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."

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I have a question regarding the court's ruling (not the intent of the plaintiff). Just to be clear, did the court rule against the use of pack animals in wilderness per se, or did the court rule against the commercial use (of pack animals)? Maybe it was stated in the court ruling, but my mind went numb trying to read it. If this has already been addressed in the comments, my apologies. The comments seem to have taken on a life of their own.



ec and imtnbke, I just don't think the mountain bike lobby (with no disrepect to my IMBA friends) is large enough or powerful enough to block wilderness designations per se. Here's a telling snippet of comment left on IMBA's blog back in December:

I can state from extensive experience, IMBA is not in the drivers seat
with Washington Lobbying. We have to have the presence. As an
individual member, I wonder if I am ever heard at IMBA. I come from the
Eastern Sierra. We have had three major wilderness bills pass in this
region. Attempts at compromise were tried three times. We have had
most of the promised "compromises" removed from the final legislation.
Mountain Bikers need to be more proactive.
Of course, that's just one individual's thoughts, and top IMBA officials disagree with his view.

I wonder if one doesn't need to create two wilderness "buckets" -- one containing National Park System lands, and one containing all other public lands -- and approach them separately? Indeed, I think that's already being done, no?

As I previously noted, in the National Park System most lands that qualify for wilderness status already are managed as such, ie, no bike riding allowed, and so to respond to ec's comment that bikers would lose landscape if official designation were made, in this case the biking community wouldn't lose anything since they already are denied access to them.

I'd wager that the largest impediment to additional wilderness designations is the combination of the highly partisan landscape in Congress and the highly pro-consumption view of most of the Republicans elected from the Western states, some of who sit (and control) such highly powerful committees, such as the House Natural Resources Committee.

(Aside to imtnbike: Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, long has carried the Red Rock Wilderness legislation that would designate millions of Utah acres as wilderness, and in the Senate Richard Durbin from Illinois is its sponsor, so there are congressfolk from east of the Rockies who care about wilderness.)

For some insights on today's political climate and wilderness designation, take a look at this story I wrote back in October 2009 on just these topic.

At the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment
at the University of Utah Law School in Salt Lake City, Director Robert
Keiter offered that political gamesmanship is at play in the various
appointments to the public lands committees.

“I think unfortunately the public lands in the western United States
have become something of a political dividing point between Democrats
and Republicans during the past 30 to 50 years, and that’s reflected in
basically different management philosophies that they tend to bring to
the table and the constituencies that they tend to represent and serve,”
said Professor Keiter. “So you have the Democrats much more receptive
to preservation-type arguments, and protecting and preserving areas like
national parks, wilderness areas, and that sort of thing, while
Republicans tend to be more receptive to arguments that these resources
need to be developed in the near future and are vital to local

Too, he added a few moments later, “I think what you see in Congress is
the party leadership trying to accommodate the interests of the various
congressmen, so you see the Western congressmen gravitating to these
sorts of committees, and the leadership being comfortable with having
them there, and using some of the issues that come up in these
committees for broader political purposes, to paint a divide between
Democrats and Republicans.”

While both Mr. DiPeso and Professor Keiter pointed to demographic trends
that slowly are tempering some of the extreme politically conservative
views in the Intermountain West, they don’t expect an overnight shift in
the voting records of politicians such as Mr. Bishop.

I think it's easy to agree that getting outdoors, whether you're on a bike, horse, or foot, is good for you. From the Traveler's standpoint, though, it's important to realize that lands contained within the park system are managed with an entirely different intent, a completely different ethos, than those in the national forest system or across the BLM landscapes. And part of that intent is to preserve, as much as possible, the "wilderness" character from the past and to provide landscapes where one can explore on foot or by canoe or kayak and yes, even horse, and experience the outdoors without the intrusion of today's more frenetic world.

Is that a purist's approach? Perhaps. But I do think there's a need for such settings today. When we continue to chip away at truly natural settings with all forms of use and intrusions (ie, the arguments for more cell towers to provide coverage in these areas), I fear we lose not only something from those settings, but slowly erode our ability to escape, if only for a while, the franticness of the world, and our ability to fully understand those settings, and understand ourselves.

And while some would say that's a selfish approach, one that comes down to an unwillingness to share, I'd disagree with that accusation, as well, as I have in past years when this subject comes up, for there's no ban at all on anyone walking into a wilderness area.

That's ridiculous. I've hiked and ridden RMNP for the past couple decades. The impact of trail riding on trails, even lower elevation ones, is minimal.

These issues propel my thinking on a daily basis. I'm a doctoral student of forestry. Lately, for me, it hinges on vulnerability and commodification of wildness. On vulnerability: contemporary technological advances in outdoor gear such as SPOT devices which allow backcountry tweets and FB status updates along with polymerized apparel induce a cocoon of security that muffles the evocative nature of wilderness character. On commodification: many visitors are seeking a "sanitized, convenient, and trophy-home version of wilderness" (Krakoff) due to the marketization of wildness (think High Sierra Camps). Visitors to Half Dome are awarded access after competing in the marketplace for a permit that hardly differs in appearance with a concert ticket with even "GENERAL ADMISSION" branded across it. Is it any wonder that those same visitors invoke their credit card holding benefit of helicopter rescue when foul weather strikes? I am not blaming the visitor. I hope for adminstrative reform. I believe that the hiking group is concerned with the Sierra alpine experience being misconstrued as a consumptive act; a market transaction. Anyone reading this surely values the joy of the outdoors. I am concerned that public lands and the experience of wildness are threatened by technological and market creep. Before your reply, please know that I'm not coming from any Marxist or Socialist ideology. I value democracy. My chief concern is for the integrity of the Wilderness experience.

Anonymous, if you've ridden on trails in Rocky Mountain, you've done so against the regs:

"Trailbikes, mopeds, and bicycles are prohibited off established roads in Rocky Mountain National Park. Nearby National Forests offer off-road trails for backcountry cycling."

With all due respect, I "accuse" you of being selfish. You're essentially saying that your experience of wilderness/NPS is better than mine, which is why I should be banned from going in (unless I give in and experience it the way you like it). Seems pretty selfish to me.
Ultimately, therein lies the difference, I'm not telling you to experience the outdoors the way I like it (on a bike). I respect others right to enjoy the outdoors anyway they want, as long they don't impact the environment negatively (something apparently horses are not living up to).

I have a question regarding the court's ruling (not the intent of the
plaintiff). Just to be clear, did the court rule against the use of
pack animals in wilderness per se, or did the court rule against the
commercial use (of pack animals)?
My brain's a little overwhelmed too. I'd been keeping up with this case and had also read (and even understood) the Blackwell decision. This is a little more dense. But as near as I can understand, the court found that NPS was in violation of the Wilderness Act because it did not undertake a finding of necessity to determine to what extent stock use should be permitted by commercial packers in the Wilderness of Sequoia Kings. If I read it correctly (and I'm not sure I do) it threw out the park's General Management Plan (GMP) because of this violation.

The court did not find NPS in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for, as HSHA contends, failing to consider a number of specific impacts that stock have on the park's backcountry (not necessirily designated wilderness).
So commercial stock is not banned at the moment, and I doubt it will be. It may, though, eventually be much more restricted.

The critical point to remember is that the Wilderness Act sets out the rules for people to enjoy wilderness. Stock can be justified in a National Park wilderness only to the extent that the animals further wilderness qualities: either by supporting the maintenance of wilderness trails or facilities or by allowing visitors to experience wilderness by being transported into it by stock. The animals themselves have no
intrinsic rights to be in wilderness independent of their support of allowable human activity.

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.

A number of people's comments here concentrate on the impact of stock on trails -- which is the most obvious (manure, mechanical hoof impacts). However, HSHA based much of their case on other much more critical impacts: water quality as a result of manure; impacts on meadows from grazing (removing tons of vegetation each year) and mechanical impacts as a result of rolling in meadows causing loss of vegetation; streambank erosion when they go to drink & etc. As such, both HSHA and the court correctly do talk about livestock and grazing because that's the root of the problem.

The real question, not so clearly stated in the opinion, is whether these impacts are justified by the very small numbers of people the horses and mules bring in to the Wilderness. This is, though, addressed by the court's finding that NPS needs to determine if those impacts are justified by requiring NPS to carry out the "finding of necessity" to determine if continued stock use (and likely at what level) will be allowed.

To carry one person into the park's wilderness for, say, three nights usually requires three to four animals and one packer. Estimates vary, but a conservative multiplier of the impact of a single horse over that of a human on foot is about 20 times the impact. So one person wanting a recreation experience on a stock-supported trip for three nights will cause at least 60 times the impact vs. a single person just hiking without that stock support.

There are also glaring differences in how impacts from people are regulated and how impacts from stock are regulated. If a scout troop of 15 people were to camp directly on an alpine meadow, remove grass for beds, and dig holes for their fire pits they would, justifiably, be cited for the violations. If a group of 15 horses and mules (supporting a party of, say, 5 people) remove that same grass by eating it, then roll in the meadows (which they do) creating "roll pits" devoid of vegetation, that's considered an acceptable impact by NPS until a certain level is reached. A local ranger or biologist can determine that impact has become unacceptable and stop or limit grazing, but only AFTER the damage has occurred. In the case of the scouts, existing regulations prevent them from camping in the meadow in the first place. The meadows are fairly well protected from the impacts of people, but not from the impacts of stock.


Here's the dilemma we face:

Another perspective could be that you're selfish in that you want to impose your mode of enjoyment on those who would prefer to enjoy the wilderness without bikes -- the setting that The Wilderness Act currently provides -- that you don't care about their wilderness experience and whether you destroy it.

The resulting question is, how can this be resolved? Where's the compromise?

Hi, MM,

The opinion was not well written. It talked at one point about the Wilderness Act (as construed by federal court decisions) being highly restrictive on commercial uses. But at other points, if I recall correctly, it talked about large mammals' environmental damage without mentioning outfitters' commercial nature. And in fact, the way it reads, it quickly lost sight of the fact that the plaintiff was objecting to horses' and mules' effects. It talked about grazing and livestock, so the reader could be forgiven for thinking it was talking about cattle ranching.

If it had been better written, it would have clarified better which of its conclusions rested on commercial activity and which rested on horse and mule use, commercial or not.

To add to Kurt's point:
Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- has some activity that they want to carry out in what has been designated as Wilderness. They get upset when told they can't. There are an infinite number of things people want to do: bring their ATVs, ride horses, ride bicycles, hang glide, run competative foot races, get dropped off by helicopter to fish, have their supplies delivered by aircraft, fly model remote-controlled (or GPS programmed) aircraft, bring their dogs, bring "companion" animals for disabilities (a problem in National Parks only), play loud music over speakers in camp, wash themselves or their dishes in streams, Etc. etc. ...

We can probably agree that a number of these are clearly not allowed by the Wilderness Act. Still, we're clearly denying some people access to "their" wilderness or restricting what they can do there. The gray areas are left to the courts and this stuff is often in litigation, as the HSHA/NPS case shows.
So when Kurt and others say that riding bikes in designated wilderness is an unacceptable impact, that's a matter of law. Sure, it denies bike people a wilderness experience if they want to travel with their bike, but it's not just randomly imposing a preference on a particular group. Nor does it deny them access, only the mode of access. The decision is based on a number of guiding legislation and philosophy -- the Wilderness Act and the Organic Act among them. How else to limit what people want to do and keep the basic values of wilderness intact?


The answer to your question is pretty straightforward: it's a public good and we have to share. Just like our parents taught us when we were kids.
Lumping bicycles with ATVs does not further your argument. Ban on bicycle (as we explained before) is not a legislative matter, but a matter of federal agency interpretation. If you studied the original decision to ban bicycles, you'd learn that there was much debate within federal agencies as to what to do. Truth is that the decision had not much to do with Act intent (since the intent was to allow bikes) or philosophy, and much to do with not knowing how to deal with a newcomer to these lands. All that grandiose language about the purity of one's wilderness experience obfuscates the actual motive of not being willing share a public good.
As for the argument that the ruling only bans bikes, not the cyclist, it is a rather silly argument that does not really address whether the ban is legit to begin with. I can't wait for mules and horses to be banned from the NPS, and see how your argument goes over with the equestrian crowd. :)


I'm not maintaining that the organized national mountain bike lobby or local mountain bikers can veto Wilderness proposals. Enough have been passed over mountain bikers' resentment about lost trails (on Mt. Hood, Ore., for example) that no one could argue that we have that power. I'm certainly not asserting otherwise.

I'm saying only this: elected officials hate conflict and controversy. It causes someone to resent them no matter what they decide. In such situations, the safest course, and the default, is to stick with the status quo.

That's why mountain bikers don't try to seriously lobby Congress to clarify the Wilderness Act regarding bicycles. It wouldn't go anywhere, because it's a needless controversy as far as our federal legislators are concerned.

By the same token, however, Wilderness proposals (I'm quite sure of this) cause many members of Congress to groan and to wish to avoid dealing with them. The massive Utah Wilderness capture bill, for example, doesn't seem to be going anywhere. As you observe, it's a Representative and a Senator from Illinois and New York who are pushing it, because they're among the few with such safe seats and such predictable constituencies (people who take the subway or tend to farms and aren't much preoccupied about trails) that they won't experience blowback.

The proof is in the pudding. Many Wilderness expansion bills are introduced. Few succeed. Very few. The opposition of mountain bikers is one reason why. Just one among many, to be sure. The motorized groups are much more influential than we are.

On to your debate with Zebulon about Wilderness character and selfishness. I'd be in favor of managing Wilderness according to its character, but that has to mean its historical existence. So sure, let's bring in the claim-stakers, placer and sluice miners, Native Americans, trappers, and hunters, and let them restore Wilderness to the way it really was—not the way Wallace Stegner and many others thought it was when proposing the Wilderness Act decades ago. They thought it was a sanitized Eden free of humans' presence. They were wrong.

As for who's selfish, let me not start calling people names, but speak only for myself. My sense of "Wilderness values" (a term I dislike because, like "family values," it's code language for an ideology) might mean that I resent activities in Wilderness that require no physical fitness or outdoorsmanship (guided pack trips), activities that disturb the ground (overnight backpacking), those that draw flies (horses and mules), those that have huge carbon footprints (massive vehicles needed to bring horses to trailheads), or those that leave traces for weeks. But do I try to impose those "values" on anyone else? No. Live and let live. My sense of life enjoyment is sufficiently robust that I can appreciate wildlands
despite most momentary intrusions by others enjoying a wildland differently. (True, a constant stream of dirt motorcycles or ATVs is not fun.) Riding a bicycle on a trail is supremely innocuous, objectively judged by speed, noise, smell, immediate environmental impact, need for infrastructure, and carbon footprint. Why are other people so delicate and sensitive?

I realize that I will never convince you, Wilderness purists, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or the Wilderness Society. To be honest I'm not trying. It's worth investing time in these threads because other people read them and presumably some are influenced by what's said on them.

George, I liked your comment. I wish there were "like" buttons on this page.

Zeb, I believe you dodged the point I was trying to make.

It appears that you believe your wilderness experience is being ruined by not being able to ride your bike there, but don't believe you're ruining the experience for those who want to enjoy the wilderness without bikes, who specifically head to the wilderness to experience something that is harder and harder to find as development continues to spread and, to paraphrase George, more and more people want to take their preferred activity/mode of transportation/cybertether, into the wilderness.

Some pertinent sections of the Act:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. ... has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation...(emphasis added)
Wilderness areas do serve the public good...regardless if you can ride your bike into them.

I think mountain biking is a laudably primitive and unconfined type of recreation. In 1980, Congress implicitly agreed that it is, when it said bicycles are OK in the Rattlesnake Wilderness in Montana.

Can someone explain how as a matter of law (rather than just some set of personal preferences that might be asserted or factors that might be hypothesized) mountain biking is not primitive but backpacking with advanced water-repellent fabrics, bright colors, sophisticated packs, sleeping bags made in China, GPS's, white-gas camp stoves, iPods, iPads, and satellite phones is primitive?

To answer your point directly, we all impact each other. However, it does not say in the Act, nor do I believe the intent was, that wilderness can only be enjoyed hiking or riding a horse. The issue is that you assimilate (wrongly I would propose) that bicycles are modern creations that are incompatible with wilderness and therefore with your enjoyment of it. Bicycles have been around for ever. Heck, even Leonardo da Vinci had a prototype (although I doubt that it would work well off road). Bicycles are no more creations of a modern world than your carbon fiber hiking poles. They're not incompatible with wilderness in any rational way. I ride all over the place and have all kinds of primitive experiences while riding. Most places, you see nary a sould two miles from the trailhead.

The issue at hand is not rational, but rather based on moral judgement (i.e. hiking is more primitive and more compatible with wilderness than biking). I don't agree that you (not you personnally, but a more generic you) should impose your moral values on me. I can't help if my cycling enjoyment of nature impacts your perception of your surroundings. It's not a private good set aside for the enjoyment of the chosen few.

George, it is important to understand that the Wilderness Act does not ban bicycles. Not specifically. It bans "mechanical transport," a very broad category, and the federal agencies later picked and chose which forms of mechanical transport they would allow and which they wouldn't.

They did this with minimal public input and only after waffling year after year whether bicycles should be allowed.

So when you say bicycles are excluded because the law says so, you're relying entirely on a strikingly wobbly body of administrative, agency-created law.

As an equestrian, trail advocate and trail maintenance volunteer, I don’t have a problem with examining the issue of stock use in these areas. Obviously there is overgrazing in some national forests and, perhaps, national parks, as well. And there is always a fine line between making wilderness available to all, and protecting that same wilderness. I usually come down on the side that allowing more access to wilderness and natural areas creates more advocacy for protection, and thus ultimately enhances natural areas. But every case is slightly different and no one rule or regulation justly applies to all areas.

I have worked on the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails for nearly 3 weeks over the years, and in all cases the stock animals that supplied those expeditions, which lasted far longer, greatly enhanced their effectiveness. It’s odd that one of the comments decries negative impact of the Back Country Horsemen in, IIRC, Olympia National Park without noting the tremendous contributions to better trails made by BCH units not just there but all over the country. Without their help and organizing, a lot of the trails that hikers use, including large PCT sections, would be impassible. Looking back a bit, it is not an exaggeration to note that many of our most treasured historic trails were built by equestrians.

These days, I am primarily a hiker, so I find it unfortunate that a hiker’s organization would file this kind of suit. I think horses do far more for the trails than any damage they might sometimes cause, damage that could be avoided with sensible, rather than blanket, restrictions. Although the damage from manure is imaginary, and there seems to be solid evidence that stock does not spread invasive, non-native species, I certainly would not rule out the possibility that in places overuse can have negative trail impacts. But it should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

That's an informative comment, Morris, with valuable information about the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails. I appreciate your first-hand perspective.

The High Sierra Hikers Association does seem strongly oriented against horse and packstock use in public lands. See its home page:

Also, if you look toward the end of this HSHA newsletter, you'll see that at least one packer reviles the organization. Here's the link:

In that same newsletter, you'll see that HSHA has unflattering things to say about the NPS staff at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It's interesting and disturbing reading.

If we just kept people out of the parks, forests, and Federal Lands, there wouldn't be any problem.


I dunno. To me and, apparently the NPS & USFS, "mechanical
transport" means no bicycles. Seems like they could have said
"motorized" or, hmmm, "fossil fuel powered" and made it
clear that human powered was OK. I can't think of any other type of transport
that's allowed that falls into a gray area. It's either foot or on top of
something with hoofs – clearly neither are mechanical. Is there something else
in that broad category that's allowed and would weaken the case? (with the
possible exception of wheelchairs under ADA).

So when you say bicycles are excluded because the law says so, you're
relying entirely on a strikingly wobbly body of administrative, agency-created

However wobbly you want to present it, it is law and shows no sign of being
overturned or changed – not really all that wobbly… . My main experience
is as a ranger in an area now Wilderness. And I cheerfully admit I'm not
familiar with the history of how bikes were banned, but in the western parks
I'm familiar with, bikes have never been allowed past paved roads in the 40+
years of my career. No citation that either myself or my colleagues have given
for a bike in Wilderness (a very, very few) has ever been dismissed.

I definitely agree with you that most legislators don't want to touch it.
But I strongly disagree that bicycling or any other form of mechanical
transport is not a serious intrusion on wilderness character. All regulations
and court decisions derived from the Wilderness Act support a strict and
protective interpretation. Otherwise, what's the point? Why even have a
Wilderness Act if you're not going to try to preserve what we call wilderness.

Can someone explain how as a matter of law (rather than just some set
of personal preferences that might be asserted or factors that might be
hypothesized) mountain biking is not primitive but backpacking with
advanced water-repellent fabrics, bright colors, sophisticated packs, sleeping
bags made in China, GPS's, white-gas camp stoves, iPods, iPads, and satellite
phones is primitive?

Well, I'll take a stab at it, though it's pretty clear we're not going to
agree on this. Setting the premise of not allowing "personal
preferences" is kind of wobbly in itself but I'll soldier on with those
constraints! Our attitudes towards wilderness have been shaped by the history
of the conservation movement and are rooted in both the westward expansion and
the transcendentalism of Emerson, Thoreau & Muir.

They gave people a new way of looking at the land, different from the
resource-extractive and utilitarian attitudes of the 18th & 19th centuries.
Attitudes or, if I may, personal preferences changed. People began to value
places that appeared to be wild and untouched. By the early 20th century those
personal preferences were codified into laws -- the Organic Act for the
National Park Service as well as the creation of the Forest Service and reserves
for each.

Later in the 20th century, it became apparent that the few remaining wild
places were being destroyed at a frightening rate -- sub divisions, roads built
everywhere, inundated by dams. The environmental movement starting in the 60s
-- the personal preferences of a sizeable and vocal group of hippies,
conservationists such as Brower and Stegner and many others -- led to a second
great awakening: the creation of the Wilderness Act. Also the Environmental
Protection Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air & etc. A very productive period.

Which led, alas, to banning bikes in National Parks and Wilderness areas in
general. The semi-bright line between hi-tech fabrics, GPS etc and bikes is the
level of intrusion on the experience that users feel when they encounter such
things while traveling. The phrase "mechanical transport" is not
random nor wobbly. Other stuff intrudes on wilderness – absolutely -- but so
far is tolerated by users. So it does, in fact, come down to personal
preferences to a great degree. It is exactly those preferences that directly
led to the laws as well as agency and court interpretations of those laws. In
that sense, they're inseparable.

[Deleting duplicate post.]


You're right that we don't agree (at least not entirely), but I think you've made an excellent argument for your point of view—one that many obviously share. I appreciate your taking the time to answer.

Very few things in the law are certain, and whether bikes are allowed in Wilderness is not among those few things. Good legal arguments can be made on both sides. However, the fact that there's this debate is significant. Ten years ago, almost everyone accepted that the Wilderness Act banned bicycles because it prohibits "mechanical transport," and the debate ended there. Because it's become uncertain since about 2005, the debate has shifted to policy, a much more fruitful area for discussion, as the second part of your reply illustrates.

You mention that you're a ranger and that you and your colleagues have issued very few citations to cyclists in Wilderness. Is that because there is so much Wilderness and so few visitors that the chances of encountering anyone in the average Wilderness (let alone someone on a bicycle) are slim?

I know that the Desolation Wilderness in California is heavily used, and I hear that the Maroon Bells south of Aspen, Colo., are so impacted in the summer that private cars aren't allowed at trailheads anymore—you have to take a bus. But I have the impression that a great number of Wilderness areas hardly receive any human visitation. You must know the answer to this, or at least have an idea. I'd be curious to know, since I doubt I'll see even 1% of Wilderness areas during my lifetime.

Followup to George,

I meant to answer your question about something that's mechanical but not banned in the NPS and Forest Service regulations. I can think of two things. (1) unicycles (don't laugh; take a look at YouTube for amazing videos of mountain unicyclists traversing rugged terrain and descending steep trails that a hiker would be challenged to walk down). (2) pedal-driven kayaks (they have been commercially available, but I don't know if people use them).

Also, you said that you're a ranger in an area that is now Wilderness. Did mountain bikers lose access to trails there when it became a Wilderness? Or were the trails always unappealing to cyclists? Or are there no trails, as is true of some Wildernesses (e.g., the Sanhedrin in northern California)? If they did, did they do anything to try to preserve access? Do they ride them against the regulations even now? Again, just curious. I live in urban America and have no way of getting a sense of such things.

It seems to me that other forms of mechanical transportation (e.g. pedal powered kayaks) are tolerated in widerness because they don't require the historical users (hikers, equestrians) to share the trails. The ban of cycling is really based on personal perception. Plus after nearly 30 years of being banned, nobody bothers to question it (except for a few cyclists...). It's been accepted as the de facto situation. I can only see two ways of this changing: a sea change in what people do to enjoy the outdoors toward cycling or a lawsuit. In the meantime, in most wilderness places, we can still ride with very little risk of getting caught.

Boy, until I became a regular here at Traveler, I never knew that bicycles were another topic like circumcision, abortion, and long form birth certificates to avoid discussing due to the unending and unresolving arguments. Amazing.

Interesting point, Anonymous of 11:35 a.m. You're pointing out the practical reality, and perhaps a reason that there isn't a bigger push to change the rules. I've heard the same . . . it's exceedingly rare for anyone to be ticketed for being on a bicycle noncompliantly. Again, I have the impression that many Wilderness areas are barely visited by anyone.

Rick B., you're right. This issue ignites passions on both sides. However, I try not to let these debates stop me from getting out on my bike on the local (obviously non-Wilderness) trails. You can also add to your list the following terms: "gun" and "second amendment."

Unicycles & Kayaks! Ha. Who woulda thought? And that's kind of my point,
that everyone keeps coming up with ways to use wilderness that push the
envelope of what both traditionally and by law is considered an acceptable use.
And, you may be right:

The CFR only mentions bicycles here. I vaguely remember something else in there
that might keep unicycles out but not up to the research right now. Note,
though, that this regulation (for NPS only) is not dependent on the Wilderness
Act. It just specifically bans bicycles except on approved roads in all
National Parks.

Ah, but wait, this just in:

Bicycle means every device propelled solely by human power upon which
a person or persons may ride on land, having one, two, or more wheels, except a
manual wheelchair.

So unicycles are out. But maybe there's hope for pedal driven kayaks!

I've worked mostly backcountry in Sequoia Kings National Parks in California
(and, CYA message: I don't in any way represent NPS, Sequoia Kings, or anyone,
anyhow other than me...). Mostly, the terrain is just too rugged for bikes. The
few people I've found have been walking them. But these areas (Yosemite and
Sequoia Kings -- both established in the late 1800s) have always been managed
as backcountry -- that is, their history of use predates possible competing
uses (like bicycles, motorized vehicles, etc). That history of use has, I like
to think, also created a respect among users for the wilderness concept. It's pretty
rare that people don't go with the program when it's explained to them (famous
last words...).

Those parks, anyway, are fairly well patrolled in the backcountry. It would
be unusual for a biker person to get through without a ranger hearing about it
or encountering them directly. The trails get a fair amount of use so someone
sees them and word gets around. I once found bike tracks and followed them to
where the guy was pushing his bike uphill. We can also radio ahead to the trailhead and have them met when they exit the backountry.

There's definitely a lot of designated wilderness that rarely sees
either users or patrol by the agency managing it. That's the ideal,
that a fairly wild chunk of terrain is out there for people to experience as it
was before European contact (a very arbitrary point in time, but useful as a
way to imagine wilderness).

And you’re also right that attitudes towards wilderness and a bike’s place
in it is evolving, as far as challenging the policy goes. I like to think,
though, that it can work in the opposite direction. That bicyclists – or whatever
user advocacy group du jour is mau-mauing the flak catchers – can be educated
to see how unique wilderness is in both area and philosophy. To that extent, this discussion is perhaps
contributing to that educational process.

If education means: do as we've always done because that's the way we like it, I ain't learning. :)

If education means: do as we've always done because that's the way we like it, I ain't learning. :)
It may seem that way to you -- and, in the short term, often does to me. I have, if I may modestly say, a very long and unique perspective on getting people on board with what we could call wilderness ethics. Over the years I've been involved with getting people to change their behavior and attitudes on a number of different issues:

Not burying their garbage;
Not camping on fragile vegetation;
Not washing dishes, laundry or themselves in streams and lakes:
Packing out all garbage;
Not building fires in certain areas;
Hanging food to keep it away from bears;
Carrying and using bear canisters to keep food away from bears;
restricting the maximum number of people who can start from a trailhead per
restricting the maximum number of people who can travel together as a group;
no dogs;
restricting how many horses and mules can graze a meadow or how long they can
graze it;

etc., etc.

All of these regulations defining how people can use their backcountry met with initial resistance. Most were from ignorance -- not realizing how an individual action, when combined with similar actions of other users, can have cumulative impacts on wilderness. Talking to people, one happy camper at a time, brings most around. Some resistance was of the "I've been doing this forever and you're not going to stop me" variety. When kindly
remonstrations, brilliant logic and a winning smile didn’t work, then a citation -- even, alas, an arrest -- usually did.

Long term, the attitude and behavior always changes. What seems to happen is that a critical mass is reached and people see the new regulation as beneficial to their enjoyment of wilderness as well as contributing to protecting it. There’s also a subtle peer group pressure for others to do the same. Short term, as you point out, it's a bit frustrating.

I appreciate your input, but your analogies are flawed. Cycling in wilderness and/or national parks does not impact the parks (certainly less than the mules convoys cited in the lawsuit), and therefore the federal agencies have no business banning it based on some specious philosophical ground that was not part of the Act to begin with. The ban has been in place for nearly 30 years, and cyclists attitude has not changed.
My opinion is that your beliefs reflect a generational gap between old proponents of wilderness (that is supposed to show us how wilderness was pre European but while using horses introduced by the same Europeans...) and the newer generation. Long term, I think that reason will prevail and bicycles will be allowed back in. It might be too late for me to enjoy the 50 millions acres locked up in the lower 48 but it won't be for my kids.
I heard that the riding in Muir woods is excellent at night though.

This discussion seems to be reaching a natural end.

I do truly regret that lovers of America's wildlands are so much at odds with one another. It's like the Balkans or monotheistic religions . . . a splintering of people with interests that in theory are shared.

Very true, imtnbke. The "splintering of people" would be good to reach it's natural end, also. That's usually achieved when the different groups find a common enemy. Difficult to find when ideology and financial rewards keep many of the camps entrenched no matter what it does to the country. Just saying...

National Parks Travelor, thank you for this interesting dialog on the recent court ruling on horses and mules on wilderness trails. I would like to thank IMTNBKE, the attorney, for his perspective on the ruling. I do think its important to point out that in some areas, one in particular, Yosemite National Park, private stock use of the wilderness trails is roughly 1% of the total wilderness use. Commercial and agency stock use comprise roughly another 3%. Most of the agency use is to support wilderness trails and restoration crews, and other important administrative responsibilities such as scientific research and wilderness ranger patrol. Much of the concessionaire stock use in Yosemite is basically to support the 5 High Sierra Camps on the 50 mile High Sierra loop trail. Roughly 80 miles of the 800 miles plus trail system in Yosemite receives over 80% of the total wilderness trail use. Its interesting to note that hikers/backpackers of which I am one, do complain about the horse and mule waste on the trails, but in my own view, the human waste at every trail junction, camping spot and lake, or stream, is much more offensive. Yet few complain about it. Its also interesting to see the cell phones GPS, satelite phones, etc carried by hikers, about as high tech as you can get. Its an interesting issue, but I do support the responsible use of horse and mules in our wilderness areas. I also support the need for hi tech helicopters for search and rescue and fire management purposes. No I think IMTNBKE got it right, ie the court got confused in this ruling, I hope saner heads prevail.

You are all lucky that you are allowed to enter wilderness areas at all! Since so little of this country is designated as wilderness and wilderness areas are so fragile, can you really blame people for wanting to limit wilderness use to the most harmless of activities? Besides, there are countless other places to ride horses and mountain bike. If only allowing certain activities in wilderness areas has even the slightest chance of helping to preserve them, then I'm all for preservation!

The old argument about "mountain bikers should stop complaining, they have so much other stuff to ride" was debated sometime last year here on NPT. IIRC, I came to the conclusion that roughly 20% of all park/outdoor public spaces in the lower 48 was wilderness. So, it's not exactly insignificant, as one would expect with 50m acres. In certain areas, wilderness is 100% of the space within a short distance. Not everybody is lucky enough to live in an area with city and county parks, USFS land and wilderness within an hour drive.

I have been living and working in the wilderness for close to 30 years, While yes, stock does cause impact, I have yet to see impairment. Big difference here. Wilderness does not belong to groups of elitist, I just wish the packer that offended the HSHA some thirty years ago would not have been such a jackass. There is room for everyone and I can guareentee that if you abolish stock use then our trail crews are going to have a much more difficult job maintaining the system. The Wilderness act itself is somewhat of a romantic notion and the actual application of the act and the interpretation of "untrammeled" could leave many to believe that it should be fenced and looked at from beyond and not enjoyed. Wilderness is to be enjoyed, not placed in glass case to be admired but never experienced. PS not sure how traveler got it but I believe that's my photo above.

Anonymous, the photo came from the Sequia NP website. Please do claim it if it's yours. It's a beaut!

George makes a good point that current perception of a wilderness is arbitrarily perceived to represent pre-European contact. When I hike in wilderness to hunt baby bears, I tend to feel uncomfortable when I see white people around as it infringes against my perception of what wilderness should be. But I feel better when I have that sweet bear claw meat. Seriously though, Anonymous of 3:07 pm is correct that wilderness is to be enjoyed, and that was the chief lesson of Muir - that wilderness is a highly personal experience, a conduit to experience God, and to refresh oneself for industrial society. No doubt many here are familiar with Muir' Steep Trails (oh wait, NPS no longer allows grades above 10%), or Leopold's land ethic, or the prototype work of Frederick law Olmstead in shaping our relations with landscapes. the common thread in all these pieces is wilderness or natural landscapes as antidotes to industrial society that should not be policy wonked to death (discalimer: I'm a policy wonk). Using this common sense test, bicycles should be allowed, pack animals should be allowed. Just don't act stupid. We'll never codify that but I wish we could.

I.P.: well said, but clearly common sense has been lacking at the federal government for a while now...

Again, well put I.P. To add to that I say that another antidote to industrial society is keeping Wilderness commercial free. A compromise is allowing some commercial activity but only to the extent necessary for realizing those wilderness values. If infact the commercial stock use is necessary then take a good look at how much is really needed and don't just keep it at the current levels (what the park failed to do some time ago). My guess is if the park staff had scaled it back to what is proper (if needed at all) for realizing those Wilderness values then much of this would/could have been avoided. All the land agencies should take a good look at the commercial activity within Wilderness and truly try to determine if it is even necessary. If so, what is the true extent needed?

I have long thought that the horse/packstock/equestrian community needs a visionary leader who can take on some of the issues that threaten horse use throughout the United States. Right now, as far as I can tell, there is none.

I (a mountain biker and not an equestrian) see more and more "no horses" signs at trailheads from South Carolina to California. The equestrian community seems to lack any leader who can address this challenge in a persuasive and effective manner.

Here in California, horse-riders and mountain bikers are at loggerheads. I see horse-riders losing over the long term. Why? Because they rely on a dubious strategy of telling land managers that their horses can't tolerate other users. It's not just mountain bikers. Equestrians also sound warnings about hikers, backpackers, children, other animals, joggers, runners, and on and on.

To be sure, mountain bikers are the main current threat, so the equestrians focus on attempting to deny bicycle access. But they also bring up the other groups that make them apprehensive as they argue that they need high levels of protection from others. On public lands, paid for by taxpayers, I can't see this stance remaining persuasive.

Eventually, land managers are going to say, "If it's too dangerous for horses to be around other people, why should we accommodate them on public lands?"

If the current equestrian and packstock leadership think the orthodox environmental groups (Sierra Club, Pacific Crest Trail Ass'n, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Wilderness Watch, Wilderness Society, Audubon Society, etc.) are going to come to their aid, I suspect they're going to be increasingly disappointed. I bet that many in those groups agree with the anti-horse High Sierra Hikers Association.

What the equestrians need is a conciliator—a Lyndon Johnson, Willie Brown, Nelson Mandela or Bill Clinton—to schmooze, massage, and persuade. And above all, to compromise, especially with the mountain bikers they've alienated thoroughly in the last 20 years. I've seen no evidence that they have any such type of person in their ranks. Am I wrong?

Using this common sense test, bicycles should be allowed, pack animals
should be allowed. Just don't act stupid. We'll never codify that but I
wish we could.
So the question, of course, is to what extent should those impacts be allowed to give stock-supported users a wilderness experience? That's what HSHA was trying to codify with their lawsuit.

But it is codified. Pack animals ARE allowed to bring people and gear to enjoy the wilderness. The niggling details come in how much impact they are allowed to have when they do so. You say as long as they "don't act stupid." That's one of those phrases that everyone nods there head and goes "yep, good 'ol common sense." But come on, that's a meaningless phrase. A packer doing everything in as environmentally sensitive way as possible can still bring 20 1,200 pound animals into a national park wilderness. In, say, a 5 day trip, those animals will produce 3,500 lbs of manure and 240 gallons of urine. Much of the phosphates and nitrates from that waste will go into streams and lakes where they will provide nutrients for algae. In addition, one study in Yosemite found that 3 - 6% of the stock in the study carried giardia and cryptosporidium. So there's the potential of tens of thousands of cysts being washed into rivers and streams.

After a day's ride, the horses are released to graze and they often roll in the meadow to get the sweat off. Those "roll pits" persist for years. In alpine meadows (above, say, 9,500 feet or so in the Sierra) I've seen pits take 30+ years to recover.

And then there's the impact of removing tons of grasses and forbes from meadows when the animals eat them. What's the effect on wildlife who use that same meadow or who live there? What's the effect on Belding's ground squirrels when a horse crushes through the meadow into their tunnels or eats the grasses they dpend on? The effect of horses and mules going through riparian bird nesting areas to get water or eat? What are the long-term effects of horses eating certain species of grasses over others?

I just dredged up this observation by long-time backcountry ranger Randy Morgenson:

All the meadows in Evolution Valley were grazed this summer, and they all looked it. Yet Franklin Meadow apparently was not, and in October it was a place of knee high grasses, ripe and open panicles drifting on the moving air, luminous-bronze in the backlight. It was a very different place and a very different emotional experience of a mountain meadow, and entirely consistent with what one might rightly expect of a national park backcountry. It was a garden. I sometimes wonder whether range management concepts are any more applicable to our business than timber management concepts. The difference between a grazed meadow and a logged forest may only be one of scale.

Randy Morgenson, 1989

The point that I believe HSHA was trying to force the NPS to accept is that while, yes, stock users have an absolute right to enjoy wilderness on stock-supported trips, all users also have a right to see at least some meadows in a pristine and ecologically intact state and see "knee high grasses, ripe and open panicles drifting on the moving air, luminous-bronze in the backlight." All visitors, stock supported and hikers, are denied that experience if the grass is eaten. There may be no actual impairment -- that is, the impact may be short term (a few months until the grass grows back) -- but is even that short-term impact justified when 20 animals are needed to support, say, 7 people?

Bikes. Also codified: It's still illegal. Still. I talked to some friends at Pt. Reyes, where there had been conflicts in the past. It pretty much confirmed what I wrote earlier that eventually the community, however reluctantly, starts to accept the regulations. Overall, in the last 10 years (and more than a few citations and arrests) violations have gone down. Also, I think horses are allowed on weekdays, just not on weekends. Not a bad compromise.


As a one-time colleague of George's, I think that we should pay attention to the points he has made in his posts on this thread. He has probably logged more time in the Sierra's backcountry (in both Yosemite and Sequoia) than any 10 of the rest of readers of NPT together. I find that what he has said squares up with my observations during the time i spent in Yosemite. I also appreciate his balanced view on this controversial issue.


I second that. We won't agree about the legality or illegality of bicycles, but I agree with everything else George said in his last post.

The item I linked to before alleging horse and packstock damage to the Pasayten Wilderness is truly disturbing. Here it is again:

By the way, we mountain bikers don't disturb plants or urinate by the gallon. Most of us don't roll in the grass either! In fact, unlike even backpackers, we almost always leave that day and don't set up a campsite. I think the environmental impact of mountain bikers is less than that of any other overland group, except day hikers, where our impact is about equal. One can debate social impact, where mountain bikers, like cross-country skiers, joggers and runners, introduce the factor of speed on downhills, but that is easily managed today.

I don't think that George is interested in the impact of biking on the environment, and that he's more interested in enforcing the current legal interpretation which suits his bias.
Speaking of Point Reyes, a well known local cyclist was caught there a couple years ago. The local DA was ready to throw the book at him and took him to trial. This is completely amazing to me that we would spend that many resources to go after somebody for rolling on dirt instead of walking...but that's anothe story. Regardless the cyclist basically won the trial by getting a nominal fine that the judge could not waive away. Interestingly, rumor is that there's still plenty of cyclists enjoying Pt Reyes, most just don't get caught.
One more comment: George is mistaking law enforcement with education. Park rangers happily distribute fines to enforce the current inane ban. The only thing one learns from it is to know how to avoid rangers better.

First I must ask "Are Unicycles allowed where Bicycles are not?"

"Another perspective could be that you're selfish in that you want to
impose your mode of enjoyment on those who would prefer to enjoy the
wilderness without bikes -- the setting that The Wilderness Act
currently provides -- that you don't care about their wilderness
experience and whether you destroy it."

What about the people on bikes enjoyment being ruined by Hikers and those not on bikes?

Matt, bikes currently are not allowed in wilderness areas, so you raise a moot question in this discussion. Outside of wilderness areas, we're all one big melting pot of recreation....barring other regulations.

George - Its sad that some see themselves above the law and decide they can obey only the rules that they agree with.

AHHH but a unicycle is not a Bicycle! Though it is still mechanical.

Wow, this thread won't die. Which is OK. It's interesting. Eventually we're going to run out of things to say.

George, I didn't know that horses are allowed at Point Reyes National Seashore only on weekdays. That's interesting. Where can one find this out, if you happen to know?

George and Ecbuck1 — regarding the legalities, a lot could be said about this. Ecbuck1, you expressed disdain for scofflaws. I'd like to point out, though, that the only specific "law" against bicycles is a National Park Service rule that copied a Forest Service rule that the Forest Service itself went back and forth on from 1966 to 1984 (see that law review publication that's been linked to in this thread). The agencies just kind of adopted it. I've also read that they did this with not even a fraction of the public comment that such a proposal would get today. They got one or two comments from the public and that was it. The reason, obviously, is that this was before IMBA existed, before mountain bikes existed, and so before there was any opposition. It would be like proposing "no flying saucers" today. I doubt anyone would be opposed. However, in 2018 things might be different! (This is a humorous reference to the B-movie spoof Iron Sky, which will premiere in April. See this link:

On the other hand, the Wilderness Act of 1964 does forbid "mechanical transport," and I suppose George and Ecbuck1 feel that anyone who cares about wildlands would give that ambiguous statutory text a generous read and stay out of National Park Wilderness areas on bicycles, unicycles, pogo sticks, skateboards, in-line skates, Big Wheels, tricycles, and Radio Flyer wagons. (See for a bit of nostalgia.)

It's not a completely ludicrous stance, if that is their stance. However, I disagree that bicycles do anything to interfere with the National Park and/or Wilderness experience of any reasonable human being. The princess discomfited by the pea, yes. Most people, no. I read on the Internet some years ago a post by one of these Wilderness-bicycling scofflaws. He or she (probably he) said that whenever he encounters hikers in the Wilderness, they all say hello and no one cares. I take note of Zebulon's comment that there is lots of noncompliant bike-riding at Point Reyes too. It wouldn't surprise me in the least.