I am a frequent backpacker/hiker and was gratified to learn recently of the USFS decision to prohibit hunting with 150 yards of the LSHT and other trails in your system. This proactive step to enhance the safety of non-hunting users of the Park who use it year round, while only slightly disadvantaging others who may only use the Park for a dozen weeks or so is to be congratulated for both its fairness and its dedication to the mission of the Forest Service. It creates a three hundred yard wide safety zone with the trail at its center, placing trail users well beyond eyesight of hunters so as to limit their being mistaken for deer while increasing the probability that any errant round fired from a weapon outside the zone will encounter an object or vegetation that will stop or deflect it thus reducing its lethality. The only addition I would make would be to prohibit firing towards the safety zone from outside for a distance of 25-50 yards to further enhance safety, but this is just a personal preference.
The issue of Trail use during Hunting Season is a difficult one, and I do not envy your task of having to balance safety, public access, and preservation while catering to the needs (real and perceived) and/or desires of disparate groups whose intended use of the Park differ so widely. The perceived needs of day hikers differ from those of backpackers who generally camp on trail and the perceived needs of backpackers can differ between those who camp on trail for a single overnight and those who engage in multi-day Section or Through Hiking; the perceived needs of Hunters differ from trail users, while the perceived needs of Bow and Black Powder Hunters differ from those who only hunt with modern centerfire rifles; and many times the perceived needs of any two or three of these groups or sub-groups can interfere with those in any of the others.
Historically, the safety issue of Hunters, Day Hikers, and Backpackers using the Park simultaneously had been addressed by prohibiting on-trail camping during “Gun” Deer Season, which generally ran from the last weekend in October or first weekend in November until the last weekend of the current year or the first weekend of the next. Those of us in the Hiking/Backpacking community, while noting that such restrictions do not exist in other Forest Service lands in other States, such as the Appalachian and Long Trails (to name only two), accepted this as a prudent measure and the loss of eight weeks of good hiking and camping weather as a small inconvenience.
This year, however, the decision was made to “simplify” the policy by fixing the time during which on-trail camping would be prohibited from 15 September until 1 February of every year. This seemed somewhat arbitrary to those of us in the community as we took note that the policy effectively reasons that during the first two weeks of Bow Hunting Season (which begins 1 September) and the last two weeks of Black Powder Season (which ends 31 January) it is perfectly safe to camp on-trail with those hunters, and we wondered what it was about the remainder of those season which made them so dangerous. But even more, we were concerned about another safety issue that seems not to have been considered when making the decision, and this is why we welcome the recent decision to prohibit Hunting with 150 yards of the Trail.
Here in Texas, as in other States in the South and Southwest, the safety concern for trail users that is present for the longest period during the year is that of Heat Prostration. The danger of Heat Casualties occurring on-trail can be anticipated from the middle of May until the middle of October---half of every year---while any danger presented by Hunters has historically been regarded as being present only during two months of the year. The recent decision that expands the prohibition of on-trail camping has the unintended effect of limiting the safest time available to Backpack on the Trail, from a Heat Casualty standpoint , from 18 week to 8. This may cause overnight users of the trail to plan trips in the most dangerous time of the year weather wise rather than the safest and most comfortable time. It is a good deal easier to regulate and control usage of the trail by hunters during hunting season than it would be to do the same year round to prevent or limit usage of the Trail during the highest heat season, even if it were possible to do so and still conform to the mission of the Forest Service and regulations for use of Federal Park lands.Prohibiting hunting within 150 yards of the Trail, while still maintaining the requirement that Hunters stay overnight in Hunters Camps, has effectively removed the most dangerous times of the day when Hunters and Campers might interact: the early morning hours while decamping and in the early evening while bedding down. It is worth pointing out that even the previous policy regarded use of the trail by hikers, provided they were wearing the prescribed amount of blaze orange, as an acceptable risk as long as they were walking on trail during daylight hours. This new policy now effectively removes the risk of Hunter/Camper interaction during both the early morning and early evening, as well as during daylight hours.
Many in the local Hiking/Backpacking community now believe that we can further enhance safe use of the trail year round by making it available for on-trail camping during Hunting Season, as other Long Distance Trails on Federal Lands in other parts of the country do. Adding available weeks during the safest weather rather than removing them should have the effect of encouraging distance and overnight Backpackers to plan trips during those weeks rather than during the high heat months. We do feel it is still prudent to require the wear of the prescribed amount of blaze orange, and to require that any campsite have similar blaze orange indicators, such as cloth draped over or attached to any tent, tarp, hammock, or other shelter that might be used, and to limit on-trail camping to no more than 20 yards from the Trail. We encourage the Forest Service to adopt these or similar measures in the name of encouraging hiking during safer weather and to promote fairness of use of the trails. We would suggest that definitions of Hikers and Campers be promulgated, perhaps by stating that any person using the Park who is in possession of any weapon or firearm on their person or in a vehicle or shelter under their control will be considered a Hunter, with the exception of personal protection handguns carreid in compliance with local law and Federal regulation, and expand the prohibition of camping at Trail Heads to 150 yards for all Trail users during Hunting Season.
We hope you consider these suggestions in the spirit in which they are offered: a sincere desire to enhance the safe usage of the Park by the public in a manner that is fair to all.
Thank you for all of your hard work and once again for the decision to prohibit hunting within 150 yards of the Trail.
Kent A. Vining