WENATCHEE — Guides who use horses, mules and llamas in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest wilderness and backcountry areas could get new 10-year permits this summer after years of operating year-to-year.
The Methow Valley Ranger District on Thursday released a 700-page final environmental impact statement for the special use permits, currently issued to seven pack and saddle stock outfitter guides.
Together, the guides use 1.4 million acres of national forest land, including the Pasayten and Lake Chelan-Sawtooth wilderness areas, and the Sawtooth and North Cascades backcountry. Most is on the Methow Valley Ranger District, with some in Tonasket and Chelan ranger districts.
The outfitters have been guiding visitors to these backcountry areas for the last 20 to 50 years, said Jennifer Zbyszewski, the ranger district’s recreation and wilderness program manager.
“Our analysis shows they aren’t degrading the wilderness character,” she said. The review also found that commercial outfitters are appropriate in wilderness areas, and serve a public purpose by offering recreation, scenic viewing and historic use to people who cannot otherwise enjoy the wilderness, and are not skilled in stock handling to get into these areas without guide services.
The analysis was needed because some wilderness standards in the Okanogan and Wenatchee forest plans were inconsistent with what was allowed under the guide service permits. The agency has issued one-year permits while the issue is under analysis.
The final document includes a new preferred alternative that addresses some of the concerns raised by outfitters in the agency’s draft document. Those include:
A total of 6,700 “service days” or to the wilderness split between the six outfitters and their clients, allowing the businesses to expand by 25 percent over the highest use by outfitter guides in the last ten years.
Amending the Okanogan Forest Plan to allow guides to use existing camps that are within 200 feet of meadows, streams and lakes and increase the amount of bare ground.
Allowing campsites with more than 400 square feet of “barren core” — or bare mineral ground — to remain, but not allowing packers to create more bare ground. This also requires amendments to both the Okanogan and Wenatchee forest plans.
Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Supervisor Becky Heath said in a letter accompanying the document that she expects to issue her record of decision in late March, giving the public an additional 30 days to review it before the 45-day appeal period begins.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512