BLM proposes camping limits in Alabama Hills

By: 
Jon Klusmire
Register Correspondent

Both proposed management alternatives for the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area would cut the amount of overnight camping by half while adding numerous infrastructure improvements, including toilets, and regulating a number of recreational activities, from climbing to OHV use to flying drones.
The more restrictive alternative proposes day-use permits for most activities, banning RVs and trailers from some roads, and moving all camping to a new, single campground.
Besides those two “alternatives,” the Bureau of Land Management’s recently released draft management plan and environmental assessment includes a “no action” alternative that would essentially maintain the current levels and types of camping and recreation in the Alabama Hills.
But “no action” was not the action sought by those concerned about managing the increase in visitors and their impacts to the Alabama Hills, a unique landscape nestled in the shadow of Mt. Whitney west of Lone Pine. In numerous public meetings, public sentiment was clear about the desire to limit camping, install basic amenities for visitors, improve signage and put some limits on many recreational uses in the Alabama Hills.
The BLM also made clear that two things are completely off the table and will not be considered: building a visitor center in the hills and changing the name of the Alabama Hills, which only Congress can accomplish.
The concern about managing the impacts of increased visitation in the Alabama Hills stems in part from a massive increase in visitors. The BLM-managed land has been Lone Pine’s favorite “backyard” for decades, and gained fame for being the scenic location for about 400 movies dating from the 1920s to today. A decades-long grassroots effort to obtain a heightened designation for the hills came to a successful conclusion in March 2019 when Congress designated 18,745 acres as the Alabama Hills National Scenic Area.
That designation has driven, in part, the increase in visitors, the BLM said. It noted vehicle trips into the hills totaled 30,000 in 2010. That number doubled to more than 60,000 in 2019, which translates to about 150,000 visitors, the BLM said. That, in turn, led to an increase in human waste, trash, vegetation damage and other negative impacts in the area.
Key to decreasing those impacts is limiting overnight, dispersed camping. Currently, there are 126 dispersed camping sites in the hills. But by definition, “dispersed camping” allows people to set up camp on rocks, road pull outs or virtually any other patch of open dirt. There are no toilets or trash cans in the hills and minimal signage.
The management plan’s Alternative One would limit overnight camping to 63 current sites, eliminate all camping in “day-use sites,” reduce fire rings from 200 to 65, and limit campers to a seven-day stay, as opposed to the current 14-day limit. Also, a camping permit would be required, but camping would remain free. The plan notes there would be “fewer campsites in the dominant view shed west of Movie Road.” Walk-in camping at sites a half mile from a road would be allowed, with a permit.
The BLM stated that reducing camping in the Alabama Hills would not stress other nearby campgrounds or camp sites. There is “almost unlimited” dispersed camping in the area, and the nearby Forest Service, county and BLM campgrounds are rarely full. The BLM campground, Tuttle Creek, has 85 sites and is “less than 50 percent full, 80 percent of the time,” the BLM noted. But the plan also calls for improvements to Tuttle Creek, including shade structures and an amphitheater.
As for infrastructure, Alternative One proposed building three permanent toilets in the Alabama Hills (with the possibility of adding another toilet at the intersection of Whitney Portal and Movie Road), along with three trash drop off locations, two informational kiosks and more signage.
Other actions in the alternative include allowing current climbing activity to remain the same on the area’s 400 routes, but new bolted routes would need to be permitted. Drone take-offs and landings would not be allowed without a permit. Shooting would be banned on 1,300 acres of the area’s most-visited areas. No roads, motorized or non-motorized trails would be eliminated, but some would have a different designation. For example, the Arch Trail would be pedestrian only. A new interpretive trail would be created.
In general, Alternative Two would be more restrictive. There would be no overnight camping in the hills, with camping moved to a 65-space campground at the north end of the hills, complete with toilets and water. There would only be two new toilets and trash pick-up areas in the rest of the hills. Permits would be needed for day-use activities, no new bolted climbing routes would be allowed, and most of Alternative One’s other limits and regulations would be included in Alternative Two.
Only Movie Road would be open to recreational vehicles and trailers in the second alternative. Twenty-four of the Alabama Hills’ routes would get a new designation, with all non-motorized routes turned into hiking/pedestrian trails. Limits would be placed on film and special-use permits.
The final management plan could adopt all of the options in one of three alternatives, or contain a mix of elements from all three alternatives to create a hybrid plan to guide use and conservation of the hills.
The BLM will host two virtual meetings on the management plan. Public meeting materials will be available on the project website: https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/1502669/570. Virtual meetings will be held on Wednesday, July 22, from 2- 4 p.m., and Thursday, July 23, from 5:30 - 7:30 p.m. To register for one of the virtual meetings, go to the project website. Once registered, people will receive an email with instructions on how to join the meeting.
Written comments on the proposed alternatives in the environmental assessment can be submitted via email to: blm_ca_alabama_hills_planning@blm.gov; by fax, (760) 872-5055; or by mail to, BLM Bishop Field Office, Attn: Alabama Hills Management Plan, 351 Pacu Lane, Suite 100, Bishop, CA  93514.
 For specific questions, call Project Manager Monica Buhler, (760) 872-5000.

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