Without stewardship and action, recreational riding opportunities on public land might be dust in the wind.
By Mark Bedor
It’s a romantic image of the West—a cowboy riding off down the trail into the sunset. But today, that iconic cowboy could be facing a ticket from a park ranger if horses have been banned from that particular trail.
That might sound ridiculous to generational horsemen, but it is a reality Paint Horse owners and other trail riders face today in almost every corner of America.
“There are problems everywhere,” APHA Recreational Riding Committee Chair Anita Hertner said. “Those not using four-legged animals are not very happy about us being on their trails, as they say—especially bike riders.”
Anita’s seen it happen with her own eyes. In her hometown of Kearney, Nebraska, horses were banned from a 20-mile trail connecting two popular parks when a former railroad bed once used by equestrians was paved for bicyclists. In California, despite fierce opposition from a local congressman, popular equestrian day-rides in Yosemite National Park’s Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows were permanently shut down. And outfitters who offer horseback trips into the backcountry of Yosemite near Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks face an increasingly complex web of restrictions and regulations that make keeping their doors open a daunting challenge.
“They keep throttling use down—where you can go, how many animals,” said Craig London, owner of the Rock Creek Pack Station in Bishop, California. “They’ve eliminated camp fires in most areas, initiated elevational grazing closures, and put restrictions on the number of mules per person. The combined effect of all the regulations is making it more and more difficult and costly.”
Very few people have the expertise or animals necessary to successfully execute a wilderness pack trip on their own. Commercial outfitters, like Craig, provide access to the high-altitude backcountry most people would otherwise never see without equestrian access. Even if you never intend to use the services offerred by such outfitters, their survival directly impacts private horse owners who want to ride on public land, too.
“Once they get rid of the commercial outfitters, people don’t use the trails; then, governments or organizations stop maintaining trails, eliminating grazing and things like that,” Craig said. “If you don’t have the trails, your riders won’t be able to go anywhere.”
Randy Rasmussen, public lands and recreation director for Back Country Horsemen of America, a grassroots organization representing the rights of horse owners on public lands, says private owners very much have an interest in what happens to commercial outfitters and guides.
“Usually, the restrictions that befall commercial outfitters ultimately befall private horseman, too,” Randy said.
Ironically, horses created the very trails from which they are now being restricted in many public-land areas.
“All the trails in Yosemite National Park were created for stock use,” Randy said. “And there are lots of people who have forgotten that.”
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2017 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.