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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."


To answer your point directly, we all impact each other. However, it does not say in the Act, nor do I believe the intent was, that wilderness can only be enjoyed hiking or riding a horse. The issue is that you assimilate (wrongly I would propose) that bicycles are modern creations that are incompatible with wilderness and therefore with your enjoyment of it.  Bicycles have been around for ever. Heck, even Leonardo da Vinci had a prototype (although I doubt that it would work well off road).  Bicycles are no more creations of a modern world than your carbon fiber hiking poles. They're not incompatible with wilderness in any rational way. I ride all over the place and have all kinds of primitive experiences while riding.  Most places, you see nary a sould two miles from the trailhead.

The issue at hand is not rational, but rather based on moral judgement (i.e. hiking is more primitive and more compatible with wilderness than biking).  I don't agree that you (not you personnally, but a more generic you) should impose your moral values on me. I can't help if my cycling enjoyment of nature impacts your perception of your surroundings.  It's not a private good set aside for the enjoyment of the chosen few. 

George, it is important to understand that the Wilderness Act does not ban bicycles. Not specifically. It bans "mechanical transport," a very broad category, and the federal agencies later picked and chose which forms of mechanical transport they would allow and which they wouldn't.

They did this with minimal public input and only after waffling year after year whether bicycles should be allowed.

So when you say bicycles are excluded because the law says so, you're relying entirely on a strikingly wobbly body of administrative, agency-created law.

[color=navy]As an equestrian, trail advocate and trail maintenance volunteer, I don’t have a problem with examining the issue of stock use in these areas. Obviously there is overgrazing in some
national forests and, perhaps, national parks, as well.   And there is always a fine line between making wilderness available to all, and protecting that same wilderness.  I usually come down on the side that allowing more access to wilderness and natural areas creates more advocacy for protection, and thus ultimately enhances natural areas.  But every case is slightly different and no one rule or regulation justly applies to all areas.[/color]

[color=navy]I have worked on the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails for nearly 3 weeks over the years, and in all cases the stock animals that supplied those expeditions, which lasted far longer,  greatly enhanced their effectiveness. It’s odd that one of the comments decries negative impact of the Back Country Horsemen in, IIRC, Olympia National Park without noting the tremendous contributions to better trails made by BCH units not just there but all over the country.  Without their help and organizing, a lot of the trails that hikers use, including large PCT sections, would be impassible. Looking back a bit, it is not an exaggeration to note that many of our most treasured historic trails were built by equestrians.[/color]

[color=navy]These days, I am primarily a hiker, so I find it unfortunate that a hiker’s organization would file this kind of suit. I think horses do far more for the trails than any damage they might sometimes cause, damage that could be avoided with sensible, rather than blanket, restrictions.  Although the damage from manure is imaginary, and there seems to be solid evidence that stock does not spread invasive, non-native species, I certainly would not rule out the possibility that in places overuse can have negative trail impacts.  But it should be considered on a case-by-case basis.[/color]

That's an informative comment, Morris, with valuable information about the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails. I appreciate your first-hand perspective.

The High Sierra Hikers Association does seem strongly oriented against horse and packstock use in public lands. See its home page:

Also, if you look toward the end of this HSHA newsletter, you'll see that at least one packer reviles the organization. Here's the link:

In that same newsletter, you'll see that HSHA has unflattering things to say about the NPS staff at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It's interesting and disturbing reading.

If we just kept people out of the parks, forests, and Federal Lands, there wouldn't be any problem.


I dunno. To me and, apparently the NPS & USFS, "mechanical
transport" means no bicycles. Seems like they could have said
"motorized" or, hmmm, "fossil fuel powered" and made it
clear that human powered was OK. I can't think of any other type of transport
that's allowed that falls into a gray area. It's either foot or on top of
something with hoofs – clearly neither are mechanical. Is there something else
in that broad category that's allowed and would weaken the case? (with the
possible exception of wheelchairs under ADA).

So when you say bicycles are excluded because the law says so, you're
relying entirely on a strikingly wobbly body of administrative, agency-created

However wobbly you want to present it, it is law and shows no sign of being
overturned or changed – not really all that wobbly… .  My main experience
is as a ranger in an area now Wilderness. And I cheerfully admit I'm not
familiar with the history of how bikes were banned, but in the western parks
I'm familiar with, bikes have never been allowed past paved roads in the 40+
years of my career. No citation that either myself or my colleagues have given
for a bike in Wilderness (a very, very few) has ever been dismissed.

I definitely agree with you that most legislators don't want to touch it.
But I strongly disagree that bicycling or any other form of mechanical
transport is not a serious intrusion on wilderness character. All regulations
and court decisions derived from the Wilderness Act support a strict and
protective interpretation. Otherwise, what's the point? Why even have a
Wilderness Act if you're not going to try to preserve what we call wilderness.

Can someone explain how as a matter of law (rather than just some set
of personal preferences that might be asserted or factors that might be
hypothesized) mountain biking is not primitive but backpacking with
advanced water-repellent fabrics, bright colors, sophisticated packs, sleeping
bags made in China, GPS's, white-gas camp stoves, iPods, iPads, and satellite
phones is primitive?

Well, I'll take a stab at it, though it's pretty clear we're not going to
agree on this. Setting the premise of not allowing "personal
preferences" is kind of wobbly in itself but I'll soldier on with those
constraints! Our attitudes towards wilderness have been shaped by the history
of the conservation movement and are rooted in both the westward expansion and
the transcendentalism of Emerson, Thoreau & Muir.

They gave people a new way of looking at the land, different from the
resource-extractive and utilitarian attitudes of the 18th & 19th centuries.
Attitudes or, if I may, personal preferences changed. People began to value
places that appeared to be wild and untouched. By the early 20th century those
personal preferences were codified into laws -- the Organic Act for the
National Park Service as well as the creation of the Forest Service and reserves
for each.

Later in the 20th century, it became apparent that the few remaining wild
places were being destroyed at a frightening rate -- sub divisions, roads built
everywhere, inundated by dams. The environmental movement starting in the 60s
-- the personal preferences of a sizeable and vocal group of hippies,
conservationists such as Brower and Stegner and many others -- led to a second
great awakening: the creation of the Wilderness Act. Also the Environmental
Protection Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air & etc. A very productive period.

Which led, alas, to banning bikes in National Parks and Wilderness areas in
general. The semi-bright line between hi-tech fabrics, GPS etc and bikes is the
level of intrusion on the experience that users feel when they encounter such
things while traveling. The phrase "mechanical transport" is not
random nor wobbly. Other stuff intrudes on wilderness – absolutely -- but so
far is tolerated by users. So it does, in fact, come down to personal
preferences to a great degree. It is exactly those preferences that directly
led to the laws as well as agency and court interpretations of those laws. In
that sense, they're inseparable.


You're right that we don't agree (at least not entirely), but I think you've made an excellent argument for your point of view—one that many obviously share. I appreciate your taking the time to answer.

Very few things in the law are certain, and whether bikes are allowed in Wilderness is not among those few things. Good legal arguments can be made on both sides. However, the fact that there's this debate is significant. Ten years ago, almost everyone accepted that the Wilderness Act banned bicycles because it prohibits "mechanical transport," and the debate ended there. Because it's become uncertain since about 2005, the debate has shifted to policy, a much more fruitful area for discussion, as the second part of your reply illustrates.

You mention that you're a ranger and that you and your colleagues have issued very few citations to cyclists in Wilderness. Is that because there is so much Wilderness and so few visitors that the chances of encountering anyone in the average Wilderness (let alone someone on a bicycle) are slim?

I know that the Desolation Wilderness in California is heavily used, and I hear that the Maroon Bells south of Aspen, Colo., are so impacted in the summer that private cars aren't allowed at trailheads anymore—you have to take a bus. But I have the impression that a great number of Wilderness areas hardly receive any human visitation. You must know the answer to this, or at least have an idea. I'd be curious to know, since I doubt I'll see even 1% of Wilderness areas during my lifetime.

[Deleting duplicate post.]

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