Eastern Sierra residents argue against proposed Inyo National Forest

Proposed forest road closures are ambiguous and spark debate among residents.

By Monica Prelle

Update May 1: After two lengthy public meetings in Inyo and Mono counties discussing proposed Inyo National Forest road closures, the Inyo has decided not to move forward, according to Debra Schweizer, the Public Affairs Specialist.

Proposed closures included the Minaret Vista and Red’s Meadow, Mammoth Lakes Basin, Pine Creek, Buttermilks, and Mt. Whitney. Hard-closures seemed unlikely given they needed approval from Washington DC, so Forest Supervisor Tammy Randall-Parker and the counties agreed to control access with winter gates.

It is unclear when those gates will be opened as staffing and tourism is still a concern from a land management perspective. Until then, the land is open and accessible on foot.

Closed recreation sites with an April 30 expiration will remain closed. The order was extended to May 15. The forest will re-evaluate closures every two weeks.

April 28: By now it feels like everything is closed and anything fun is being discouraged in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, but now infection rates have slowed and tourism has dropped — and yet the Inyo National Forest is proposing more closures in the Eastern Sierra.

Most residents don’t seem to think additional closures are necessary.

“Closing access to places will lead to overuse in other areas,” Nancy Fiddler, who lives near Hilton Creek, said. “I have never seen so many people literally walking through our backyard to access the national forest.”

When Shady Rest Park in Mammoth closed, the trails around Mammoth Creek Park became crowded enough that public health officials have recommended that residents wear masks while recreating outdoors in that region. When access to the Happy and Sad Boulders in Bishop was closed, pressure shifted to the Buttermilks and Pine Creek.

Given the nature of the pandemic, things are changing rapidly and in the time since the forest started working on the new proposed closures, situations have started to change, tourism has mostly stopped and both counties are pivoting efforts toward re-opening.

Nevertheless, the Inyo National Forest has proposed road closures at the Minaret Vista and Red’s Meadow, Mammoth Lakes Basin, Pine Creek, Buttermilks, and Mt. Whitney.

Considering that most of these areas are under seasonal closures, many residents are wondering if additional restrictions are necessary, especially considering that stay-at-home orders could be lifted soon. And many residents say that keeping access to public lands open will help with distancing.

“The weather is going to be better and people are going to be out doing things and now you are asking people to cluster together in smaller areas, which is frankly what we don’t want to do,” Mammoth Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Craig Burrows said. “The reality is if you want people to space out, you have got to give them access to the trails.”

The Minaret Vista could be closed this summer under the Inyo’s new proposed closures. Photo: Monica Prelle

Mono County: Red’s Meadow and the Mammoth Lakes Basin

At a long joint meeting between Mammoth Lakes Town Council and Mono County Board of Supervisors last Thursday, Inyo Forest Supervisor Tammy Randall-Parker explained the intention is to protect public health in the region.

“We are truly trying to be part of the solution, we want your input,” Randall-Parker said. “We were hearing about issues and concerns from local governments, public health officials and residents with concerns of crowding in our forests and we really want to help manage COVID.”

According to Randall-Parker, road closures also mean foot and bike access is prohibited on the roads, but she said the trails in these areas will remain open. The land will remain open. However, if the closures are pushed through, one cannot ride a bike on the Red’s Meadow Road, but can ride the Starkweather Trail. One cannot not ride or walk on the Lakes Basin roads, but can walk or ride on the Lakes Basin Path, she explained.

Supervisor Jennifer Kreitz questioned reports of crowding saying that full parking lots do not necessarily mean people are congregating and that groups of people recreating together very well could be a household.

While most people seemed most concerned about limiting foot and bike traffic on roads, some also expressed concern for ADA access and land management.

“Are there still ADA accessible recreation areas that are open to all members of the public?” Mammoth resident Astra Lincoln asked in a letter. “There needs to be substantive steps in place to make sure that closures affect all members of our community in a way that is equitable.”

The lengthy discussion focused on the Lakes Basin, however the Red’s Meadow road has an entirely different set of concerns. In a letter to the Inyo, Mono County Public Health Officer Dr. Tom Boo suggested that the mandatory busses to Red’s Meadow most likely will not be able to operate this summer. Given the mountainous terrain and current (horrible) condition of that road, it will pose a serious challenge managing visitation.

For now, the road is under its winter closure and typically does not open until mid-June, giving land managers a little more time to discuss plans specific to that region.

Dr. Boo also said that he sees does not see recreating on forest land as a public health issue.

Eventually the Mammoth Town Council and Mono County Board of Supervisors divided on how they would respond to the Inyo’s proposed closures. The Town signed a letter agreeing with the closures, but pushing for foot and bike access on closed roads.

The Supervisors withdrew from the joint-letter, saying they disagreed with the closures and that they would rather see the forest use the winter gates to control visitation and reassess every few weeks.

Ultimately, the Town and County are mostly asking for the same thing with different approaches. Either way, foot and bike access is allowed on trails and paths under normal use regulations and until further notice.

Inyo County: Buttermilks, Pine Creek, and Mt. Whitney

The Inyo County Board of Supervisors also met with forest representatives in a meeting on Tuesday morning to discuss the proposed closures of roads accessing the Buttermilks, Pine Creek and Mt. Whitney.

“The same people who were adamant about getting everybody out of the Buttermilks are now changing their minds and saying it’s crazy to not allow people in the Buttermilks,” Supervisor Clint Quilter said. “It is important to recognize that things are changing.”

When the closure discussion started last month, reports of crowding among climbers was a concern, but now with a strong effort from the climbing community to discourage visitors, those concerns have decreased significantly.

In a letter to the board, the Bishop Area Climbers Coalition suggested that if the goal of closing climbing areas is to limit the spread of COVID-19, that had already been accomplished with strong messaging. “That message has been heard,” the BACC said in a statement, which included data to back up their claim.

Highway 396 March and April Traffic Counts. Prepared by Amit Kapadia and Tim Gordon on behalf of Bishop Climbers Coalition.

According to Highway 395 traffic reports, the region has seen a significant drop in visitation since the governor implemented stay-at home orders. Data suggests that a majority of traffic in the area is local and essential.

“We feel preserving access to day-use recreation areas, such as Buttermilk Road and Pine Creek Road, are important to the health and well-being of county residents,” the BACC wrote in a statement. “Furthermore, one likely unintended consequence of these closures is the funneling of local recreationists into other areas.”

“In other words, the same number of people are still likely to go outdoors to recreate, but they will have fewer places to go, concentrating use and increasing the likelihood of crowds.”

After a lengthy discussion the supervisors agreed that the forest should keep the Buttermilks and Pine Creek areas open. Some suggested closing dispersed camping to be consistent with tourism messaging and stay-at-home orders, but according to Inyo National Forrest District Ranger Philip DeSenze, by the time a dispersed camping closure would be in effect that the governor most likely will have lifted stay-at-home orders. DeSenze also said that with limited staffing the Inyo didn’t have the resources to enforce dispersed camping restrictions.

Permits for the Mt. Whitney Trail are currently suspended until May 15. Photo: Monica Prelle

The proposed Mt. Whitney closure had full support of the board and not much opposing public comment, however the supervisors agreed it would be better to control the area with the winter gate closure rather than requesting an official shut down. A trail closure requires support from Washington, which would be a lengthy process and the outcome unlikely.

According to David Anderson, the Mt. Whitney District Ranger, the forest had considered a full forest closure, but has since narrowed the scope.

Limiting access to the Mt. Whitney region seemed to be a priority of the county since it is a popular tourism destination and brings tens of thousands of visitors to the region each year. Some public commenters argued that forest lands should stay open for local recreation, but there is no legal way to implement “locals only” regulations.

“It’s not for us to distinguish between local use and other and visitors from outside the area,” Anderson said. “The preponderance of use for Mt. Whitney in particular is from outside the area and international visitors as well.”

This year there were 20,294 applications for the Mt. Whitney lottery, representing 88,194 people. Of those applications, 20,160 people were awarded permits and 12,000 of those climbers have permits between May and July. Those numbers do not include same-day permits, or people who hike the lower section of the trail where a permit is not required.

The Inyo National Forest is not currently issuing any Mt. Whitney or wilderness permits through May 15. In addition to keeping visitors away, the forest’s ability to issue permits is limited because visitor centers are being managed virtually and staffing is minimal, Inyo National Forest Public Affairs Specialist Debra Schweizer explained. They will reassess every two weeks, she said.

People who were awarded a permit reservation for Mt. Whitney or any other trailhead on the Inyo National Forest will receive a notice and refund from recreation.gov.

While no action will be taken on any of the proposed closures immediately, the timeline for a decision is not clear. As of right now doing nothing means lands and access are open with the exception of normal seasonal closures.

And after a few very long public meetings, the future of the forest is still ambiguous.

“We are not making any immediate decision because (the proposed roads) are still under a winter closure,” Schweizer said. “It gives us some time to evaluate, see how the shelter-in-place orders proceed.”

“If the state starts opens more up it might not necessitate additional closures. We are taking input under advisement and taking advantage of the time we have under winter closures to figure out what the right thing is to do.”

Firewood, Summer Staff and Current Closures Soon Expiring

Firewood: In the midst of a lot of ambiguity, one thing is for certain — fuelwood season begins May 1 and it will continue on scheudle this year. The Inyo National Forest is currently waiving personal use firewood permits, and you are allowed to collect and cut wood for free, until further notice. All other firewood cutting rules remain the same. Check the website for regulations and a 2020 firewood map in English and Spanish.

Seasonal Inyo National Forest Staff: Something to consider while everyone is getting ready for summer — another challenge to re-opening winter closures on forest land is summer staffing. Randall-Parker explained that summer seasonal staff would not be arriving until mid-May and will go through a 14-day quarantine period before they are allowed to start working. So even when closures expire and stay-at home orders are lifted, recreation sites and seasonal openings could be delayed because of management issues.

Recreation Site Closures are Expiring: And while the Forest Service continues to evaluate the future of the forest, current closures of developed recreation sites like campgrounds, restrooms and picnic areas, expires on April 30. Many of these sites in the Eastern Sierra are also under winter closures, but some facilities could potentially re-open, which is in direct conflict with state and county stay-at-home orders and local nightly lodging restrictions. It is yet to be determined how this conflict will be addressed.

Monica Prelle is a Mammoth Lakes-based independent journalist. Subscribe to get a free weekly email round-up of the latest Eastern Sierra news directly in your inbox. Follow on Facebook for daily updates directly in your feed.