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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."


I like it Rick B.  Going one step further.  When the trails are iced over and hikers are falling like flies, that green stuff and the etching of the ice those winter shoes provide, following the green is the safest path :).  "Can't we just get along," lol?

Rick, for what it's worth, while in the Bechler area of Yellowstone last fall, a buddy and I had the unpleasant fate of hiking not far behind a ranger on his steed with one in tow with his gear. The trail itself was probably 6-8 inches deep in places, with thick brush and rocks on the sides. Sure, careful stepping helped avoid most of the manure, but this went on for a few miles. It's really amazing how much forage they process!

Also, we came across a few wet areas and stream banks where horses had not only trampled the immediate area in and around the trail, but also had cut away a stream bank by about 4 feet perpendicular to the streambed where they came out after fording the stream.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but it is an issue in some areas.

Ranger Andy,
Let me summarize your argument.  It starts with: "the Wilderness Act bans bicycles".  Then, cyclists explain how that is incorrect.  Then, you move on to "well, it's dangerous interaction (about you show me statistics to back your assertion), trails were not designed with cyclists in mind (true, but usually not an issue) and frankly, get off your bike and walk like the rest of us".
I've seen that argument repeated over and over, and it's really funny. It just goes to prove my initial assertion that historical users are simply not interested in sharing wilderness. Furthermore, it has become some kind of value issue where hikers feel that they somehow know how to enjoy the outdoors more truthfully than cyclists.  Clearly, it's just a matter of personal opinion and should have no bearing on whether cyclists should be allowed or not in wilderness. 
On a personal note, hiking bores me to death, and horses don't interest me (I rode in the Sierras, and I don't like the pace nor the fact that I'm so high off the ground), but I respect the fact that others might enjoy it. Ultimately, that's the real difference between Ranger Andy and I.  
I foresee that somebody will challenge the interpretation of the Act in court, and most likely will win. I just don't know how much longer we'll have to suffer the inequity.  In the meantime, it looks like equestrians will also feel the pain of being kicked out of the outdoors.

Ranger Andy,

A letter in today's New York Times captures your view perfectly:

"While both sides of this debate have a moral foundation upon which to
stand, only one side tries to insist that the other live according to
its morals."

That's your side, of course, as you've perfectly demonstrated in your post.

Somewhere a mining company executive is hoping your view continues to prevail. The less Wilderness, the better, as far as he/she is concerned.


I don't understand the rhetorical question that's Part II of your 10:45 a.m. post, but I can address the first part. I'll quote it:

" 'The ban hurts wilderness advocates probably more than anyone else'??? I'd say the biggest impediment to more wilderness designations are the Western congressional delegations."

You may be right that the Western congressional delegation is the greatest impediment to Wilderness expansion. However, I am sure that I'm right that the bicycle ban does more to negatively impact Wilderness advocacy than to negatively impact anything or anyone else. Both statements can be correct, with no logical conflict.

Ecbuck buttressed my point in a post above: "BTW - I do believe that bicycles should be allowed. Its been one of the major stumbling blocks for those pushing Hidden Gems."

imtnbke, it was rhetorical because I didn't want to accuse bikers or equestrians of being unpure;-)

But I'm curious how you reach your conclusion that the bicycle ban is such an impediment to wilderness designation? What do you base that statement on? Surveys show there are millions more Americans involved in trail running, jogging, and hiking than in mountain biking.

Considering that, how powerful is the biking lobby? If wilderness were opened to bikes, would mountain bikers be able to push wilderness designation legislation through Congress?

The Wilderness Act (Section 4(c)) prohibits "mechanical transport", of which bikes qualify. Exceptions are limited to the minimum requirements for the administration of area for the purpose of wilderness. Thats the language of the law not an "administrative reinterpretation".

Please see the rebuttal above. 
More here:
Knowledge is power. :)

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