Clearing the Air

In recent years, persons representing the commercial stock-packing industry have been disseminating a plethora of misinformation about the High Sierra Hikers Association and other conservation groups. In letters-to-the-editor and in appearances before local bodies, the packers have made numerous false claims about the actions and intentions of the HSHA and other groups. Following is a brief summary of what has been said, and some replies to set the record straight.

In May of 1996, a group of commercial packers appeared before the Inyo County Board of Supervisors to request that Inyo County intervene on the packers’ behalf in the Forest Service’s ongoing planning process for the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wildernesses. Danica Berner, Secretary of the High Sierra Packers Association, alleged that “self-interest groups seek to eliminate livestock” from the High Sierra. Although Ms. Berner did not present any evidence to support her allegations, the supervisors were swayed by her claims and directed county staff to participate in the planning process to ensure that the interests of the commercial packers are protected.

The packers then advanced the same exaggerations before the Mono County Board of Supervisors in February of 1997, where Mary Roeser (owner of the Mammoth Lakes Pack Outfit) alleged that ”Many of the environmental groups are committed to removing horses and mules from the wilderness.” Again, none of the packers at this or any other public forum presented any evidence to support such radical claims.

While HSHA’s members hold many diverse views, the plain fact is that no group, including the HSHA, has ever adopted a position favoring the elimination of stock use from the High Sierra. In truth, we have simply proposed that the agencies use the best available scientific information to adopt reasonable limits and controls on all uses in order to protect the fragile high-elevation Sierra wilderness. Such limits and controls should be equitable, and will necessarily preclude certain uses in some areas. Apparently, some commercial outfitters have incorrectly interpreted the widespread public support for reasonable limits and controls as a universal desire among hikers to see all recreational stock use eliminated.

At the Inyo County supervisors’ meeting, packers also accused conservation groups of “bombarding” the Forest Service with lawsuits aimed at eliminating commercial stock use in the wilderness. One speaker (Herb London, owner of Rock Creek Pack Station) pointed the finger specifically at the HSHA, claiming that the HSHA is comprised of “not more than 200 members,” and that “probably half are attorneys.”

The truth is that the HSHA has well over 500 members, and only five (less than one percent) are known by us to be attorneys. And we have never filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service. In the seven years since we formed the HSHA, we have filed only one lawsuit. That suit was aimed at the National Park Service, and had nothing at all to do with eliminating—or even reducing—stock use. In fact, it was intended only to prevent a substantial increase in stock use until the NPS could conduct an adequate analysis of the potential environmental damage that might result from the proposed increase. And although the Backcountry Horsemen of America characterized that lawsuit as “frivolous,” the federal courts decided strongly in our favor, overturning the decision by Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to increase the allowable size of commercial stock groups in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon backcountry.

After the Inyo County supervisors’ meeting in 1996, a letter-to-the-editor authored by Ms. Berner appeared in the Inyo Register. The letter stated that “Self-interest groups who seek to eliminate livestock and do not want well-maintained trails are succeeding at stopping routine maintenance and reconstruction of historical trails...The anti-stock people don’t want any project that will allow continued stock use.” While Berner didn’t identify the “self-interest groups” or “anti-stock people” by name, the truth of the matter is that the HSHA and all other conservation groups have repeatedly and consistently supported adequate funding for maintenance of trails in the High Sierra—including those most frequently used by stock animals. We all understand that trails routinely used by stock animals need to be constructed and maintained to a higher standard in order to withstand the erosive forces of stock use, and the HSHA is on record as strongly supporting full and proper maintenance of a core network of all-purpose trails.

The real issues regarding trail construction and maintenance are: (1) Many steep, narrow trails in the Sierra have never been properly constructed to withstand stock use. Those trails are generally unsafe for stock travel and/or susceptible to extensive erosion if used by stock, and would not become well-suited for stock use without herculean and extremely expensive new construction efforts; (2) The Forest Service cannot afford the many millions of dollars that would be required to reconstruct and maintain all existing routes to “stock standards”; and (3) Large numbers of wilderness users have expressed a desire to retain at least a few of these trails in a primitive condition. For these reasons, the HSHA has suggested that a small number of trails be designated for “foot travel only.” If this were done, massive expenditures of tax dollars would not be required to maintain all trails to the expensive “stock standards.” Furthermore, the limited funds that are available could then be applied toward intensive maintenance and reconstruction of the main all-purpose routes. And hikers who truly desire an experience free of the dust, manure, urine, and flies often found on the main stock routes would have a few trails on which to enjoy their desired experience. Clearly, anyone who equates such a modest, common-sense proposal with a desire to eliminate all stock use is just plain paranoid. Not just paranoid, but deliberately and blatantly distorting the record of what the HSHA has publicly, repeatedly said on this subject.

It should be noted that not all of the packers have strayed so far from the truth. One pack station owner recently told the Los Angeles Times that if packers imposed a weight limit on the gear they and their customers took into the backcountry, they could use fewer pack animals and reduce impact on the land.

“Most packers are still packing the same way they did 50 years ago,” said Mark Berry, who owned both the Onion Valley and Rainbow pack stations during the 1980s. “There are many things that we could do to change our trips that would reduce the number of pack animals. That would actually cut the packers’ overhead, make them more money, and reduce annual impact. But packers aren’t evolving very fast,” Berry said.

The portrayal of the HSHA and other conservation groups as being completely “anti-stock” has not been the only area where some packers have drifted from the truth. A recent letter to the Inyo Register by Bill Draves (current owner of the Rainbow Pack Station) claims that: “[packers are] the ones who maintain the ‘churned-up’ trails some backpackers whine about.” But the commercial packers don’t maintain the trails. The Forest Service and Park Service do, using our collective tax dollars.

But the most significant and dangerous aspect of Draves’ letter is that, for the first time, the commercial packers are openly invoking hatred. His letter declares that the “season of hate is upon us,” and claims that in order to witness the hatred, “All you have to do is attend a High Sierra Hikers meeting.”

Although Mr. Draves has never attended a meeting of the HSHA, his fabrications and fantasies about what transpires at HSHA meetings are not the major issue. What is truly disturbing is the thought that a commercial operator who makes his living off the public lands would submit unfounded assumptions about a non-profit citizens’ group to a newspaper and represent them as truth and fact.

An even more compelling consideration, however, is that none of this is about ‘hate.’ It is about ordinary people from all walks of life who have joined the HSHA simply because they want to see the wilderness of the High Sierra protected for the enjoyment of present and future generations. And if any interest group embraces or even accepts the language of violence, our deliberations will become less productive and more divisive.

The big questions are: Why do some commercial packers in the Sierra view progressive change based on scientific state-of-the-art knowledge as a threat to their interests? And why do some packers find it necessary to lie about the intentions of concerned citizens’ groups that simply want to see stock use regulated and managed in a way that protects the High Sierra wilderness?

The HSHA stands ready to explore the answers to these questions in an honest and civil way. Our position is based on scientific reality, and on various social realities and unforgiving facts that should not be ignored by anyone. These are:

(1) The number of people wishing to enjoy a wilderness experience in the Sierra constantly increases, and will continue to increase as our national population and wealth continue to grow. (2) There is an environmental consciousness in our society that scarcely existed as recently as thirty years ago, and that continues to evolve in the direction of increased environmental protection as one of our society’s foremost considerations. (3) Some commercial interests constantly talk as if they have an inherent right to exploit the Sierra—our public land—for their own private gain. Nothing can be farther from the truth than this selfish idea. All those who enter the Sierra must, out of a democratic necessity, do so on an equal basis. There can be no special privileges, no ‘grandfather rights’ granted to any individual, group, or category of people to conduct activities that are detrimental to the public good.

Reprinted from HSHA’s summer 1997 newsletter