Background: The Ansel Adams Wilderness was designated by Congress in 1964 and it now has a total of 231,005 acres. The Inyo National forest manages 78,775 acres, the Sierra National Forest manages 151,485 acres, and the National Park Service manages 747 acres. This wilderness was originally established as the Minarets Wilderness in 1964. The Ansel Adams is contiguous with Yosemite National Park, which lies to the north. The wilderness experiences high visitor use, including day hiking, packstock and backpacking use. Overnight use is controlled by a trailhead quota system that limits the amount of use entering each day from May thru October. There are 349 miles of trail, including both the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest trail that traverse the portions of the wilderness. Some trails originating on the National Forest provide access into Yosemite National Park.
The United States Congress designated the John Muir Wilderness in 1964 and it now has a total of 580,323 acres. The Inyo National Forest manages 228,366 acres of the John Muir Wilderness and the Sierra National Forest manages 351,957 acres. From east of Fresno California in the north, the John Muir Wilderness forks around Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park and extends some 100 miles to the south with its southern most boundary just west of Lone Pine, California. The John Muir Wilderness is heavily visited and has use limits in the form of trailhead quotas on all the trailheads accessing the wilderness from both the east and west side of the Sierra Nevada. There are over 590 miles of maintained trails and the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail traverse portions of the wilderness. Many trails originating in this wilderness access the backcountry of Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park.
Impact type: visitor use limits
Strategies: trailhead quotas, party size limits, day use and overnight limits through a lottery for Mt. Whitney
What we did. Describe your over all program (how overall problems are being dealt with). Describe specific tactic.
There is a long history of visitor use impacts in both the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wildernesses resulting in 30 years of limits placed on visitor use. In the 1930’s the term “carrying capacity” was first used here in relation to recreational visitor use impacts. These areas experienced high visitor use from the 1930’s to 1950’s, and again in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Limits on visitor use were first initiated in the early 1970’s. Many visitors access Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks through trailheads on the Inyo National Forest. This access provides a shorter distance to remote areas in the Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks. Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks put the first permit system in place limiting the number of people through specific trailheads. The Sierra and Inyo National Forests have worked cooperatively with Yosemite and Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks to develop the limited entry (trailhead quotas) through permitted use on overnight use. The permit system has evolved from a voluntary permit system to a mandatory permit system to limited entry. The goal of trailhead quotas was to allow maximum freedom to visitors once they were inside the Wilderness. At the time there were no quotas set on pack stations, Pack Stations are long-term resort permittees who provide commercial services into these designated Wildernesses. Pack station permitees had service days seasonally capped.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s Wilderness managers implemented campfire closures and party size limits of 15 people and 25 head of stock. In the early 1990’s planning efforts were initiated to update the wilderness direction in the Inyo and Sierra National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMRs). In 1997 a Draft EIS for the wilderness management direction maintained the status quo and applied the LAC process, developing 5 opportunity classes with standards for each opportunity class. It was not clear what the outcomes would be by implementing these strategies and tactics. There was a lot of fear from the public that the use of these standards could result in Wilderness managers taking harsh actions to mitigate impacts and social crowding, possibly reducing use further. Due to these concerns a revised draft was issued in 2000 pulling back on the concept of creating opportunity classes and instead applying a recreation strategy to protect low use areas and manage high use areas.
In 2001 three recreation categories were established to describe the desired conditions for the two wildernesses. Recreation category 1 were low use areas with low impacts (58% of total Wilderness acreage on the Inyo National Forest). Recreation category 2 (39%) areas receive moderate use, usually along trail corridors. Resource impacts and encounters with other visitors would be likely on primary trails and popular destinations in Recreation category 2. Recreation category 3 areas receive heavy visitor use and require intensive management (3% of total Wilderness acreage on the Inyo National Forest). Trailhead quotas were established for all trailheads with a goal to make sure change doesn’t occur within each category. For example, trailheads accessing recreation category 1 areas would have very low quotas. Party size limits of 15 people and 25 head of stock were retained. Trailhead quotas for commercial operators were set differently than for the general public. Commercial operators have separate quotas for trailheads that have received moderate to high commercial use in the past but commercial operators have to compete with the public for permits into lower use areas. Wilderness managers also extended the quota season from the end of June through September 15 to a season starting on May 1 and going through November 1.
The system of recreation categories represents a fundamental shift in the way these Wildernesses are managed and it also represents some of the most important direction in the Wilderness management plan. A primary goal was to establish an equitable system for access by all users, commercial and non-commercial.
Day use is limited on one trail, Mt. Whitney. Permits drawn through a lottery every February are required for visitors traveling to Mt. Whitney. Day use caps are set at 100 people per day and 60 people for over night trips. Wilderness Plan direction for day use requires that baseline use levels be determined and that over time if there is a 20% increase in use, it will trigger a planning process to determine if any actions are needed.
If trailhead quotas prove to ineffective then managers will consider destination quotas in the future.
Why we did it? (Specific tactic)
Visitor use limits were put in place due to the long history of visitor use impacts. Impacts include a proliferation of campsites, trail impacts, and social crowding. In particular spikes in use, specifically weekends, holidays and the month of August were considered to be the reason for many of the impacts, particularly campsite proliferation and crowding.
How well did it work?
In the 1980’s and 1990’s there was very little campsite inventory and monitoring done due to inadequate funding. In the late 1990s, as a result of impending lawsuits by some user groups and a challenging planning process, a data collection effort was initiated. Campsite inventories, use trail inventory and monitoring were conducted. Visitor trip reports were used as a tool to understand use patterns since visitor permits primarily provided levels of use by trailhead. This information was used to modify the original trailhead quotas established in the 1970s-80s in the 2001 Plan.
A District Court injunctive relief has directed that a cumulative impacts analysis be completed prior to issuing Special Use Permits to Pack Stations. This led to an extensive assessment of conditions at destinations, campsites, grazing areas and trails used by commercial pack stations. This is providing information for managers on visitor intensity, level of use, and where impacts are occurring. Managers now understand the distribution of impacts but still struggle with the connection between the amount of use and the amount of impacts.
Management efforts have kept use at a reasonably sustainable level but have not kept up with mitigating the impacts such as campsite and trail restoration and past production livestock grazing.
How did you evaluate it?
The current Wilderness management plan was completed in 2001. Planning efforts provide a systematic way to evaluate impacts. Standards developed for trails and campsites in each recreation category also have led to further actions when standards have been exceeded. Monitoring of day use has established a baseline to help determine if changes in use will require action.
Methods developed to respond to the District Court can now be used to evaluate actions in the future. In particular, meadow conditions, use trails and destinations have been inventoried systematically. Future use of the protocols can inform managers of the effectiveness of actions or the need to take further action.
What is the level of public acceptance?
Due to 30 years of use limits placed on visitors, the public is generally supportive of efforts to maintain the integrity of Wilderness especially since visitors have freedom to determine destinations once they enter the Wilderness beyond trailheads.
What did NOT work? What would you do differently next time? What did you do that you wish you had not done?
Allowing a level of use that requires intensive management is something that needs to be carefully considered. Wilderness permits require a substantial long term investment. At times all resources available go to issuing wilderness permits and in low budget years not much more gets to the ground. If use levels are sustainable that may be an effective tradeoff. But if the use levels are high and require on-site education, management, actions, then you can slowly get behind if all your money goes to administering permits.
Similary, we may reconsider how we accommodated use levels and facilitated high use levels on Mt. Whitney. In the 1960’s toilets were installed in the Mt. Whitney area. This strategy raised public expectations regarding recreation opportunities and allowed for a carrying capacity that wasn’t sustainable. Managers now have to decide whether to maintain and rebuild toilets. The toilets increased the carrying capacity of the area. Wilderness managers are now considering a program requiring visitors to pack out human waste. Reducing use is not publicly acceptable. It remains to be seen how the public will respond to human waste management that places the responsibility on the user, not the agency.
Setting lower carrying capacities early on will be easier for the public to accept versus allowing high carrying capacities and then trying to lower them.
Any unexpected effects?
In the current management plan there are elevational campfire closures in areas above 10,000 feet elevation. The restriction may have pushed visitor destinations below the fire closure area into areas that may not have been previously getting much use. A shift in use patterns may get unexpected results.
The longer you wait to set carrying capacities on use limits for commercial users, the more difficult it will be.
Enormous programmatic planning efforts take funding away from
on-the-ground wilderness management. It may be better to take on one management challenge at a time and deal with it.
MaryBeth Hennessy, Wilderness Specialist
Inyo National Forest, Region 5