With their commercial use permits on hold, horse pack operators in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks aren't taking trip reservations and are nervously awaiting a May 23 hearing at which U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg will outline the next steps in a federal lawsuit filed by the High Sierra Hikers Association and dating back to 2009.
The suit accuses the National Park Service of violating the Wilderness Act of 1964 when it approved a General Management Plan and adopted permits for commercial pack and saddle stock enterprises that operate within Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. It says the NPS does not designate an upper limit on horse and mule use in the parks, in which most land falls under Wilderness Act protection, and this leads to "soil erosion, degradation of wildlife habitat, bacterial contamination of water, introduction of invasive weeds, and other harm to park resources."
In January, Judge Seeborg ruled that by failing, in its 2007 general management plan for Sequoia & Kings Canyon Parks, to make its case for the extent to which commercial stock use is necessary in wilderness areas, the NPS did violate the Wilderness Act. That's what led to the commercial use permits being suspended.
The suspended permits are fueling a long-standing debate between hikers and horse packers about the appropriate use of stock on backcountry trails. The general sentiment among hikers is that the use of pack animals needs to be more limited on trails, especially in high alpine areas, and some complain that limits on backcountry hiking permits should be matched by limits on commercial operations. You can really delve into the arguments in this six-age-deep comment thread.
Most posters there are being civil and writing thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, some of which really needle in on the concepts of wilderness and what is and isn't appropriate use of wilderness areas. Some compare the current health of the wilderness areas in question to their status in the late 50s, when cattle grazing and stock use was very high and their negative impacts on the landscape more significant.
U.S. Congressman Devin Nunes, on the other hand, is casting the court case as a job killer levied by "well-funded radicals." He also makes the mystifying claim that "the vast majority of Americans" have no means of gaining access to the American wilderness without the services of "backcountry horsemen."
--Mary Catherine O'Connor