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Court Rules That Sequoia National Park Officials Violated Wilderness Act By Allowing Horse Trips


A federal judge has found that the National Park Service failed to do requisite studies into the need for stock use in high country wilderness areas of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. NPS file photo.

Horse travel in backcountry areas of national parks long has been viewed as not only somewhat romantic, a throwback to the Old West, but also as a necessity for hauling in not only visitors but vast amounts of gear that otherwise would be problematic to carry in.

But for those not on a horse, walking in their wake can be a challenge in terms of avoiding not only at-times voluminous amounts of manure, fresh and old, but also hoof-pocked trails and trampled areas. During wet seasons, dozens of hooves can pretty much trash trails.

A federal court in California recently took up the case of the use of stock animals in wilderness areas of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, and agreed with a hikers' organization that the National Park Service violated The Wilderness Act by failing to study the necessity of pack trips in the parks.

Somewhat interestingly, the ruling comes more than 40 years after the Park Service decided it would phase-out the use of stock animals in the high country of the two parks, but never fulfilled that decision.

The ruling (attached below) brings to fore the question of how damaging pack trips are to wilderness areas in the National Park System.

The case, which has been making its way through the legal system since 2009, was brought by the High Sierra Hikers Association. In its initial filing in September 2009 the group pointed out that when Sequoia officials adopted a master plan for the two parks in 1971, they specifically announced their intent to both phase out stock use from higher elevation areas of the two parks that are particularly sensitive to impacts and to eliminate grazing in all areas of the parks.

In reaching that decision, park officials at the time cited "the damage resulting from livestock foraging for food and resultant trampling of soils, possible pollution of water, and conflict with foot travelers..." the association's filing noted.

When the Park Service adopted a General Management Plan for the two parks in 1997, it did not reiterate the desire to phase out stock use, but instead decided to allow stock use "up to current levels."

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg held that Sequoia and Kings Canyon officials failed to conduct the requisite studies into the commercial need for pack trips in the two parks. Specifically, the judge noted in his ruling late last month, the Park Service must examine how commercial backcountry uses impact the landscape and "balance ... their potential consequences with the effects of preexisting levels of commercial activity."

"The Park Service has ignored and evaded the requirements of the Wilderness Act for decades," said Peter Browning, president of the High Sierra Hikers Association. "We hope that this court decision will prompt the Park Service to follow the law by limiting stock use and commercial services in our national parks to those that are truly necessary and not harmful to park resources."


The number of pack horse groups is very small - and I feel that the "elitist" High Sierra Hikers are not interested in sharing the trails.

It's not the the absolute numbers of stock used that's important, it's the impact of the horses and mules on the meadows and streams. The critical number is Stock Use Nights. You may have 10 animals supporting 3 people on a 5 day trip. So that's 50 SUNs. A huge mulitplier of the impact of those three people, especialy since one horse has (conservatively) at least 10 times the impact per day as one person on foot.

In this case and previous ones, the court has agreed. That impact is far, far greater than might be considered justified by the very small number of people those horses take into the wildereness. So if meaningless terms like 'elitist' are going to be thrown around, then I'm not sure how it applies to the folks who offer a compromise on how people travelling with stock use wilderness. It apparently does no good to point out, but this oft-repeated Big Lie really bothers me. HSHA is not asking or even imp[lying that stock be banned. They make it very clear they're willing to share the trails and wilderness with stock supported people. It's the stock folk who appear uncompromising.

If you travel, say, the John Muir Trail from Paiute entrance in the north of Kings Canyon to the Crabtree area, there is only one major and classic Sierra meadow -- Vidette -- where grazing is not allowed. Every other meadow -- every single one -- is subject to grazing. As such, all visitors are denied the incredible experience of a pristine (ungrazed) Sierra meadow by a very, very small number of stock users totally unwilling to compromise their sacred right to use meadows and streams for their personal pastures.

So instead of stock users coming forward and saying, OK, we can work with backcountry users who want this pristine experience, they're saying "no, it's all ours." Sounds kind of elitist to me... .

YPW -You know - there is a requirement for law enforcement who are authorized to carry non-lethal weapons such as pepper spray or Tasers. They're required to experience the device being deployed on themselves to understand the consequences of using such devices

Untrue. Many agencies ask their membership to be subjected to the non-lethal weapon, but none make it a requirement, at least in NJ.

Anonymous, we do indeed encourage diverse opinions and discussion of those opinions and always have.

Just look down through the years at the various at-times heated debates over guns in the parks, whether the Park Service is a good steward, mountain biking in parks, snowmobiling, the debate over oysters at Point Reyes or piping plovers at Cape Hatteras. And those are just a few of the contentious issues that we've heard from all sides.

However, we do not endorse, encourage, or allow browbeating, trolls, and browbeating trolls who hide behind anonymity. As long as the comment is constructive and doesn't rummage around in the muck of insults or ad hominems, or stray off topic and try to pull something entirely unrelated into the topic at hand, we'll go with it.

At the same time, there comes a time when a debate has spun its course and the repetitiveness of comments grows weary. We reserve the right to end the debate.

Stick In Our Eyes, here at the Traveler we've long encouraged discussion, and even debate, of diverging viewpoints.

And your failure to post my dissent to that comment just shows how false that statement is. you should be ashamed.

Very good point. The number of pack horse groups is very small - and I feel that the "elitist" High Sierra Hikers are not interested in sharing the trails. Some people are not able to do the hikes, and packing in on horseback is a way for those to enjoy the park. I ride coastal trails that are shared by hikers, bikes and horses, daily. No one complains - everyone enjoys ...

Stick In Our Eyes, here at the Traveler we've long encouraged discussion, and even debate, of diverging viewpoints. It's the only way one side might come to understand the other side's point. That's not to say they'll adopt or accept that point of view, but hopefully understand it nonetheless. All we really ask is that folks remain civil and respectful in their comments.

Kurt, Y_P_W, Keeper and Anon:

"I'm not religious, but I kind of like that saying about who should cast the first stone...and the other one about judging others;-)"

My history is one of an "extensive" stock care,use, ranch background with nearly as much history backpacking in very remote wilderness. I admit it's not a common condition but it's allowed me to see into the different mindsets that I myself have experienced. I have great respect for most everyone on the trails and routinely reach out to other trail users engaging a bit to connect, encourage and evaluate. I have been blessed by many friendships born in the back country whether they be stock users or not. That's why the divisivness expressed in actions and comments is troubling to me and reduces the greater good of the backcountry experience. The divisivness does not seem to be exclusive to Park issues. While it saddens me to see, I do not allow it to dissuade me from experiencing rewarding breakthroughs on a daily basis with fellow trail companions.

Thanks, Kurt, for having a forum where these things can be discussed in a very open and revealing way. While it does make buerocrats (and others) cringe at times your site brings a greater conversation and exposure to the underlying motivations. Thank you!

Keeper, I try to avoid these discussions out of self-preservation, but I must admit y_p_w has a point. I think I mentioned it previously, but I spent quite a few miles last September trying to dodge the output of just two horses on a backcountry trail in Yellowstone. The trail was deep and narrow, the vegetation high, and the horses obviously well-fed.

More so, you could obviously see the damage -- trampled wetlands, stream erosion -- to the trails caused by either pack strings or numerous riders. The most egregious was at a stream crossing where on the far side a trough at least four feet long, several across, and a couple deep was gouged by hooves perpendicular to the stream where the stock came out.

Frankly, I'm not sure what the answer is (although in the case of the stream crossing a bridge would suffice, I suppose). I've ridden horses into the backcountry and agree they serve a good role, but I can't imagine walking for miles and miles behind a group of horses, or seeing the stream damage, without wondering why it's permitted. It's not sissification at all, and it's not neo-environmentalism, as another commenter alleged.

At the same time, anonymous up above has a point about some hikers who don't deal with their toilet paper properly.

I'm not religious, but I kind of like that saying about who should cast the first stone...and the other one about judging others;-)

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