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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 conclusion to the study Morris cited:

Despite the extremely low germination
and establishment rates of plants on the
horse trails, the presence of non-native seed
in the hay samples suggests horses pose a
threat for the introduction of non-native
plant species.

 Not exactly a ringing endorsement for stock use. Nor has anyone weighed in to suggest ways to mitigate the potential -- and verified -- impacts of roll pits in fragile alpine meadows; stream bank erosion when animals go to drink; removing tons of grasses that might otherwise support wildlife or habitat or the aesthetic pleasure of a wilderness experiene; or the potential impact of pathogens in manure getting into streams; or the potential impact of nitrates, nitrites or other nutrients from manure and urine getting into streams.

These are real impacts and it would be great if the equistrian community -- overall a terrific group of people -- would join in coming up with ways to reduce these impacts so they can continue to enjoy wilderness on stock supported trips. They're not doing it. All they're doing is going on about the "good old days."

In the late 60s and early 70s, hikers were presented with how their trips casued major impacts on the places they came by the thousands to enjoy. In my direct experience, when those impacts were explained, and they were shown how to reduce those impacts, they did so -- minimum impact or leave no trace camping was the result. It's been tremendously successful. Stock groups have resisted every step of the way by clinging to a past that is not sustainable, however much the service they provide is useful to some people.
And, sure, let's get rid of Wilderness designation. Let's get the government out of it. Let's allow ATVs, mining, condos, strip mining a free for all of anyone who wants to do anything. All of this was allowed at some point on public lands. Wilderness was created to protect these small islands as examples of a pristine (insofar as possible..) America. Come on people, think this stuff through.

Once again, though, it seems people aren't quite understanding this court decision only applies to Commercial stock permitees -- NOT private stock parties,who can continue to visit the park as before; and NOT administrative use, who can continue to maintain trails as before.

Hey Rick! Thanks for tha attaboy! Still having fun... .


Important Note: this has come up elsewhere. I do not, in any way, shape or form, represent the policies or thinking of the National Park Service. It's just me talking here... .

Those so moved to add their support to keeping the wilderness experience open for those that depend on stock use and/or those that find a special connection with their ride and the wild places they adventure into while respecting others on the trail please feel free to submit your name to the petition at:

Morris:  Excellent post!   It is so good to see the benefits to kids and adults alike that make the effort to venture into wild places on stock.  Putting their confidence in something other than their joy sticks or keyboards.  I do a lot of both, backpacking and equine adventuring.  It just might be a part of the increasingly adversarial atmosphere in the culture that push things like this issue.  The conversation needs to be elevated and inclusive rather than the divisive bent that many seem to encourage, or else we ALL lose.

Just a couple of quick points having just caught up on this conversation since I last commented nearly two months ago...

At Point Reyes, the trails closed to equestrian use are the trails leading from the Visitor Center, with the largest parking access for the park. The Bear Valley Trail is the one from there to the beach; that  and two side trails connecting to that are closed to horses on weekends because of the high traffic. But the huge majority of trails at Pt. Reyes are open to horses all the time.

Horses are accused of having huge impacts on wilderness--George cites a couple of studies. But they aren't the only studies. One study
concluded  "that horse hay and manure does contain seeds of non-native plant species, but native and non-native plant species rarely become established on horse trails because of the harsh environmental conditions." Other studies have been done that show minimal impact on the environment from horse poop and urine, probably because, unlike, say, dogs and cats, their diet is basically grass.

One commenter asked where the compromiser horse advocate is.  Actually there are quite a few equestrians who advocate for shared use of trails wherever practical and safe.  I belong to a couple of organizations that do just that. Because of advocacy for that principle, for example, the 338 miles of the Bay Area Ridge Trail ar 85% open to both equestrians and bicyclists (though not always the same 85%). The Ridge Trail, and the equestrians who are involved, have at times delayed funding for and the opening of new trails that would not allow bikes until that was changed.  The Trails Council I belong to organizes multi-use trail events, and there are equestrian advocates who bring out the horses to share the trails with hikers, bicyclists, and yes, the occasional trail unicyclist that shows up.
What has amazed me, however, coming from the equestrian community but becoming more and more of a hiker, is just how much opposition there is to mountain biking among hikers.  I often have to advocate for the bikers against fellow hikers who have been run into, run off the trail and had their wilderness or park experience shattered by speeding bikes. Granted it is a small minority of cyclists who provoke that reaction, but everybody remembers them and easily forgets the ones who get along. Although equestrians can get tossed from their horses at such moments, the ill will spread by rogue cyclists extends much deeper.  I know that mountain bike organizations do their part to educate cyclists to get along with other trail users: unfortunately their reach does not always extend to everyone pedaling on the trails. When it does, other trail users will stop feeling threatened by the presence of bikes on trails and a lot of the conflict will fade away.

Although it is possible, and I have seen this before, to conclude that envronmental and trail groups are withering on the vine because they do not support cycling access, I think that argument is truly delusional. Many non-profits of all stripes have laid off staff, and some have closed down, in the recessionary climate with contributions down all over.  That someone is having trouble finding a publisher for their PCT guide does not reflect on the overall health of the Pacific Crest Trail Association which in the past 2 years has expanded greatly with new back-country offices, new staff, and greater volunteer involvement than ever before. And if there are fewer equestrians than there used to be, it is more a function of zoning restrictions and the economics of horse ownership than their attitudes towards bicyclists or anything else.

Or perhaps it has a lot to do with kids growing up with video games and virtual reality and getting less and less connected to nature--the last kid in the woods, the last horse in the woods--we need to be doing whatever we can to get the younger generation involved, because they will be needed to defend parks and wilderness when we are gone...

the uses of horses in the back country is a necessary need to maintain and service anyone that works or hikes the parks.
It would be better to ban cars from the park as they and their drivers kill more wild life than any horse has ever killed
You all heard of KONY 2012 will it is now time backcountry 2012
here is my email address
Time to stop this now before it spreads to the rest of the NP

What is interesting is that just on the other side of The Sierra Madres is that local people are being ENCOURAGED to feed starving mustangs from over-grazed range which are a lot more fecund than some stock animals on the California side of the mountain.
The Federal government PROHIBITS the hunting of these starving mustangs but wants to BAN horses in a national park!
Also, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg who ruled on the case, until his appointment to the bench by Pres. Obama used to work for the law firm bringing the suit which is doing it pro bono.
However, in the event the suit is won, the law firm will collect big money of course, from the US taxpayer.

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