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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.


The assumptions made here by "Anonymous" about the intentions of High Sierra Hikers are incorrect. The HSHA has numerous concerns about excessive and inappropriate commercial uses of the Sequoia-Kings Wilderness. Just a few examples: Fragile alpine wetlands & lakeshores are being routinely and repeatedly trampled into mud; almost all the meadows along the trail corridors are affected by grazing, and the NPS refuses to consider requiring stock users to pack feed for nights spent in sensitive high-elevation areas (as is required at many other national parks). There are no limits on the number of pack outfits, and no annual limits on the number of pack trips, number of clients, or total number of stock that graze in these parks. (At the same time, wilderness permits for non-commercial visitors are strictly limited and tightly controlled.)  An outfitter simply pays the $200 annual fee and can run as many trips as they want. The HSHA is asking only for reasonable limits and controls to protect the high places. The lawsuit does not affect private stock users in any way. If the commercial outfits or NPS had been pro-active, they would adopt modern practices, minimize the number of animals by leaving unnecessary stuff at home, and there would be no problem. But as long as the commercial packers and agencies remian mired in the past, resist any change or upper limits on commercial uses, there will be continued conflict and unpredictability.

I second walkin' Jim. Hikers enthusiastically embraced minimum impact decades ago and significantly reduced their footprint (so to speak) on the land. On the whole, stock users have never done so. Significantly, there's a few exceptions who show that it can be done and done well.

It would be great (as I mentioned elsewhere) if all of this this badly misplaced alarum and fright would instead generate a critical look by people who travel with stock on how they can go about reducing their impact when in wilderness areas. That not a single stock user who's posted here has done so is significant and, really, the reason the court had to step in.

Watching hikers going after equestrians is pretty fun, being a cyclist and all. :)

You know, there is no "right to visit" a national park. Read the Organic Act of 1916, the parks are "preserved unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Not you! The NPS wouldn't say that out loud, wouldn't be PC, but it's true. The NPS is tasked iwth managing these places as a trust for people who aren't even born yet, and must default to whatever policy or practice does the best job of keeping them unimpaired.
It's not about YOU. Get over it.

To:  Anonymous (not verified) on April 9, 2012 - 7:59pm.

That is an absolutely excellent comment.  I had never thought of it that way, but it's absolutely correct.  Or at least it should be.

Yes, "It's not about you" is the perfect line for all in this conversation to take to heart and not just directed to the other side of the divide.  Always interesting the attitudes of some of those raised in concrete jungles toward those living connected so closely to livestock and the outdoors without understanding it.  Goes both ways, I know, lol.  What I'm trying to get at is there shouldn't be a divide in a right world.  Nature ruined the Donner Party's "adventure into the wilderness" so dust on the trail ruining one commenters experience seems a bit...well, a part of the growth wilderness learning curve.  Get over it and enjoy the environs everyone.   

The Jones's bill is an insane piece of legislation that is pandering to a small but vocal group of special interest users. CHNS is in congressman Jones's home district.The bill proposes that the old interim plan be used until a new new plan can be formed by the Park.  The old interim plan, besides not sufficiently protecting resources basically designates the entire Seashore Beach as an ORV route.There would be few to no vehicle free areas for visitors to enjoy. This bill would be a dangerous precedent  for all National Parks.
The NPCA will fight this bill hard.

So how do all those heavy backpacks and comforts get to all the High Sierra Camps (Mules)? Just don't let anyone (Handicapped) pay a fee and ride in ?  Will the eleetist HSHA go after these camps next furthering what they've started?

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