This Land Might Not Be Your Land

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It’s the final confrontation in nearly every Hollywood Western, when the man in the white hat faces the man in the black hat on a dusty main street and the infamous words are uttered: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”

Fast forward to 2001 and the scenario is still playing out; yet now you have two good guys—the recreational trail rider and the environmentalist—and the town is America’s public lands. It’s a story about good intentions and conflicting perspectives. Each places high value on America’s open spaces and wants to preserve our nation’s backcountry for future generations. So where do they disagree? It’s in how these two players define the word “conservation.”

For many horse people and recreationists, America’s state parks, national forests and federally designated Wilderness Areas offer some of the last open spaces for trail riding, camping, hunting, biking, hiking and fishing. For the environmentalist, these same areas represent some of the last remaining safe havens for biological diversity and endangered and threatened species. The recreational trail rider wants to conserve public access to these lands, while a growing number of environmentalists want to conserve the land’s resources—even if it means barring the public.

Today, there are some 645 million acres of federally managed public lands. Included in all that land is the National Wilderness Preservation System, which was created by Congress in 1964 under the Wilderness Act to set aside certain federal lands where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and motorized equipment and commercial ventures are banned. While certain forms of passive recreation such as horseback riding and hiking are still allowed, the Act allows the local managers of these lands to further restrict any activities if they compromise the land’s natural state.

As the government’s land responsibilities increase, so does the scrutiny of environmental watchdogs such as the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and The Center for Biological Diversity. For instance, the latter, a group that monitors all federal land management plans and endangered species issues in the West, has shown that even passive recreation like horseback riding and hiking negatively affected the lambing season of the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep. Says David Hogan of the center’s Berkeley, Calif., office, “We have very little argument with equestrian use in the backcountry. Horse riding can be enjoyed with minimal effects on the environment. But just like any recreational use, it needs to be managed with an eye to protection, as is the case with the seasonal restrictions on horse riding through bighorn sheep lambing and watering habitat in the Palm Springs area.”

So what does all this mean to the recreationist, or more specifically, to horse people who enjoy trail riding in America’s national parks and forests? It could mean that portions of these areas will no longer be accessible to the public due to road closures or stricter environmental policies.

Getting Equestrians Involved

According to the American Horse Council, there are 7.1 million people involved in the horse industry, and roughly 4.3 million participate in recreational horseback riding, making it the largest segment of the industry.

“I think the strength of the equestrian community is its size and potential for volunteerism, but its weakness is that it is disjointed—different disciplines tend to keep to themselves,” says Anne Taylor, a member of the Texas Equestrian Trail Riders Association (TETRA) in Austin, Texas. “By the time the various clubs get wind of movements to restrict land use, it’s too late. I find that trail riding is one of the few areas that all equestrians can agree they enjoy.”

The Equestrian Land Conservation Resource (ELCR), founded in 1997 and established as a non-profit in 1999, is a national organization that understands land preservation is critical to the future of the horse industry. “One thing all horse people have in common is the need for land,” says Kandee Haertel, ELCR executive director. “We’re trying to wake up the equestrian world to the need for land conservation and to unify it to act on land issues as an industry.”

ELCR, which acts as an information clearinghouse on conserving both pubic and private land for equestrian use, also focuses on teaching equestrians how to 1) develop partnerships with conservation groups to become allies in environmental preservation, and 2) develop relationships with those responsible for making land management decisions.

“The key is to be non-adversarial,” says Haertel. “What do we have in common, as opposed to where are we in dispute? The extremists on both sides will never come together, but there are a lot of people who are on the middle ground.”

But why are some land managers and environmentalists against horseback riding in the national forests, parks and Wilderness Areas? Aren’t equestrians nature-loving people who respect the great outdoors? Not always, according to Marvin Trask, national director of Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA), a group established in 1973 to perpetuate the use of livestock in the backcountry. “Very often the horse users are our worst enemy,” he explains. “We still see horsemen who are tying their horses to trees, leaving them and letting them paw on the roots. That’s why we get people to join our clubs and read our publications that address treating the land with a little more respect. They probably wouldn’t worry about horses in the backcountry if everybody treated it right.”

According to Jane Hendron, public affairs officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Carlsbad, Calif., recreationists—including horseback riders—provide many benefits to federal land managers through volunteer work. “That’s part of being a good responsible steward,” she says. “If you want to use the resources, perhaps there are opportunities to help maintain those resources.” Through volunteer work, horse people can show federal agencies and conservation groups that they are an asset to public lands, thereby bringing more credit to the equestrian argument when land-management issues arise.

Proactive measures are part of the mission for the Shawnee Trail Conservancy, a grassroots organization that advocates multiple use of trails in the National Shawnee Forest in Illinois. It regularly assists the local Forest Service rangers with trail maintenance and documentation, as well as with disseminating the “pack it in, pack it out” message by handing out posters and flyers at campsites. “I know we have our side and [the environmentalists have] their side, but we’re not as far apart as people think,” says Bill Blackorby, president of the conservancy. “They always say the horse people are ruining the forest and we’re stomping over the rare and endangered species and that’s not true. Horse people love nature; they love the forest, and that’s why they’re out there.”

Down in Central Texas, members from a regional TETRA chapter have collaborated with the local state park service to serve as mounted ranger patrol volunteers during periods of heavy visitor traffic this spring. And across the country on the West Coast, a number of BCHA members in California have built strong relationships with the California Conservation Corps, Americorps and the U.S. Forest Service in providing educational opportunities and logistical support to California Conservation Youth crews who work in camps located in designated Wilderness Areas.

“Our focus has been to show how livestock can be used in a responsible manner as the only logistical non-mechanized support available for people living, working and recreating in the backcountry,” explains Alan Hill, BCHA national chairperson.

Opportunities to Voice Your Concerns

Equestrians will have plenty of opportunities to become involved with land-management issues within national forests over the next three years. According to the U.S. Forest Service, approximately 60 percent of the country’s 122 national forests will be updating their land and resource plans, which are the general guidelines upon which all planning efforts are based for the next 10 to 15 years.

During these updates, Forest Service personnel will be implementing a new planning rule, announced last November by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, that places more emphasis on public participation and science integration when developing management plans for our nation’s forests.

“The new planning rule allows a more focused approach,” explains Tom White, land management planner with the U.S. Forest Service. He said that instead of addressing all aspects of forestland management, the new plan allows the public and scientists to give their input during a series of public workshops on what needs to be addressed with the forest’s land management activities. Those concerns then are taken into consideration when the Forest Service enters the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 process—an inventory and analysis stage that ensures a balance is maintained between nature and man’s activities. In the old forest plan, the public didn’t become involved until after the NEPA process began.

Furthermore, many of these forests haven’t undergone plan updates since the mid 1980s or early 1990s. Since then, many new animals and plants have been listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s threatened and endangered species list. As of February, there were 1,244 animals and plants listed (compared to 281 in 1980).

“We know, for sure, that threatened and endangered species and recreation will be a key [topic of discussion],” says forest planner White about the four Southern California forests that have recently begun their public planning workshops.

“Species habitat protection is a very important responsibility, so we want a plan that is good for the environment, that protects the ecosystems and that is of value and of use for the public,” says Good of the Los Padres National Forest. “That’s not an easy task, but that’s why it’s so important for people to come to the table and stay at the table, so everyone is aware of all the issues, the challenges and the problems and works together toward solutions.”

A Success Story

Ray Barmore is a veteran trail rider and president of the Coachella Valley Trails Council, a group of recreationists that has been participating in trail planning meetings with various governmental agencies in the Santa Rosa Mountains of California. His group has faced opposition from environmentalist groups numerous times. He says the environmentalists are where the equestrians should be in terms of organization and support. “They are very vocal, very organized and very well-funded,” he explains. “And if you don’t, they will write letters, show up at the meetings en masse and meet with the planners and give their point of view. And the planners have no other real input.”

Barmore encourages the equestrian community to go to their local park and Forest Service offices, find out what planning issues are at stake and ask to be put on their mailing lists. He also encourages people to write letters to those in charge of planning and to show up at their public meetings. Like the ELCR, Barmore highly recommends introducing yourself to the individuals who oversee the planning process and establishing a personal connection. His organization has used that strategy with some success.

Last fall, the Coachella Valley Trails Council learned that planners of the San Jacinto State Park Wilderness Areas were considering banning equestrian traffic in large areas of the wilderness. Barmore, along with members of the council and the local chapter of the BCHA, went directly to the planner to voice their concerns.

“And he said, ‘This is the first time I’ve heard from you people. All we’ve heard from is the environmentalists. I’m glad to hear from you. What’s your point of view?’ ” explains Barmore, who added that the trails council and BCHA continued to attend every planning meeting and share their views with all the parties. As a result, equestrian traffic was restricted on a much smaller scale.

“At the final public meeting in Palm Springs on January 25, there were more cowboy hats than Birkenstocks,” he says. “We now have a staging area there. We can bring our horses in. We’ll also have a tie rack for our horses.”

For More Information

Endangered Species Issues—The U.S. Fish &?Wildlife Service’s endangered species program Website can be found at: http://endangered.fws.gov. The agency’s main page is found at www.fws.gov.

Forest Management—Visit the site www.fs.fed.us and click on the “National Forest Websites” link and choose your forest by name.

Equestrian Organizations—For the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource, call (815) 776-0150 or visit www.elcr.org. There’s a link to order ELCR’s Land Protection guide which is “47 pages of step-by-step action plans for land protection written specifically for horse people.”

Also, visit the Back Country Horsemen of America’s Website at www.backcountryhorse.com or call 1-888-893-5161.

Environmental Groups—For current issues under review, visit www.biologicaldiversity.org. Also, visit the Sierra Club’s Website at www.sierraclub.org or call (415) 977-9900 to find out about environmental issues in your area and what the local chapter is doing about it.