You are here

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."



Section 4 c of the act states:
c) Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to
existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no
permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and,
except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration
of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in
emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area),
there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized
equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of
mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such

"no other form of mechanical transport"  A bicycle is a form of mechanical transport. So in Wilderness areas, they are banned by Congressional Act - not NPS policy (or interpretation).  My preference?  - I'd rather have bikes than horses but then, we should be able to find room for both.

"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."  I see how this irration can be frustrating for equestrians when many of trails that hikers like to use were orginally cut by stock.  Just doesn't seem fair.

The dark side of organized "hiking clubs". Fresh horse poop REALLY screws up their Wilderness Experience ? Do the club members picture themselves as John Muir clones ?What self-induced coma do they put themselves in to endure the outrage when they go take their own dumps in the woods ? I've hiked all over the Sierra, and the trails with pack stock travel are in the minority. True, they share many of the more popular trails, but so what ? You step aside when they're coming through, you watch your step around the droppings ; these encounters last only seconds, I do not see the big problem. Its a perfectly natural use of the backcountry, and I have never seen a meadow terminally torn up by pack stock hooves or overgrazing. The whiners need to vary their hiking destinations a little bit and get a grip.

Hi, everyone,

Good discussion.

I read the decision, and I'm a lawyer, so I think I provide some perspective. It isn't a model of judicial brilliance. Leaving aside that the court seems not to know the difference between the words forgo and forego, the opinion falls into abunch of acronym-laden abstractions and loses track of the substance of the High Sierra Hikers Association complaint (i.e., HSHA's initial filing presenting its legal claims). The complaint talks about commercial packstock outfitting trips, but reading the opinion, which has only a cursory reference to horses and mules and thereafter talks about livestock and grazing, you start to wonder if the lawsuit is about cattle.

The most significant part of the decision is that it did not decide on a remedy. It left that for more wrangling in court. (See opn., p. 10, fn. 5, & p. 31.) The HSHA might win a significant victory at that stage. The court could decide to ban horses and packstock. Or it could ratify the status quo with some nibbling at the edges that would not satisfy HSHA.

For people who have time, I recommend reading pages 7-17 of the HSHA complaint to get a better sense of what HSHA is complaining about and what it wants done to remedy
the situation:

In a later post, I'll comment on some of the comments already made, especially about bicycles and Wilderness. And I'll post some links about horse and packstock impacts in Wilderness. The decision is about National Park Service Wilderness, but the same considerations apply to Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Wilderness as well.

Ranger Andy,
Based on your arguments, should we conclude that you're okay with bikes?  They don't defecate, they're only around for a few seconds and they do way less damage to the trails than the horses do.

Your citations are correct, but bicycles were allowed in Wilderness until 1984 (or 1986, can't remember) until the Federal agency reinterpreted mechanical form of transport to include bicycles.  Such a reinterpretation was contrary to the intent of those who wrote the Act.  Furthermore, there are quite a few mechanical apparatus currently allowed in wilderness that would fall into that overly broad interpretation of the Act, but are not (e.g. paddle kayak).  Now, no amount of rational reasoning—except a well financed lawsuit—will change anything (see how the NPS dragged its feet on the issue at hand).

This is MADNESS, and the Judge should be required to "hike" through there! Wanna-be "outdoors" sheep from the city are the problem, and so are the fed's in making it a "wilderness" when all they have to do is protect it from Development. Horseback is sometimes the only why through ... or Land Rover!  Best thing is the city sheep should stay out of these places - it's always they who we have to rescue! They have no idea of the hardship of surviving out there.

Muir used a horse in the wilderness sometimes. The JMT started out as a stock trail from YV to KC. There are many people who can enjoy the wilderness, because stock can help get them there and away. And actually a lot of avid hikers still hire stock to meet them on the trail for resupply. So hikers could also be disapointed by a complete exclusion of stock.

I think the Wilderness Act is a good idea. At the same time, the parks and wilderness areas need friends too. Putting trailhead quotas on stock, like trailhead quotas on hikers makes sense. And some trails are restricted from stock use anyway. If some particularly sensitive areas could benefit from further protection, it might be worth moving sensibly in that direction.

For my own experience, the annoyances are relatively minor. When I'm hiking, I usually enjoy meeting the animals and their people on those trails that stock travel. The worst stock-related experience I've had was actually fairly humorous. With a high wind whipping over Kearsarge Pass, I got hit by a light rain of what turned out to be bits of dried horse stuff that was blowing off the switchback just above me.

Anonymous of 9:49 a.m. and ecbuck of 11:25 a.m.:

You're right that the Wilderness Act forbids "mechanical transport" in NPS, FS, and BLM Wilderness. But Anonymous is incorrect that the Act specifically excludes bicycles. They're not mentioned. Only agency interpretations of the Act have decided to exclude mountain bikers.

It does seem logical at first glance that the Act's no-mechanical-transport clause must exclude bikes. No one denies that a bicycle is a form of mechanical transport, after all. However, the exclusion is broad and inevitably ambiguous. If taken to its logical extreme, then boats with oarlocks, skis with bindings, climbing equipment with carabiners and pullies, and even fishing reels must be excluded. Obviously Congress didn't intend to reduce people to making use of wildlands the way Old Testament figures were forced to do. Even John Muir, Bob Marshall, and Howard Zahniser must have used modest forms of mechanical transport.

So the question is not whether a bike is mechanical transport, but what kind of mechanical transport devices Congress meant to ban. The answer is contained in this law review article. It explains that Congress did not mean to exclude human-powered transport:

And in fact, the very first Forest Service regulation, in 1966, understood Congress's intent and correctly ruled that "mechanical transport" meant a means of travel powered by a nonliving power source. That rule is still on the books, but the Forest Service prefers its later no-bicycles rule, which misunderstands the Wilderness Act. The Forest Service enacted version of that rule in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the most minimal public input.

It was a mistake that has had long-lasting consequences, including dogged opposition to any Wilderness expansions that will force cyclists off treasured and long-used trails. The Wilderness organizations would be smart to oppose the rule, but they're mired in a purist vision and have enough fanatics in their membership that they'd rather have less Wilderness than Wilderness with the very occasional bicycle (a sighting that would probably about as frequent as sighting a bear, if that frequent).

Western outdoors writer Bill Schneider made these points well: "As those familiar with the Wilderness debate know, the word 'bicycle' is not in the Wilderness Act of 1964, nor does it disallow mountain biking. In fact, the first regulations the FS wrote in the late 1960s
didn’t prohibit mountain biking, but then later, in the early 1980s,  when mountain biking started becoming popular, the FS specifically revised the regulations to ban bicycles in Wilderness. So, for around fifteen years after the Wilderness Act became the law of the land, bicycles were actually allowed in Wilderness—until the FS, supported by wilderness and hiking groups, not Congress, and before the IMBA-fueled bicycle lobby started rolling, made an administrative decision to disallow bicycling.

"The easiest way to undo this overstepping of the administrative rule-making process would be for the FS, with the support by wilderness and hiking groups, not Congress, to revise the regulations again to allow bicycles. Sadly, most wildernuts consider this heresy."


See also Scott Sandberry's excellent article on bicycles and the Wilderness advocates' Pyrrhic victory in keeping them out. It ran in the Yakima (Wash.) Herald six months ago:

All of the foregoing applies just as well to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, the subjects of Kurt's article, and national park units generally. Some national parks are almost 100% formal Wilderness once you get past the parking lots and roads.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments