Pack station owners serving Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks are breathing easier this week after a federal judge allowed the parks to issue permits for commercial stock use effective immediately.
"We're going full-speed ahead," said Tim Loverin, owner of the Cedar Grove Pack Station. "It's going to be an early season because of the low snowpack, so now that we've got the permits we can finally get going."
Presiding over a 3-year-old lawsuit between the High Sierra Hikers Association and the National Park Service, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg issued a temporary authorization May 23 that set permits for commercial horse packers at 80% of use levels from 2007.
A final written ruling will follow as Sequoia & Kings Canyon officials prepare a wilderness stewardship plan that will establish the extent to which commercial services such as pack stock belong in wilderness areas, which make up 97% of the jointly managed parks.
Seeborg's previous ruling on Jan. 24 stated that the NPS violated the federal Wilderness Act because its 2007 general management plan for Sequoia & Kings Canyon fell short of doing so. This, in effect, halted all permits for commercial horse packing, threatening to cripple more than a dozen pack stations as well as other businesses that rely on stock use.
As an example, the Bearpaw High Sierra Camp canceled all guest reservations from June 15-30 due to the uncertainty over permits. The backcountry tent camp, which depends on pack mules to ferry supplies and haul out trash, will open June 29.
"We are very pleased that the court has allowed the National Park Service to issue permits for commercial pack stock in the wilderness now, so our local operators can begin their busy operating season without further delay," Sequoia & Kings Canyon Superintendent Karen Taylor-Goodrich said in a media release.
However, due to the more than two months of uncertainty over permits, the summer operating season won't be nearly as busy for many pack stations.
Dianne Shew, owner of the Balch Park Pack Station outside Springville, said bookings are down 70%.
"Not only did we lose our parks business, a lot of people assumed we were completely shut down," Shew said. "It was like a whiplash."
If there's one positive to come out of this, Shew said, it's that commercial horse packing in national parks has been shown to have widespread support.
A bill pushed by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) to issue permits to commercial horse packers while the new wilderness plan is being formulated breezed through the House and, in an altered form, the Senate.
In addition, an online petition started by Shew in support of horse packing started on the website change.org received more than 5,300 signatures. Hundreds of supporters also sent personal letters to elected officials.
"We've seen what the voice of the people can do, and it's heartening," Shew said. "You know how things are. Once you almost lose something, you don't take it for granted anymore."
The reporter can be reachedat firstname.lastname@example.org