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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.


Mt. Sister:
"Muir viewed stock for what they are, no more, no less: Necessary for some to visit wilderness, but harmful to both the land and to the experience of unencumbered travel. And there is no evidence that Muir hauled unnecessary luxuries or comforts such as being discussed here (camp furniture, etc.)."
I am pretty familiar with your impressions on stock and your slant on other issues as well. I certainly don't disparage you personally knowing my own personal growth but those impressions you hold are at the core of so much of the acrimony today. Finding haven in an increasing legalistic elements of society which does not add to real happiness for anyone other than some sort of warm fuzzy (lawyering victory) by getting your way. For your own benefit and for the rest of us I will pray for breakthroughs. Respectfully
"Horses aren’t lazy and they’re not greedy and they’re not jealous and they’re not spiteful, they’re not hateful. They’re not that way. But the human can sometimes only describe a horse in the way that they view other human beings."
- Buck Brannaman

Don't forget "elitist" as one of the negative code words one group routinely uses for people of differing viewpoint. Im not going to call anyone elitist or anything else as I agree with walkin ' Jim about having civil discourse to discuss issues. Should we consider management of national lands as nothing more than a type of national zoning? The word "wilderness" must have specific meaning and management. To be honest I'm fine with some wilderness land be held to an even higher standard, maybe something like a limited quota with a licences guide. It is more important for me to know that there some areas are as wild as we can maintain them than allowing unrestricted access. I'd want a diverse group of people with varying interests to make those judgements. You should always be able to learn something from someone with a different viewpoint.

Calling people names such as "extreme," "closed-minded," and "liberal" is unproductive and it precludes civil discourse about the issues at hand. And such accusations are not (in this case at least) even supported by the facts. The truth here is that the High Sierra Hikers Assoc (the plaintiff in this case) represents thousands of hikers from all walks of life, many of whom are themselves stock users, and the HSHA is seeking here only reasonable limits on commercial services as required by law. And a panel of judges, including both liberal and conservative justices, has ruled unanimously that the Wilderness Act means what it says: commercial services must be limited to the extent necessary. See:

Rather than name calling, why don't folks at least read the Wilderness Act and the HSHA's request to the court, and then if you disagree, articulate where and why.

Biker, Mr. Mike, Not Necessary, Rant, and others: If you disagree with the law, why don't you come out and say that you disagree with the law? Your generic whining about "extreme" environmentalists and "liberal" judges falls flat, especially when your only proposed solutions are far more extreme (i.e., suggesting that everyone stay out of wilderness). Why are you calling people extreme or liberal simply for exercising their right to uphold the law of the land? Can't we attack the issues and not the persons?

"Yes, extreme environmenalists are THE problem. If they care as much as they say they do they'd just ban themselves from the Wilderness.
So if you are a Wilderness Avocate why not do the responsible thing and stay out of the Wilderness since you are so GREAT at wanting to ban everyone else that's human powered why not do the right thing and get out of the Wilderness yourselves. For the children and the animals (that should make you feel good, right -do the right thing for a change)"

I can not agree more. Just lock out all people. We are the problem! leave the Wilderness for the animals. We don't belong there.
Would make all the Closed Minded Envriomental Groups happy.

"Rant" bemoans what s/he perceives to be a "deragatory attitude toward commercial interests" and complains that "the law now days [sic] seems to be more subjective and changing than ever before."

Let's review the facts... The Wilderness Act of 1964, a truly bi-partisan law, passed the House of Representatives FIFTY YEARS AGO (not "now days") on a vote of 373-1. It passed the Senate by 73-12. It has not "changed" (i.e., been significantly amended) since it was signed into law nearly 50 years ago.

Congress enacted the Wilderness Act "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."

The Act generally prohibits commercial enterprise in wilderness areas, but provides a very narrow exception for the authorization of commercial services to the "extent necessary" for activities which are proper for realizing the recreational or other wilderness purposes of the areas.

Congress understood when it adopted the Wilderness Act that it could not meet the over-arching preservation goals of the Act if business and profits were supreme. Our elected representatives made a conscious decision that profits would be subordinate to preservation on the very small percentage of our public lands that we call "wilderness."

The Act is clear that commercial services in wilderness are to be limited to those that are truly necessary. Some commenters above apparently disagree with this requirement. But that doesn't mean they are right; it means that they disagree with the law -- a visionary, bi-partisan law that was passed generations ago.

Congress meant when it overwhelmingly passed the Wilderness Act that commercial services would be limited to those that are truly necessary. The reason this issue has now ended up in court is that the commercial packers and public agencies have refused to follow the law. Our third branch of government (the judiciary) exists to ensure that our executive and legislative branches follow the law. It's the American way.

One final fact: the plaintiffs in this case have never asked to ban commercial services, only that they be limited to the extent necessary as required by law.

"Commercial services may not be provided in Wilderness unless they are truly necessary."

The continued derogatory attitude toward "Commercial" interests while these providers give opportunity to the least and most infirm of people in all categories is unfortunate. In one case while gutting public (including the handicapped) opportunity for the Iconic Grand Canyon Mule Rides the mules are still carrying an estimated 7000 hiker duffells in support of hiker adventures in "managed as Wilderness" areas in the Canyon. The "truly necessary" argument is subjective in it's application.

"What's wrong with following the law?"

The law now days seems to be more subjective and changing than ever before with resulting loss to the public. To the point where leaders pick and choose which ones to enforce by an ever increasing extremist element. Abuses of the EI process by arrogant, crony leaders threatening career employees while currying retirement jobs (advising about suits/strategy against the agency) with extreme environmental groups. Activism in and out of the Park system, abuse of EI procedures, crony leadership insuring lucrative career paths with lack of oversite for poor or illegal decisions made in official capacities. Just following the Law if it were universal would indeed be an improvement if it were not for those that circumvent it and simply use it when it suits their interests.

John Muir used but at the same time despised horses:

"Yosemite was all one glorious flower garden before plows and scythes and trampling, biting horses came to make its wide open spaces look like farmers' pature fields."

Muir viewed stock for what they are, no more, no less: Necessary for some to visit wilderness, but harmful to both the land and to the experience of unencumbered travel. And there is no evidence that Muir hauled unnecessary luxuries or comforts such as being discussed here (camp furniture, etc.).

The law seems simple enough: Commercial services may not be provided in wilderness unless they are truly necessary. If it isn't necessary, commercial outfits should leave it at the trailhead. As was already said above, the extra animals needed to carry the unnecessary stuff harms the land, and the night-time parties facilitated by all that unnecessary stuff harms the experience of other wilderness visitors. What's wrong with just following the law?

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