Forest Service mulls more guide, outfitter permits

  • By Kari Bray Herald Writer
  • Sunday, June 19, 2016 8:18pm
  • Local News

EVERETT — The U.S. Forest Service is considering an increase in the number of permits for outfitters and guides who lead treks through parts of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

For two decades, no new longterm outfitter-guide permits have been issued. Temporary permits have been available, but those don’t give local businesses much stability, Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes said.

A proposal is being considered to allow up to 28,350 more service days for outfitters and guides per year in part of the Mt. Baker Ranger District in Skagit and Whatcom counties. Service days are any day or portion of a day where an outfitter or guide has a client out on the forest, so 28,350 available days could account for dozens of outfitters and guides operating throughout the year. The permits would cover more than 77,000 acres of land, including the Mt. Baker National Recreation Area and some of the Mt. Baker Wilderness.

The proposal is serving as a pilot project for the Darrington, Skykomish and Snoqualmie ranger districts.

“Once that’s done, we’ve talked about adopting it broadly across the forest,” Forbes said. “Maybe not the whole forest at once, but maybe one district at a time.”

Outfitters and guides provide equipment, navigation and expertise for visitors to Western Washington’s remote and wild areas. They lead horseback, backpacking or rafting trips into landscapes that would be dangerous without the right supplies and know-how.

“We’re seeing that it has a potential to be attractive to some people who wouldn’t necessarily go out and do that by themselves,” Forbes said. “It’s also part of the recreational economy. The things that are important for towns like Darrington are providing living wage jobs that folks can do and having those be sustainable.”

Organizations or individuals who charge fees must have a permit in order to lead trips on national forest land. The permits lay out how many days they can operate in the forest.

There’s been a moratorium on priority use permits for 20 years. Priority use means it’s a long-term agreement, up to 10 years at a time, between the guides and the forest service. They typically are renewable.

“It’s not that we don’t issue permits for outfitters and guides,” Forbes said. “We issue temporary use permits, and we have quite a few of them out there. What this would do is allow us to make those permits permanent.”

Temporary permits authorize up to 200 days at a time and are non-renewable, so guides or outfitters must apply for a new permit every time theirs expires.

The Forest Service estimates that there are about 6,500 permitted service days around Mt. Baker, a fifth of what would be allowed under the new proposal. About 5,000 of those are under priority use permits acquired before the moratorium. There also are an estimated 4,500 service days that are unpermitted, according to a draft environmental assessment published this month.

“Due to a previous moratorium on issuing permits, several outfitters and guides have been unable to obtain a priority-use permit to operate within the project area,” according to the document. “Many are operating with multiple temporary permits or no permit at all.”

The proposal also would add a formal rule that visitors to the forest pack out their human waste.

A public meeting to talk about increasing the number of outfitter-guide permits is planned from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on June 21 at the Bellingham Public Library Fairhaven Branch, 1117 12 St. in Bellingham.

The draft environmental assessment is available online at tinyurl.com/mbs-o-g-plan. People can comment on the draft by emailing comments-pacificnorthwest-mtbaker-snoqualmie-mtbaker@fs.fed.us with the subject line “Mt. Baker O-G Project.” Written comments also can be dropped off or mailed to: District Ranger Erin Uloth, 810 State Route 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA, 98284-1263.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com

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