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Effort To Reduce Horse Access To Wilderness In Sequoia, Kings Canyon National Parks Turning Into Wedge Issue



Horses are becoming the latest wedge issue in the National Park System, as efforts to reduce their access to wilderness in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks are being portrayed both as a job killer and a denier of your right to visit the parks.

At least one congressman is blaming the Obama administration for "pushing backcountry horsemen out of business," while a petition drive launched on claims that, "Young people, old people or any person with a disability will lose their right to visit Sequoia National Park with the removal of this option of travel."

Spurring the political vitriol and off-base access claims is an effort by the High Sierra Hikers Association to both get the National Park Service to meet the provisions of The Wilderness Act and to protect the sensitive environmental landscape of wilderness in Sequoia and Kings Canyon. The association is not trying to ban outright horse trips into the high country of the two parks, but rather seeks what it believes is a more manageable level.

Armed with a ruling that the Park Service violated The Wilderness Act in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks with the way it managed horse pack trips, the hikers association wants U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg to order the agency to rein-in the pack trips. 

In a motion (attached below) filed last week in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the hikers association asked Judge Seeborg to order the Park Service to reduce by 20 percent from 2007 levels the number of pack trips allowed into the parks' wilderness areas, and prohibit grazing of stock in wilderness meadows above 9,700 feet.

Additionally, the group said the court should order the Park Service to ban the hauling by stock of "unnecessary items" into wilderness areas. Such items, the filing noted, include "tables, chairs, ice chests, and amplified sound players."

Doing so, and ordering the Park Service to rewrite its management plan as it applies to pack trips, is necessary to protect wilderness areas, the association maintained.

Until now, commercial stock have trampled wilderness meadows, leaving their wilderness character impaired.  Commercial stock have also been used to carry unnecessary items and luxury goods into the wilderness, turning these national parks into theme parks and frustrating the enjoyment of (Sequoia and Kings Canyons)’s wilderness areas as wilderness.  Interim relief will avoid irreparable environmental injury to SEKI’s wilderness areas until NPS considers whether, and to what extent, commercial stock services are necessary.

The case has been making its way through the legal system since 2009. In its initial lawsuit, in September 2009, the hikers association 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.

But 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 back in January, Judge 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, 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."

In seeking injunctive relief at a hearing set for May 23, the hikers association cited past rulings by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the public's best interest is "in maintaining pristine wild areas unimpaired by man for future use and enjoyment." At the same time, the group's motion notes, the approach to managing backcountry horse trips at Sequoia and Kings Canyons is detrimental to those qualities.

"Letters from park visitors also reveal that current levels of commercial stock services frequently prevent visitors from enjoying the primeval character, solitude, and natural conditions associated with wilderness," the association's petition said.

In one letter, visitors said their trip was "ruined by the huge amount of dust created by stock animals”; another wrote that "(T)he character of the wilderness experience that we can usually count on when three or four days from the trailhead is completely destroyed when a large group of people camp in the area with all the comforts of home [which they have carried in using stock]”; and another stated that "instead of enjoying the pure alpine air, which is one of the points of a trip in the first place, hikers are forced to breathe a mixture of dust and powdered manure that creates air quality that would not be tolerated . . . on any freeway in California.”

The petition also pointed that "NPS acknowledged in the GMP that 'backcountry hikers often are disturbed by the impacts of stock use — the presence and smell of urine or feces, the potential introduction of alien weeds, heavily grazed and trampled meadows, dust, erosion, and some widened trails.'"

U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, somehow connected the hikers association's efforts with Obama administration. In a column on his blog last week the congressman wrote that:

Rural mountain communities are once again in the cross-hairs of liberal politicians and regulators. Having already devastated California’s mining and timber industries with laws and regulations limiting access to public lands, environmental radicals have moved full speed into a new round of limitations that impact recreational use of our National Parks. They want to eliminate the backcountry horsemen, the only means left by which the vast majority of Americans, including those with disabilities, are able to gain access to the American wilderness.

  Furthermore, Rep. Nunes maintained that "... the Obama Administration is pushing backcountry horsemen out of business at the same time it is urging Americans to “get outdoors.”

The White House could demonstrate an interest in protecting these “outdoor” jobs with a simple act – one that it has so far refused to entertain. The Administration simply needs to ask the court for a one year extension of existing permits. A one year extension would allow adequate time for the permitting process to be updated in order to reflect new wilderness requirements and it may spare the small but time honored industry from the chopping block.

  Meanwhile, over at, a petition drive aimed at U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, has gathered more than 1,300 signatures in support of horse trips into wilderness areas.

Horses allow access to your Federal lands when you are unable or unwilling to hike to reach the wilderness. Young people, old people or any person with a disability will lose their right to visit Sequoia National Park with the removal of this option of travel.

  But the matter at hand would not jeopardize anyone's right to visit Sequoia, nor would it place the park's wilderness, which comprises roughly 90 percent of the park's high country, out of reach. It could make obtaining a slot on a horse trek into the backcountry a bit more difficult, depending upon how Judge Seeborg rules. In that regard, though, some might equate that with the challenge of obtaining a room in the Yosemite Valley or at Old Faithful in Yellowstone.



Hi. I certainly have no vitriol. I'm also very familiar with the Backcountry Horseman minimum impact program. Many of you guys make a great effort and that effort is appreciated. Alas, I've seen little sign that it's been effective in the areas I've been in. I see very few private packers and the ones I have seen haven't been through the minimum impact program. Private packers, though, cause very little impact even though the ones I run into never seem to get the information (or aren't interested in getting the information) on where to graze; how to tie their animals; how to rake out their manure etc.). But they're out enjoying their National Park and wilderness and that's great. I really have no problem with private parties. There's few of them and their overall impact is low. The current HSHA lawsuit and subseqent ruling doesn't affect them at all. It's directed at commercial packers only.

Still, however "minimum" you make the impact of a horse or mule, it's still going to be 10 times or more that of a human on foot. There's nothing you can do about that. That's not vitriol, that's just basic facts.

You know how much a horse weighs; you know how much grass they eat; how much manure they leave; how much dust they churn up (erosion). There's no way around it. Once again, the idea is for all of us to reduce our impact. You guys do a terrific job, but there's only so far you can take it. The suit argues, correctly I believe, that the impacts can be major and that there ought to be places where visitors can see and experience meadows free of stock use. That's not the same as prohibiting stock -- just looking for a compromise.

Again, it's not zero sum. Because hikers leave diapers does not somehow mean stock users can churn up meadows, which is implied by your argument.

But, anyway, glad you're hauling it out!


I don't know how you missed it, but for the last 30 years or so the Back Country Horsemen of America have been been teaching "Leave No Trace" practices in the backcountry at no cost to equestrians, hikers, bikers, and anyone who wants to use the back country. There are members of my own unit, High Sierra, who have lived and worked here for 70 years. Their families go back to the 1800's. Do you seriously think we somehow have decided that it's a good idea to go and destroy it now? I can't remember a trip I have ever taken in which I dragged out more trash than we brought in, and I'm talking two trash bags/horse. And it's all hiker trash, believe me. I know it's a real thrill for your infant to get to see the wilderness before she can talk, but it's not such a thrill for me to haul out her diapers.

Maybe you ought to check us out. You could get surprised. You could learn something about the land you're walking through. You could learn something about how to take care of it. And maybe you could could teach us a bit about why there is so much vitriol.

Nope, it's just you Connie. Lots of other topics around here also get dog-chewwed to death and back, usually by True Believers versus Like Wow Duders and a nice mix of Old Farts for seasoning. But you'll always find what you find here so go for it.

Is it just me or has this article spurred more discussion than just about any other? The topic must have deeper threads than are obvious.

To "tahoma" & "anony," All of your points are very well taken (and I agree). But since we've been talking about Sequoia & Kings Canyon NPs (SEKI) here, there are some additional relevant facts to consider. First "anony" re: weed-free feed: The NPS at SEKI does not require the use of weed-free feed. Ecologists and conservationists have for years asked SEKI to adopt such a rule, but it won't. In fact, SEKI just spent 10 years writing a new General Management Plan, and all it says about weeds is that: (1) NPS "encourages" (but does not require) the use of weed-free feed; and (2) SEKI will "monitor" weed poplulations and remove them once they become established (a reactionary instead of preventive approach, using whatever means, including chemical herbicides, helicopters, etc.). In sum, SEKI remains firmly mired in the past on this issue (and so many others), far behind what other places are doing.

In re: "tahoma," an important point to consider is that the vast majority (nearly all) of stock camps used by commercial outfitters at SEKI have large barren campsite cores with rocks and/or logs already in camp for sitting. Folks wouldn't need to pull new rocks/logs from the landscape to facilitate sitting in most places. This could be addressed further by requiring commercial stock parties to use established and/or designated campsites, as is done in other areas to control impacts.

In response to the "seed" issue and the spread of weeds by stock, that particular issue has been to a great degree (documented), been solved by the requirement of weed free feed being used in most areas of Federal Land.
This is not the case in the human caused dispersal of White Nose Syndrome, an extremely fatal affliction that has the potential for ravaging the nation's bat populations that have very dire repercussions.
Whatever the conflicts that some have (Stock Issue) whether they are substantive or just personal preferences asserted in creative ways I'd like resolutions that reflect respect for individuals in their effort to gain more connectedness to the wilds (and themselves).

What cracks me up is people quote Muir and the Wilderness Act to prove a point. Yet so much in the world has changed since Muir walked through any of these areas. Do you think Muir's view of the future included Trams and parking lots? Even the Wilderness act originally stated "No Permanent Roads" Yet here we are today. Man has not only paved roads through wilderness areas, but he has worn trails from hiking, as well as horses!
If you are going to use these examples to prove a point please note that both the original document and Muir would not even recognize these areas today. Every piece of pavement you drove on and every worn trail you hiked are there for the convenance of you, just as the horses are.

I want to respond to a point made by walkin' Jim: "...some people may desire a chair because they may be uncomfortable sitting on the ground. If that's so, a member of the group could simply roll a rock or log into position for them to sit upon. (That's what wilderness visitors have done for ages.)"

Plants and soil invertebrates probably need that rock or log left in place to survive, so such behavior is really not very low-impact camping in the long run, whether using stock or not. Repeated trips to nearby unmoved rock and log 'furniture' is also a large factor in expanding bare ground to many thousands of square feet at popular campsites. At Seven Lakes Basin and other revegetated backcountry sites in Olympic, large flat blocks of rock were helicoptered to campsites to try and prevent this expansion of bare ground.

I don't know about tables and ice chests, but a few folding chairs in a top-load is probably not going to increase the number of stock required on any given pack trip. I do know that when Olympic was drafting stock use rules, it was suggested that perhaps one valley on both the east and west sides remain closed to stock to act as baselines to gauge impacts. The idea died when every backcountry stock campsite in the park was found to have exotic weeds already long-established.

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