Citing the need for urgent action on behalf of small businesses and national park visitors, California Democratic lawmakers today called on the leadership of the House Natural Resources Committee to act to reopen Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to pack and saddle animals this spring. A recent court order prohibited the National Park Service from allowing pack animals into the parks' wilderness areas until further notice, meaning that without congressional action, summer trips to the parks may be canceled or postponed.
The Democratic members noted that the situation is already causing economic harm to outfitters, packers, guides, and other permit holders who rely on the income that park visitors bring to the area. Without congressional action, visitors and families from across California -- and the nation -- may be denied access to the high country wilderness in the Sierras, one of the premier experiences the National Park system has to offer.
The letter is addressed to Committee chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA), whose committee has jurisdiction over national park policy. The letter recommends that Chairman Hastings and his colleagues introduce clean legislation allowing the small businesses who manage the pack and saddle stock to continue to operate this season. The court's ruling did not determine that the horses and mules had caused any harm to the park, only that the National Park Service had not conducted a legally required study. The legislation suggested in the letter would allow the Park Service to continue issuing permits for the next year while the Park Service finalizes the necessarily information.
Recently, a group of Republican lawmakers from California wrote the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, requesting that he ask the court for authority to issue permits. However, the Interior Department has no authority to issue permits until a final court ruling is made. With the remedy hearing for this case not scheduled until May, any final ruling would be likely be too late for summer visitors to make plans, disappointing visitors and furthering the economic harm to the area.
"This is about whether Congress is going to act to allow summer trips into the Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks," Rep. George Miller (D-CA) said. "We can complain about the ruling, or we can do something to resolve a situation that's already affecting families and businesses and harming the regional economy. I'm urging my Republican colleagues to take action. If the committee leadership introduces a clean, simple bill to allow access this year at historical levels, we will support that bill. We've got to work together to keep access to our national parks open and keep small businesses operating."
"Many of us, along with our families and friends, have enjoyed the incredible sites that only be found in the High Sierra Nevadas in the summer," Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA) said. "For many the only way to experience this is through the use of pack animals. Congress should act on a clean, bipartisan bill. If we can't agree on this, what can we agree on?"
"Americans of all political stripes derive great enjoyment from exploring the great outdoors," said Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), a Member of the House Natural Resources Committee. "Rather than sit on our hands, our Committee should work together with the National Park Service to ensure that recreationalists and small businesses can continue to reap the benefits of these natural wonders."
"The Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have served as a vacation destination for generations of families," said Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA). "Closing the gates of these parks to pack and saddle animals will not only interrupt countless family vacations this spring, but it will deliver a heavy blow to the local economies that depend on tourism dollars. I want to urge my Republican colleagues to act swiftly and responsibly in support of a clean bill that reopens the doors to visitors and delivers relief for local businesses."
"Congress needs to act so that families and small businesses can plan for the summer vacation months," said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA). "Every day we wait is a day too long. Our outfitters, packers and guides face economic uncertainty. And trips American families were hoping to take to these parks are threatened. The House Natural Resources Committee needs to introduce, and Congress needs to pass clean legislation that ensures permits can be issued for pack and saddle animals at these parks. This will allow families to move forward with their summer vacation plans and small businesses to continue to operate."
The Democratic lawmakers wrote:
[The] "order is already causing economic harm to outfitters, packers, guides, and other permit holders, and it has the potential to significantly affect Americans' enjoyment of the parks' wilderness areas this year."
[The Republican] "letter to Secretary Salazar offers no solutions to the immediate problem."
"[T]his situation cannot be fixed without congressional action, and it is a disservice to businesses and visitors to suggest that the NPS can change the facts on the ground until the court rules."
"The solution is simple: the Natural Resources committee, under your leadership, should introduce and take up clean legislation providing the NPS with authority to issue permits for the use of commercial services in designated wilderness within the Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks "
The full letter is available here.
Some Republican members of Congress have argued that the Department of the Interior could issue permits despite the court ruling, or that the National Park Service had chosen to end the wilderness trips. However, the judge's ruling found that the National Park Service was in violation of the law by issuing the packer permits, meaning that congressional action is necessary to allow for summer trips this year.
The National Park Service will be submitting its proposed remedy to the court tomorrow (April 24), as required by the Court's schedule. A remedy hearing is not scheduled until May 23, and the Court has no deadline for issuing final ruling.
As described in today's letter, the legislation necessary to resolve this problem should:
* Provide the National Park Service with clear authority to issue permits for specified commercial services.
* Be limited to the designated wilderness within the Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks.
* Ensure the level of commercial services does not exceed the levels authorized by the park service in 2011.
* Limit permits through the end of 2013, or until the Secretary of the Interior issues an "extent necessary" determination that addresses the violations found in the court decision.