The Future of Wilderness & Guiding in Yosemite National Park

In From the Range of Light & Fast by Howie Schwartz4 Comments

As the focus of the nation remains on presidential politics and the associated reality television drama that it represents, Yosemite National Park is quietly having their own opportunity to revamp its management program as they re-evaluate their Wilderness Stewardship Plan. It is not prominent in news headlines beyond some small scale local press. People may assume that this is just a process that government agencies do, and that nothing will really change, and that if there are currently issues then they will somehow get addressed. As with presidential elections, people can make a difference, if they are active and involved with the process. An important difference between this and presidential elections is that we can have a voice every 4 years. The last time the Yosemite Wilderness Plan was re-evaluated was 27 years ago, in 1989. Who knows when the next opportunity might be? If you have any ideas for the future of one of our nation’s greatest land assets, now would be a good time to weigh in.

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Yosemite Wilderness Area

Yosemite Wilderness Area

Did you know that 94% of Yosemite National Park is considered wilderness? This acreage includes nearly everything within ~100 yards from the roads, buildings, shops, restaurants, lodges, campgrounds, lights, dumpsters, restrooms and other civilized amenities that make up the Yosemite Valley tourism infrastructure. That means that nearly everything we know and love about the Park – recreationally as climbers, mountaineers, hikers, and skiers – is in designated wilderness. Wilderness management is guided primarily by the Wilderness Act of 1964. The definition of wilderness is one of the more contentious and ambiguous aspects of that law. Wilderness is defined in section 2(c):

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

Now picture that ideal of wilderness against some randomly collected images of actual Yosemite wilderness areas:

I wonder if many people actually think these places fit in with the intended designation of wilderness. If people go somewhere in large volumes, day after day, with the help of significant constructed access infrastructure, how can it be classified as wilderness? Should one be able to park their RV on the side of the road and, without removing their bathrobe or putting on shoes, stumble into wilderness? The Wilderness Stewardship Plan re-evaluation is looking to, among other things, incorporate new policy direction and definitions for wilderness character as they look to add even more wilderness areas to the existing wilderness inventory within the park.

How most people think of and connect with the Yosemite Wilderness.

How most people think of and connect with the Yosemite Wilderness.

Wilderness is certainly a double edged sword. The designation legally protects amazing places country from development and destruction. On the other hand, it also limits management options. The wilderness designation is extremely difficult to reverse and in fact, land agencies are under directives to continually inventory and propose new areas to potentially include into wilderness. As wilderness areas increase and populations increase, we see a higher concentration of impact on resources in more accessible places. In wilderness, there are few things managers can do other than limit the numbers of people allowed per day. We see this in places like Half Dome and Mount Whitney. This year, on Half Dome, people are no longer able to start in the Inyo National Forest and get granted access to a Half Dome permit. On Mount Whitney, after ending guiding on the Whitney Trail they hold a lottery to grant access there. They recently expanded the permitting system there to also include the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek where increased demand and limited supply has increased the use of that drainage to access the peak by more challenging routes.

Another thing they have done in response to increasing demand is to raise costs. In the early days the cost was $2/night for lodging and meals at the High Sierra Camps. In 1993 Delaware North, a large entertainment and hospitality corporation took over all of the concessions in the park. This past year, the concession was given to Aramark, a much larger multinational corporation. Cost is now $180/night. What will happen to our park, and the accessible wilderness that we enjoy so much that dominates it, as a single powerful corporate entity seeks to increase visitation and revenues?

Though it is tiny and pathetic within the park economic-industrial complex, guiding services are one of the commercial uses allowed by the park under the Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Stewardship Plan determines what guiding services are permitted to operate, how much commercial use is allowed, where, and when. Though there are numerous permitted backpacking and hiking guide services, the only guide service allowed to offer roped technical rock climbing in Yosemite National Park is Yosemite Mountaineering School, an entity owned and managed by Aramark, the sole concessionaire in the park.

As the Wilderness Stewardship Plan gets revamped we have an opportunity to have a voice in how the limited and heavily impacted resources should be managed. Land managers rely on public comment, by law, and often in the absence of useful data on which to base critical decisions. You can submit your opinions, observations, and comments about how the Yosemite Park wilderness areas should be better managed before January 29th, 2016 HERE.

As a long standing mountain guide service that operates in and around Yosemite, we are going to send the following constructive comments. We ask that if you agree with us that you consider including some of these points into your own comments. They will weigh more coming from individuals within the general public than from us.

Here is ours:

  • We believe that guides have a net positive impact on wilderness areas: the land, people, and the wilderness character – therefore more of it should be allowed.
    • Guides have the comfort, familiarity, and expertise to move with their guests through terrain that is less frequently traveled, less impacted, and more remote. This reduces the impacts on more accessible and more heavily used areas and routes.
    • Guides increase the safety of the recreating public, not only for their paying guests but for any others in the vicinity. When making hazardous mountain areas so accessible to the general public, it is an ethical responsibility to take measures to mitigate risks. Yosemite has maintained guard rails and cables for this reason. It maintains a well trained and locally based search and rescue team. Guides are trained as Wilderness First Responders or better and should be considered an important component of an emergency response system in wilderness locations.
    • Guides reduce the chances of accidents and incidents in the first place through their training, experience, and judgment. They impart knowledge and skills to their guests and the general public through instruction and good example. Contact with guides helps recreational wilderness users become better at their own personal risk management over time. This results in fewer accidents and calls for rescue. This in turn reduces taxpayer costs and the risks and impacts of conducting rescue operations. Rescue operations do affect the character of wilderness. Measures should be taken to minimize the need for wilderness rescue. Guides play a positive role in helping to achieve that.
    • Trained and certified guides have been trained and assessed in accordance with national industry standards. We believe that in the new Wilderness Stewardship Plan, it is essential not only that all guide service employees comply with wilderness medical standards (as is currently required), but that all guides for technical climbing activities be required to meet minimum industry-accepted standards for training and credentialing within their scope of practice. It is important to require standards for the ability for a guide to manage risk and avoid accidents, just as it is for the ability to respond in the aftermath of an accident. It is contradictory to require one of these important aspects of risk management without the other. We believe that the public should be ensured the right to hire a climbing guide with industry-accepted guiding training and credentials.
    • Guides understand the importance of preservation of wilderness character as it is integral to the quality of the experience they seek to provide. Any degradation of the quality of a climbing route or wilderness itinerary will impact the value of the experience they provide. We believe that all guides should be required to have demonstrated that they understand and adhere to the principles of Leave No Trace. We believe that such training and proficiency should be required for permitting of guides on all public lands. With such training, and being able to hold guide services accountable for their practices, it can be assured that guides will always be model wilderness users and train their guests to be the same. In this regard, it can be said that guides have a net positive effect on the state of the wilderness areas they visit with their groups. As such, increasing professional guiding service days should be considered a key strategy in any long-term stewardship plan.
  • Competition breeds excellence. We believe that it is not in the best interest of the public for all park concessions to be run as a monopoly. We believe that the guided public experience is compromised significantly when they are only given one choice in who may guide them on any itinerary. Currently, the Wilderness Plan allows for several outfitters to compete to provide non-technical guiding services such as hiking and backpacking. In our view, the same standard should also be applied to technical climbing guiding services. We believe that the park has enough resources and opportunity available to accommodate a greater number of guiding businesses, even if on a more limited basis than what is available to the current sole concessionaire. We have seen every other National Park in the country, most recently Rainier National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, come to the conclusion that a sole concession for guiding operations is inferior to a system that allows for some competition in providing these services. We believe the park should be able to hold a permittee accountable for poor performance without risking an interruption in an important public service. This can only be achieved by allowing multiple permittees.
  • We believe that when an area ceases to conform to the character described by the definition of wilderness in the Wilderness Act, that it be considered for removal from wilderness, or somehow otherwise newly designated in a way that allows for common sense management of the resource. We do not believe that new wilderness can be added indefinitely, and that imperative in the law should be amended, putting resources instead into better managing what wilderness areas we already have, particularly those at risk. We advise that commercial guiding be considered as a tool to help managers reduce or  concentrate impacts in order to protect the special places that the Wilderness Act was designed to preserve.
  • Thank you for your consideration of all of these comments.

Again the link to comment: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=347&projectID=47112&documentID=69178

 

Comments

  1. Congrats, Howie, first…for your terrific writing skills, and second…for your activism. I already put my 2 cents in two days ago (for guides) under Sierra Club auspices.
    Very Best,
    Pat (Katie’s Mom)

  2. I certainly know it is better for the park system for no one entity to be in control of and have a monopoly in providing the park concessions, and therefore I would not be in favor of Aramark or any entity having such position, without any competition. Also the guides who provide so much for the public who sees the park, including and most importantly their safety should be given a paramount position and their opinions should carry a lot of weight in how to further manage the park in a manner consistent with appropriate preservation goals.

    1. Author

      Thanks so much for those comments Catherine. I hope you will share them with the National Park administrators in public comment before Friday too.

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