Horse Owners And The Land-Use Crisis

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It’s time to start shouting this message from the roofs of stables and the center of riding rings and pastures all around the country: ”Land use and land conservation are the most important issues facing horse owners of the 21st century.”

It’s a message that, at least until now, has not gotten through to America’s horse-owning public, even to the majority of the people who participate in the land- dependent sports of foxhunting, eventing, endurance and trail riding and combined driving. And it’s certainly not gotten through to the hundreds of thousands of people who keep their horses on small farms and occasionally enjoy trail rides.

Admittedly, saving trails, cross-country courses or hunting country is a tough sell because there is still a lot of land left in the United States. But precious little of that land is where most horse owners must reside to earn a living.

If you’ve ridden or owned horses for more than a decade, I’m sure you can think of places you used to ride that have been transformed into houses or malls, barns that have closed as suburbia surrounded them, competitions that were forced to move because their show grounds were sold to be bulldozed, or foxhunts that kept moving their territory farther and farther away from where they used to be.

And it’s not going to get any better. In fact, if a 2005 study by the Brookings Institute and Virginia Tech University are correct, it’s going to get much worse. (And I hasten to point out this isn’t a study by a conservation group hoping to increase membership by scaring you. This is a study for business executives, predicting how they can cash in on what the authors predict will be a real-estate boom ”that, by 2030, will dwarf America’s post-WWI build-out.”)

In three centuries, Americans have built a bit more than 300 million square feet of homes, offices, factories and other structures. But in just the next 25 years, the Brookings/Virginia Tech study projects American builders will erect 200 million more square feet of buildings for a population they project to increase by 70 million, a figure roughly the same as that projected by the non-profit conservation group Population Connection. (Although it took 52 years for the U.S. population to double from 100 million to 200 million, it only took 39 years, from 1967 to 2006, to add another 100 million.)

These researchers estimate that the massive build-out will constitute a $25-trillion development market by 2030, ”more than twice the size of the U.S. economy today.” And while that’s good news to many Americans, it’s bad news for us horse owners. The research team christened 10 areas ”megapolitans,” a term that describes how cities in these regions will largely merge together into a single indistinguishable zone, rather like the endless cities and suburbs from Boston to Washington look now.

They predict that No. 1 in total population growth will be the ”Southland,” from Southern California to Las Vegas, which they project to grow by 8 million people. South Florida is second, with 7.5 million new homes, and the I-85 Corridor (Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham) is third with 7 million. No. 1 in new housing units will be the Atlantic Seaboard a whopping 3.4 million new houses, an increase of 17 percent.

A Widening Gap

These numbers are only going to contribute to another challenge facing American horse owners — the growing distance (literally and figuratively) between Americans and land, between Americans and animals, and between Americans and agriculture.

The fact that fewer than 5 percent of the U.S. population now lives in a rural area and ever has any meaningful contact with nature or animals is a major reason why such a small percentage of Americans are not rising to the land-conservation cause. They’ve never walked (let alone ridden) through a forest or meadow, they’ve never fed an animal (other than, maybe, their dog), and they’ve never seen an animal born.

They have no understanding, often even awareness, of the cycles of life, and that’s an awareness that, unfortunately, fewer horse people will have too. Without that awareness, you see no tragedy in a new subdivision of 2,500 houses where cattle used to graze, corn or wheat used to grow, or woodpeckers, owls, deer, groundhogs or snakes used to live.

These days, more than 95 percent of our fellow citizens live in a city or suburb where the developers work so hard to create an ”ideal natural setting” to attract buyers. And those suburban buyers, once they’ve moved in, are likely to never go out to see the imperfect beauty of nature, because of inertia, culture, time and even fear.

Feeding Crunch

Distressingly few American youngsters these days ever go hiking or camping, riding along a wooded trail or around a grassy meadow or even get to play in the dirt or in a tree house. So they’ve never interacted with live animals. They have no idea how wild or domestic animals live, or where their hamburger or veggie burger or French fries come from or that they require land to live or grow.

That’s exactly why the real-estate boom that will come is going to affect everyone who owns or rides a horse.

And we’re not just facing a housing crunch for horses. We’re also facing a feeding crunch for horses. Every time a massive subdivision gets built near Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Eugene, Ore., or Boise, Idaho, it’s one fewer field to produce the hay, oats and sweet feed we need for our horses. That means those grains will be harder to find and more expensive to buy.

From 1982 to 2002, the United States lost 33.3 million acres of grazing land, a figure that I’m sure was accelerated from 2003 to 2006 because of the skyrocketing real-estate prices. But that 20-year figure means that we lost 197 acres per hour. How much is that' Most importantly, it’s one extremely productive hay farm in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic or Midwest, a farm that could produce 600 tons of hay in a good year. But it’s also 95.5 miles of four-foot-wide riding trail (basically, a 100-mile endurance ride) or 58 large riding arenas.

Join And Donate

So, what can you do' That’s the most important question you can ask.

The single biggest thing anyone who owns a horse farm (or a farm that grows hay or grains) can do is to donate a permanent conservation easement on it to a local land trust, a government body, or both. A conservation easement is a contract that limits the use of the land, forever, to those agreed to by the landowner and the organization that receives it. The easement transfers with the deed, and the land trust or government agency accepts responsibility for monitoring the property to be sure the agreement is followed, by both the donor and all subsequent owners.

An easement is a contract in which the landowner gives up rights, and no two are exactly alike. But they all restrict building and, often, other uses. But they do not unless it’s part of the agreement entitle public access to the property.

In exchange for giving up building rights, landowne rs can take significant reductions in real-estate and income taxes, and their heirs receive significant reduction on the estate taxes. To learn more, go to the Land Trust Alliance website (www.lta.org).

In August, the U.S. Congress passed a law that considerably increased the tax incentives for people considering donating conservation easements. The new law raised the income-tax deduction from 30 percent of the donor’s income per year to 50 percent, allows qualifying farmers and ranchers to deduct as much as 100 percent of their income, and extends the carry-forward period for tax deductions from five to 15 years.

Not everyone can donate a conservation easement, but there’s more you can do. The biggest is to become a member of and volunteer for organizations that are working hard to preserve the countryside around us, groups like your local land trust or one of the thousands of other conservation groups, the Land Trust Alliance, and the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource (see sidebar).

More than 1,600 land trusts are LTA members, and you can find the one near you on their website. You should keep in mind, though, that not all land-trust leaders are horse friendly. In fact, I’m sorry to say that sometimes they’re distinctly not horse-friendly. Sometimes it’s understandable, as some land trusts’ missions are to protect fragile areas, like wetlands, from any kind of human incursion. But the bulk try to protect land that is, or could be, agricultural, and the leaders ignorantly dismiss horses from their thinking. Usually, members can educate these leaders about the agricultural, open-space and economic benefits horses bring to an area, and that could become your next mission in life.

You can also become politically active in your town, going to Planning Commission or town council or county supervisors’ meetings to speak for or (more likely) against proposals for changes to comprehensive plans or zoning requests. You’d be surprised how effective this can be, as politicians are largely ruled by popularity, and if they think they’ll lose the next election by voting for a subdivision, you’ve got a good chance of convincing them to see your side of the horse world’s most important issue.