-packing stalemate at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks through a legislative initiative, according to California Democrats.
In a letter to Rep. Doc Hastings, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, the five Democrats propose that he support legislation that would give the Park Service authority to issue permits for commercial horse pack trips in designated wilderness in the parks.
The current ban on commercial pack trips was spurred by the High Sierra Hikers Association, which filed a lawsuit to both get the National Park Service to meet the provisions of The Wilderness Act and to protect the sensitive environmental landscape of wilderness in Sequoia and Kings Canyon. The association is not trying to ban outright horse trips into the high country of the two parks, but rather seeks what it believes is a more manageable level.
Armed with a ruling that the Park Service violated The Wilderness Act in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks with the way it managed horse pack trips, the hikers association wants U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg to order the agency to rein-in the pack trips.
In a motion filed earlier this year in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the hikers association asked Judge Seeborg during a May 23 hearing to order the Park Service to reduce by 20 percent from 2007 levels the number of pack trips allowed into the parks' wilderness areas, and prohibit grazing of stock in wilderness meadows above 9,700 feet.
Uncertainty over the matter has led Sequoia officials to temporarily ban the issuance of permits to commercial horse packers.
The Obama administration in recent weeks has taken some criticism from some members of Congress, who say the administration has the authority to resolve the impasse. But in their letter to Rep. Hastings, the California Democrats say that's not so.
The Interior Department has no authority to issue permits until a final court ruling is made, the congressmen note in their letter, which was made public Tuesday. With the remedy hearing for this case not scheduled until May, any final ruling would be likely be too late for summer visitors to make plans, disappointing visitors and furthering the economic harm to the area, they added.
“This is about whether Congress is going to act to allow summer trips into the Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks,” Rep. George Miller said. “We can complain about the ruling, or we can do something to resolve a situation that’s already affecting families and businesses and harming the regional economy. I’m urging my Republican colleagues to take action. If the committee leadership introduces a clean, simple bill to allow access this year at historical levels, we will support that bill. We’ve got to work together to keep access to our national parks open and keep small businesses operating.”
Rep. Jim Costa added that, “Many of us, along with our families and friends, have enjoyed the incredible sites that only be found in the High Sierra Nevadas in the summer. For many the only way to experience this is through the use of pack animals. Congress should act on a clean, bipartisan bill. If we can’t agree on this, what can we agree on?”
The Democratic members noted that the situation is already causing economic harm to outfitters, packers, guides, and other permit holders who rely on the income that park visitors bring to the area. Without congressional action, visitors and families from across California — and the nation — may be denied access to the high country wilderness in the Sierras, one of the premier experiences the National Park system has to offer, they contend.
The letter recommends that Chairman Hastings and his colleagues introduce legislation allowing the small businesses who manage the pack and saddle stock to continue to operate this season. The court’s ruling did not determine that the horses and mules had caused any harm to the park, only that the National Park Service had not conducted a legally required study. The legislation suggested in the letter would allow the Park Service to continue issuing permits for the next year while the agency finalizes the necessary studies, the congressmen said.
“Americans of all political stripes derive great enjoyment from exploring the great outdoors,” said Rep. John Garamendi, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee. “Rather than sit on our hands, our Committee should work together with the National Park Service to ensure that recreationalists and small businesses can continue to reap the benefits of these natural wonders.”
“The Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have served as a vacation destination for generations of families,” added Rep. Sam Farr. “Closing the gates of these parks to pack and saddle animals will not only interrupt countless family vacations this spring, but it will deliver a heavy blow to the local economies that depend on tourism dollars. I want to urge my Republican colleagues to act swiftly and responsibly in support of a clean bill that reopens the doors to visitors and delivers relief for local businesses.”
Said Rep. Mike Thompson, "Congress needs to act so that families and small businesses can plan for the summer vacation months. Every day we wait is a day too long. Our outfitters, packers and guides face economic uncertainty. And trips American families were hoping to take to these parks are threatened. The House Natural Resources Committee needs to introduce, and Congress needs to pass clean legislation that ensures permits can be issued for pack and saddle animals at these parks. This will allow families to move forward with their summer vacation plans and small businesses to continue to operate.”
In their letter the Democrats wrote that:
[The] “order is already causing economic harm to outfitters, packers, guides, and other permit holders, and it has the potential to significantly affect Americans’ enjoyment of the parks’ wilderness areas this year.”
“[T]his situation cannot be fixed without congressional action, and it is a disservice to businesses and visitors to suggest that the NPS can change the facts on the ground until the court rules.”
“The solution is simple: the Natural Resources committee, under your leadership, should introduce and take up clean legislation providing the NPS with authority to issue permits for the use of commercial services in designated wilderness within the Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks…”
The National Park Service was expected Tuesday to submit its proposed remend to the court. But a remedy hearing is not scheduled until May 23, and the Court has no deadline for issuing final ruling.
As described in congressmen's letter, the legislation necessary to resolve this problem should:
·Provide the National Park Service with clear authority to issue permits for specified commercial services.
·Be limited to the designated wilderness within the Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks.
·Ensure the level of commercial services does not exceed the levels authorized by the park service in 2011.
·Limit permits through the end of 2013, or until the Secretary of the Interior issues an “extent necessary” determination that addresses the violations found in the court decision.