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 change.org 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 change.org, 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.