USFS plan includes long-term permits
On July 3, the Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest released its final proposal on how best to issue special use permits and manage pack and saddle stock outfitters in the region’s wilderness areas — potentially bringing to a close a debate that has lasted for decades.
The proposal, officially called the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS), is intended to provide a balance between maintaining the economic viability of the region’s pack and saddle stock outfitters and protecting the fragile ecosystems of the wilderness areas in which they operate.
The impacted regions lie primarily within the Methow Valley Ranger District, but also include areas of the Tonasket and Chelan Ranger Districts. They involve the Pasayten and Lake Chelan–Sawtooth Wildernesses, the North Cascades, the Sawtooth Backcountry, the Bear/Ramsey/Volstead area, Alta Lake, and small patches of National Forest System land surrounding these areas.
Four alternatives were considered throughout the process, which has been ongoing since the late 1990s when the Methow Valley Ranger District began receiving comments and concerns regarding the activities of pack and saddle stock outfitter–guides in the Pasayten Wilderness.
In the two decades following these complaints, a number of proposals were presented to and rejected by the public, eventually leading the U.S. Forest Service to this most recent, final proposal. Under this proposal, the Forest Service will issue 10—year term special-use permits for pack and saddle stock outfitter guides throughout the areas mentioned above, with a maximum of 6,082 service days throughout that period.
Those conditions are a noteworthy improvement for outfitters who currently must apply for short-term special-use permits annually, making long-term business planning especially difficult.
Permits will only be issued to outfitters already operating in the area, including Stehekin Outfitters, Cascade Wilderness Outfitters, Early Winters Outfitting, North Cascade Outfitters, North Cascade Safaris and Sawtooth Outfitters. Additional permits may be provided to other pack and saddle stock outfitters only if one of the existing businesses ceases operation. The 6,082 service days will be divided among the service areas, and distributed to the businesses based on the number of service days they have held in the past.
Additionally, two site-specific, non-significant amendments were added to the proposal, relating to campsite location and vegetation loss. The first one will amend both the Okanogan National Forest Land and Resource Plan and the Wenatchee National Forest Land and Resource Plan by adding the following to the plan’s guidelines: “Pack and saddle stock outfitter–guides are allowed to use existing barren core in established campsites, but shall not be allowed to increase the amount of baren core (bare mineral soil).”
Currently, management plans only allow for between 400 and 1,000 square feet of vegetation loss in campsites, depending on the location. This, according to both the Forest Service and pack and saddle outfitters, is simply not enough.
“It is physically impracticable to fit 12 people and 18 head of stock inside areas of 400 to 1,000 square feet of barren core,” reads the Forest Service’s Draft Record of Decision. Businesses using the many campsites which already exceed those limits will be allowed to continue using the existing barren core, but will not be allowed to expand beyond that.
The six campsites which exceed 5,250 square feet of barren core will require camp management plans, and will be closely monitored by Forest Service officials to ensure that they don’t expand any further. Camp management plans must be developed by the end of the 2019 operating season, and will ensure that the future environmental impacts of the camps will be minimized.
The second site-specific, non-significant amendment regards a requirement that campsites be further than 200 feet from meadows, lakes, streams and key interest areas in the Pasayten and Lake Chelan-–Sawtooth wilderness areas. The amendment will permit the use of existing campsites within those boundaries.
Of the approximately 99 campsites used by pack and saddle stock outfitter guides, 86 fall within 200 feet of the above features. According to the Forest Service’s rationale, if access to those sites were removed, the 13 remaining sites would simply be insufficient to support the operations of the outfitters. Additionally, the preservation of these camps will prevent the creation of other camps that would replace the 86 which violate current regulations, ensuring that additional land remains undisturbed.
Of the four alternatives considered, the final proposal is by far the most friendly to outfitters. The alternatives ranged from a “no action alternative,” which would not have issued any pack and saddle outfitter –guide permits and would essentially end those business’s operations in the selected regions, to a number of variations on the final proposal.
Though the “no action alternative” would have been the most environmentally beneficial, it was quickly rejected due to the extent of the economic impact the pack and saddle stock outfitter– guides have on the region. According to the Forest Service, these businesses “currently contribute approximately $1,293,940 annually to Okanogan County, and provide 26.6 jobs.” The increase in service days under the chosen proposal has the potential to “increase the contribution to approximately $1,764,516 and increase the number of jobs to 36.3.” The chosen alternative does have the greatest environmental impacts, however, the Forest Service contends that the impacts “are all acceptable, and very similar to the existing condition.”
The proposal is subject to a pre–decisional administrative review, in which interested parties can file objections or complaints. According to Forest Supervisor Michael Williams, “only individuals, or organizations that submitted specific written comments during any designated opportunity for public participation (scoping or public comment periods) may object.”
Objections can be submitted electronically at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=3752; sent by mail or delivered to the Objection Reviewing Officer at the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region in Portland, Oregon (P.O. Box 3623, Attn: 1570 Objections); or faxed to the Objection Reviewing Officer at (503) 808–2339, Attn: 1570 Objections. Objections must be filed within 45 days of publication of the notice in the Wenatchee World (the newspaper of record for the Okanogan—Wenatchee National Forest). As of Monday (July 23), the Wenatchee World had not published a notice.
If the 45-–day objection period passes without an objection, then the decision will be implemented. If an objection is filed, then a written response will be sent shortly after the end of the objection period. After responses are sent, the decision may be finalized and implemented immediately. For additional information, contact project administrator Paul Willard by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (509) 682-–4960.