Sequoia-Kings Canyon solicits input on Wilderness Stewardship Plan

Officials at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have picked their choice for the parks' future over the next 25 to 30 years, but the public can still ask questions and submit comments on the draft Wilderness Stewardship Plan and Environmental Impact Statement.

On Monday, park officials will hold an open house and public meeting to discuss the draft at the Visalia Marriott Hotel. The meeting is from 6 to 9 p.m., with the formal public discussion starting at 7 p.m. A webinar is set for Aug. 14.

The draft provides the framework for the future management of the parks.

The one goal: "to preserve wilderness character, provide opportunities for and encourage public use and enjoyment of the wilderness, and improve conditions in areas where there may be unacceptable levels of impacts on wilderness character."

It's a tough balancing act for Gregg Fauth, wilderness coordinator at Sequoia and Kings Canyon. The parks have a combined area of 865,964 acres, or 1,353 square miles, 97% of which is designated and managed as wilderness.

"The previous plan was really good at what it was, but it's dated," Fauth said. "We're not looking at big changes, but we have to find that balance between public use and what preserves wilderness character."

The WSP has five alternatives. The first is simple -- No change to the status quo and the park will follow the same stewardship plan established in the mid-1980s.

But the second is the park's preferred alternative. It would allow officials to advance the wilderness character, providing visitors with more primitive experiences by making improvements on a site-specific basis. This could include a reduction in length of stays or trailhead quotas at popular areas such as Mount Whitney, Rae Lakes Loop and the John Muir and High Sierra trails

This is where Fauth has to do his balancing act.

"It's not more strict, but more thorough," he said. "The preferred alternative isn't a huge change from where things have been going the past 25, 30 years."

Some modifications could affect party sizes, primarily for off-trail and stock users, said park environmental protection specialist Nancy Hendricks.

Another item in alternative No. 2 would be the creation of the Mount Whitney Management Area -- a 37,260-acre area that would also encompass the Mount Langley Area.

This area would be monitored closely with reductions to party sizes, camp-night limits at some locations and commercial activity as needed to maintain the wilderness character.

Any changes at the parks would be site-specific and not on a parkwide scale and would be phased in over a number of years.

"We're not looking at any new closures," Hendricks said. "Our goal is to keep wilderness open to as many people who can use it without undue impact."

One key addition in the preferred alternative (and Nos. 3-5) is the implementation of a trail classification system. Currently, there is no trail system in the parks.

The classification system would be partially adopted from the U.S. Forest Service and establish 695 miles of trails as Class 1, 2 or 3, ranging from minimally developed to fully developed.

The other three alternatives fluctuate in emphasis -- increasing primitive recreation (No. 3), reducing commercial activity (No. 4) and improving conditions for solitude (No. 5).

Odds of the parks implementing an alternative that isn't their preferred one aren't very high, Fauth said.

All submitted comments are read by park officials, Hendricks said, and substantive ones will be addressed and incorporated into the final draft.

"We're looking for comments of why or why not the alternatives would or wouldn't work," Hendricks said.

"People enjoy a diversity of experience, hiking, backpacking and more in these parks. We want to know the passion these people have who use these places."

After the final revisions and a 30-day "no-action" period, the plan will be sent for approval to the NPS regional director in San Francisco before the deadline of June 5, 2015.





Scheduled for 3-4 p.m. Aug. 14 to highlight the preferred alternative and to allow the public to ask additional questions. To register, go to yose.webex.com. Call-in at (866) 919-3108, using the password 4700949. The webinar will be recorded and available for download at yose.webex.com and parkplanning.nps.gov/sekiwild