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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."


So, Zebulon and imtnbke, you don't think bikes are "mechanical transport" ?  "Bicycles weren't mentioned by name because they come under the heading of "mechanical transport."  Cars weren't mentioned specifically, motor bikes weren't mentioned specifically, chain saws weren't mentioned specifically, because like bicycles, they were covered by the general catogories, i.e. "motorized vehicles", or "motorized equipment."
Oh - and I have never seen a fishing reel transport anything.
BTW - I do believe that bicycles should be allowed.  Its been one of the major stumbling blocks for those pushing Hidden Gems.  But, I recognize it would take an act of Congress to accomplish that.  Seems that if bicycles weren't intended to be excluded, Congress would have addressed it long ago.

ecbuck: looks like your threads crossed with imtnbike, who answered your question thoroughly.  
Personnally, I find it pretty humorous to see horses feeling threatened to be limited/kicked out of wilderness.  Welcome to our world. :)  Next thing you know, we'll hear the wilderness purists say how equestrians are not pushed out of wilderness, only their horses are...

Ecbuck, please read what I've written before you respond.

I said, "No one denies that a bicycle is a form of mechanical transport, after all."

As for fishing reels, you've never seen a fishing reel transport a fish? The point is that the Wilderness Act of 1964 does not merely forbid mechanical transport of humans. It forbids the mechanical transport of anything. Read broadly enough, it would be illegal to use a pulley system to hang a food bag out of the reach of bears. Please read the links in my post. All of these issues have been thoroughly explored.

I'm glad that you favor bicycles in Wilderness, however.

I did a season of trail maintenance in the Trinity Alps and I do agree somewhat with the assessment that stock animals cause trail damage. Your big enemies for erosion on a trail are water (rain and snow), stock animals and humans (in that order). Horses and mules are somewhat worse than humans in the fact that they're much heavier and can pound holes in softer soil. Also, on steep slopes they have an unfortunate predilection to walk near the outer edge of the trail where the dirt is softer. You'll often see big holes in the side of the trail where a horse took a step and knocked the berm down the slope.

All that being said, it would be hypocritical for me to call for the banning of stock animals since without them it would have been impossible to get our food and supplies deep into the wilderness for our trail camps. I have a huge respect for the Backcountry Horsemen who volunteered to pack in loads of supplies at the risk of their own health and animals.

A balanced approach may be best, in which we assess the impact of stock travel on specific routes and provide appropriate permitting to limit total traffic across sensitive areas.

I find it interesting that we are only going to ban horses in Sequoia and Kings Canyon Parks.  The trails there aren't used by pack teams and horses nearly as much as I have seen in Yosemite.  What about the mule trail rides at the Grand Canyon?  Don't just pick on the private business in just these two parks if you are not willing to make them all go away in all of the national parks.  This sounds too much like a personal interest, not in my back yard,  issue to me.

"I said, "No one denies that a bicycle is a form of mechanical transport, after all."
QED - then they are covered by the Act.
An many, including myself (and the NPS) would deny that a fishing reel or a pulley for a bear bag are "mechanical transport".

Anonymous, I think that Imtnbike explained thoroughly why the ban on bicycles is non sensical.  A pedal driven kayak is clearly mechanical and not banned.  Most importantly, and clearly the point you gladly ignore, is that the original intent was to ban non human powered forms of mechanical transport.  All bicycles opponents ignore that fact because it basically takes apart the whole anti bicycle argument.  It all comes down to historical users not wanting to share.  That being said, it's rather silly, because the inane ban on bicycles is the single biggest driver that slows down the expansion of wilderness in this country.  Apparently, wilderness purists would rather have less wilderness but all to themselves than more and sharing it.  Frankly, this is nothing to be proud of.
In the meantime, it'll be fun to see equestrians starting to get limited access to NPS. Maybe they'll form alliances with cyclists now!

Back to horses and packstock . . . .

The Wilderness Watch lobbying group doesn't like commercial packstock trips and has these two reports on its website. They assert that horses and mules have made a mess of the Pasayten Wilderness in northern Washington:

I've never been there. In any event, one of these reports is 13 years old. Does anyone have an opinion about their accuracy, or whether the same is true in various National Parks and Forest Service areas that see lots of packstock use?

I do remember that the initial miles of hiking in the Eagle Cap Wilderness (the Wallowa mountains in remote northeastern Oregon) were through powder sometimes inches deep because of all the horses churning up the trailbeds. Not very pleasant in the summer heat.

A quick reply to Anonymous of 7:01 this morning. I understand your opinion, but if the bicycle ban is ever challenged in court, that won't suffice. The arguments get a lot more subtle, and reasonably so if the law is to have any workability.

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