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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."


What a bunch of babies !   Talk about class warfare.  No more wilderness!  

How about a 5 year trial limiting the commercial use of stock/pack trips to the dry season? This would be a compromise based on the fact that the use of stock is less damaging in the dry seasons. It would allow people on both sides of the issue to enjoy the parks, and bring in revenue from the companies running the trips. If the 5 year trial shows it is still too damaging to use stock in the parks even in the dry season, then it could be banned. As for hikers having to watch their step around the organic fertilizer, well the wild life also poop and tinkle, and leave their messes around. Many of them also use the trails, as it is an easier way to get around.--Some of the trails were probably made by the wild animals. Don't forget to wear a hat while you are out there, and not just for sun protection. The birds poop and tinkle, too.

Now if they could just do this in Rocky Mountain NP! There, it's the lower elevation trails that are being pounded to death by hooves, eroded to dust and cobbles, and buried in manure.

I can testify to NPS management's "romantic" attachment to stock use in the parks, but they often emphasize the historic tradition and minimize the associated ecological damage and other costs. The Park Service continues to be much better at wilderness rhetoric than complying with the Wilderness Act.

Stock use has additional impacts that are not mentioned above, especially the introduction of exotic vegetation. Horses and mules increase rates of erosion on trail grades as well as causing widened, braded and muddy tread on the flats. The damage increases exponentially with the size of the pack string. Stock trails require a higher standard and more expensive maintenance, so the NPS essentially subsidizes this very small user group.

For decades at Olympic, volunteers from the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington were allowed to carry both weapons and chainsaws. The park bought several dead horses resulting their from attempts to 'improve' steep, primitive way trails unsuitable for stock use. Many staff at Mount Rainier blame visitor trampling for the trail damage in the Paradise area, but this is mostly a legacy of decades of NPS sponsored concession pack trips avoiding lingering snow banks.

Quite a few parks like Olympic maintain expensive government packstrings that only work for a minority of the year. The seasonal supply support of trail crews and backcountry ranger stations could be accomplished much more cheaply by contracting with local packers. On the other hand, wilderness helicopter use increased dramatically at Mount Rainier after their pack string was eliminated.

I find this story fascinating.  Apparently, the NPS has no problem with horses trampling and destroying nature, but if cyclists want to have access to national park trails, somehow, trail erosion becomes an issue.  Oh the hypocrisy!!
I think that the real issue is that inherently, nobody in governmental agencies want to rock the boat.  It does not further one's career to change anything, so everybody keeps going along with whatever is the current order of the day, regardless of fairness or need to change.  When one reads the details of the case above, it's pretty clear that the NPS dragged its feet and stalled the issue for as long as they could.  My guess is that nobody at the NPS wanted to change anything because 1) that requires more work and 2) they were afraid of negative repercussions from rocking the boat.
We may have to sue the NPS to gain meaningful access for bikes as well.
Pardon my cynicism.

Zebulon - rightly or wrongly bikes are specifically excluded by the language of the Wilderness Act- horses aren't.

Anonymous.  That's incorrect.  The Act did not ban bikes, an administrative reinterpretation of the Act did.  Furthermore, a good chunk of the NPS is not in wilderness.

Not all of us are healthy enough for hiking but still enjoy exploring Nature's beauty by horseback. This reminds me of librarians who want funding for big, beautiful libraries but don't want anyone to actually visit and enjoy them for fear they may have to accommodate them. The last time I went horseback riding I found two hikers chopping down a tree to feed their fire because they were ill-equipped for the weather. Needless to say, after my lecture and call to the park ranger, they probably despise equestrians but no one is trying to take away their rights and enjoyment of parks we all pay for.

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