“Everything changes; even the continents drift” ~ George Will
There is much to love about Yosemite National Park. One of the more obscure virtues I’ve always appreciated is its unwillingness to change. From the view as you exit the tunnel on Highway 41, to the trail intersection signs, to the upholstery on the overstuffed chairs in the Great Room of the Ahwahnee*, there is something enormously comforting about knowing that, even if I am away for a few years, all will be exactly the same when I return.
[*If you try to tell me to use that other name, I’ll stuff a live pika into your sleeping bag!]
Don’t look now, but change is coming for those of us who enjoy hiking and camping in the backcountry – especially John Muir Trail hikers.
The National Park Service is in the final stages of releasing the new Wilderness Stewardship Plan. Two groups will likely be impacted in a big way: overnight backpackers and those who travel with stock. For backpackers, the changes are going to involve wilderness permits.
I’m going to write this article in two parts. First, I’ll describe, as dispassionately as possible, and while attempting to see things from the NPS point of view, the alternatives they are considering. I’ll do my best to convey, “Just the facts.” Then, I’ll tell you what I think. I am only going to discuss the impact on wilderness permits for hikers. If you are interested in stock, I suggest you click on the link, above, and do some reading.
The park service is supposed to keep the wilderness, well, wild. That means few facilities (although you will find some), no mechanized equipment (with some exceptions, mostly for emergency responders), and solitude. For the vast majority of the Yosemite backcountry, the NPS is doing pretty well. Take a look at the chart, below. (All charts from the NPS, which, by the way, did an excellent job preparing documents for the public to review.)
There has definitely been an increase over the years, but it’s a big backcountry. It can swallow an extra eight or ten thousand hikers, spread over an entire hiking season, without too much trouble.
Now take a look at the same data for John Muir Trail hikers.
Although the gross numbers are far lower, the percentage increase is substantial. And the John Muir Trail (and the campsites along it) represents a tiny fraction of the Yosemite backcountry. The Pacific Crest Trail statistics are just as alarming.
To digress for just a moment, I was really surprised at this number. Nearly 4500 hikers are making it this far from the Mexican border? Wow. (Or, perhaps, this is just permits and not actual hikers? If it is the number of permits, how many get as far as Donohue Pass? I would guess less than half.)
All of this is calling the NPS to action. The current technique of managing how many backpackers are in the wilderness at any given time is an indirect one – through trailhead entry permits. The idea is to limit the number of campers in a particular zone by limiting the number of entries via trailheads near that zone. The park service believes this approach is no longer working. Actually, it’s working fine in most of the fifty-three travel zones that the park service has divided Yosemite’s wilderness into, but it is failing (in their view) in some. They are considering four courses of action.
Course of Action 1: leave the current system in place and substantially reduce the trailhead entry quotas. The disadvantage of this course of action is pretty obvious: it will be much harder to get a permit. On the other hand, this also has an enormous upside: once a hiker entered the wilderness, he or she would be free to travel anywhere.
Course of Action 2: retain the current system, but add “camping permits” for certain high-use areas. The park service believes that this course of action would not require a reduction in trailhead entry quotas, which is a good thing. The number of “camping permits” would presumably be very limited, but that could be a relatively minor inconvenience. Much would depend in how many and how large the “high-use areas” were. If there are just a few and they are a mile square, it should be no big deal to hike through them to a spot where no “camping permit” would be required. If there were dozens and they were eight miles square, well, that’s a marmot of different color.
Course of Action 3: require reservations, within one of the fifty-three zones, on every single night of the trip. This would have a pretty significant impact on the way hikers experience the backcountry. Random divagations while I’m in the woods are as much a part of the trip as the scenery. On the other hand, once a hiker secured a permit for each night of the trip, entry could occur at any trailhead and you could spend the night anywhere within the zone you reserved. Entry permits would be discontinued completely.
Course of Action 4: same as #3, above, but add a requirement that campers spend the night at a designated campsite, within the zone where you made your reservation. The “designated campsite” rule would only apply to high-use zones.
So, there you have it. The first hiking season affected by the new Wilderness Stewardship Plan is expected to be 2018. The park service is collecting comments and you can make your voice heard here. The comment period ends on the last day of September, 2016.
Having digested this as well as I can, I have a few comments.
First, I think it is deeply misguided if the park service intends to try to make the John Muir Trail, within Yosemite, as unpopulated as most trails in the park. Even with the numbers we have now, it is possible to camp alone almost every night. And while it is not possible to hike the trail all day without seeing someone (at least between June and September), I think the NPS is choosing to view those hikers the wrong way: they are not interlopers spoiling the experience, they are novice backpackers on their one great wilderness adventure. To me, it is a small sacrifice we JMT hikers make to seed the rest of the population with citizens – and voters – who know why we need to spend money and write rules to protect the wilderness.
The park service also tends to conflate more hikers in the wilderness with more fire rings and depletion of firewood. Those problems could be eliminated completely with a blanket ban on fires – a prohibition that would have almost no impact on the vast majority of hikers. Certainly limiting fires is a better alternative than limiting people.
That said, I am not unsympathetic to the park service and their often conflicting objectives. If I had to choose a course of action from the list above, I would go with #2, with the caveat that high-use areas could not be more than a mile or so long (or perhaps a couple of miles long but no more than a quarter mile wide) and there would be as few as possible.
Good hiking, Ray