A U.S. Forest Service decision to issue 10-year permits to local outfitter-guide companies is being appealed by local outfitters as too restrictive, and by a national environmental organization as not restrictive enough.

Two appeals were filed after the Forest Service’s March announcement that it planned to grant 10-year special use permits to seven outfitter-guide companies based in and around the Methow Valley and Stehekin. The outfitters take customers into the Methow, Chelan and Tonasket Ranger Districts.

One appeal was filed by the Washington Outfitters and Guides Association (WOGA) on behalf of local outfitters and guides, and another appeal was filed by Wilderness Watch, based in Missoula, Mont.

Although appeals of Forest Service decisions are not uncommon, “it’s kind of unusual” to receive appeals from parties with such opposing perspectives, said Jennifer Zbyszewski, recreation, wilderness and facilities program manager for the Methow Ranger District.

“It means we’re in the middle someplace. We have to comply with the Wilderness Act and manage the wilderness, but we have to be fair to outfitters and not put undue constraints on their business,” Zbyszewski said.

The appellants apparently find the Forest Service hasn’t accomplished either objective.

Forest Service officials have scheduled a meeting with outfitters on Monday (June 10) to “see if we can resolve their appeal,” Zbyszewski said.

“Sometimes we can add mitigation measures that don’t change the decision but can address the concerns of the appellants,” she said.


‘Barren core’ dispute

The WOGA appeal seeks to eliminate two key provisions of the decision issued by the supervisor of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. One provision prohibits further expansion of areas of vegetation loss and bare, trampled soil – called “barren core” – in wilderness campsites used by outfitter guides.

The new plan allows outfitters to use existing barren core in campsites, which is in effect an increase in allowable barren core over previous rules. However, the WOGA appeal says that measuring the amount of barren core “is subject to extreme variation and many influences” and that “the Forest Service’s obsession with barren core size is unreasonable given a campsite’s negligible impact on forest and wilderness resources.”

The WOGA appeal also seeks to toss out a requirement that camp management plans be maintained for assigned campsites – where outfitters can leave gear for the season – and for campsites larger than 5,250 square feet.

Because the goal of the plans is to prevent increases in barren core, which WOGA claims is unjustified, the requirement to maintain camp management plans “is arbitrary and capricious and should be eliminated,” the appeal states.

Coming from a completely different perspective, Wilderness Watch opposes the new policy allowing more barren core, saying it is “evidence that the selected alternative does not meet the Wilderness Act.”

Wilderness Watch is calling on the Forest Service to prepare a new Environmental Impact Statement.

Key concerns cited in the Wilderness Watch appeal are increases in the number of “service days” authorized in the Forest Service decision, which permits a 20 percent increase in the Pasayten Wilderness over current levels, and a 6 percent increase in the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness. (A service day is defined as any part of a day for which an outfitter or guide provides goods or services to clients.)

“The outfitters have an allocation that the Forest Service has given to them and they’re not even using them. Yet the Forest Service is setting it even higher,” said George Nickas, Wilderness Watch executive director, in a phone interview.


Parties too big?

Wilderness Watch also opposes provisions that “weaken restriction on camping distance from meadows and water bodies” and that allow party sizes of up to 12 people and 18 stock. The organization wants party sizes limited to “12 heartbeats,” as is the policy in the Glacier Peak Wilderness and other nearby wilderness areas.

“There is no explanation or analysis in the EIS as to why larger groups are necessary, and the limits in other nearby large Wildernesses suggest there is no need for the larger party size,” the appeal states.

Nickas said the Montana-based organization filed an appeal because “we’ve been involved in this issue for a decade and have many members in the area concerned about the way the Pasayten has been managed for many years.”

Zbyszewski said if the appeals cannot be informally resolved, a detailed response to their contentions will be sent to the regional forester in Portland, Ore., where an appeal review team comprised of Forest Service specialists will be convened to “determine whether our analysis was complete.”

The regional forester can affirm or remand the decision of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest supervisor. If affirmed, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest officials will wait 15 days and then begin issuing 10-year permits “unless a restraining order is filed,” Zbyszewski said. She said she expects a decision on the appeals by mid-June.

The current delay is only one in more than a decade of studies and administrative delays that have meant local outfitter-guides have operated under temporary, one-year permits since 2000.