TRAIL CLOSING ALERT, the press release from The Massachusetts Association of Stable Owners, Operators and Instructors announced in bold at the top. “The Massachusetts Audubon Society has closed trails to horseback riders on all their 28,000 acres of lands throughout the Commonwealth,” it began, “citing as reasons potential hazards to walkers, increased maintenance due to trail damage and erosion and potential pollution by horse droppings.” MASOOI explained that Massachusetts Audubon President Gerard Bertrand had initiated a policy in 1988 to gradually eliminate horses from these lands and that policy was now in full effect. The release ended with a plea to horse enthusiasts to inquire as whether similar trail closings were occurring in their areas, particularly on Audubon properties, and to get involved, because “if you wait, it will be too late!” We agree.
Gary Clayton, Vice President of Operations at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, does not deny the closings. He points outs, however, that riding has never been permitted on much of the 28,000 acres of Audubon properties in Massachusetts. “The issue comes down to two properties, the Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, which has about 700 acres, and the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, which has about 2,000 acres,” Clayton said. The decision to eliminate riders from these properties was spurred by the fact that visitation to the sites was on the rise, a result of increasing population, development pressures, and the initiation of active educational programs aimed at attracting a wider public, including children.
“We are concerned about the safety of walkers, particularly young children,” Clayton explained. “It is a user-conflict issue. . . . Our other concern is that certain uses, including horseback riding, impact the ecological integrity of the land. Protecting wildlife and their habitat is the primary reason we have the land.” Clayton argues that the sanctuaries are private property, and the society is fulfilling its responsibility to the donors by protecting wildlife habitats.
Mary Barbara Alexander of Sherborn, Mass., disagrees and is leading the charge against the policy. “These trails were made by and for horses,” says Alexander. “The owners who gave the property to the society were horse people. They drove carriages. They were members of the hunt. It is really too bad there is nothing about horses in the deed because I believe that at the time that the family gave this land it was assumed that horseback riding would be one of the purposes.” Alexander claims that there have been no accidents or problems between riders and hikers in the past.
She also argues that the trails provide a critical 700-yard link to a network on adjoining properties including the Sherborn Forest. Riders now are forced to traverse a congested road to gain access to these other lands. “We are respectful of the land.” says Alexander, “All we are asking is to ride peacefully at a walk along this trail. . . . We have offered our help in exchange for this service.”
As for the private-property issue, Alexander is not sold. “The Massachusetts Audubon Society properties are tax-exempt, yet we as a community pick up the tab for fire and police protection and other services. . . . I believe the Massachusetts Audubon Society has a community responsibility to keep the trail system open.”
The issue has yet to be resolved and, unfortunately, it is a microcosm of many such conflicts that are cropping up everywhere. “It is becoming more difficult to gain access to trails,” says Steven Ralls, director of Legislative Affairs at the American Horse Council. “Trails are being closed to riders or are being considered to be closed to riders because of trail degradation and competition with other users. At this point, it is more of an issue on the East Coast and in California,” Ralls says. “There is a group that is trying to deal with this problem nationally.”
Ralls is referring to the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource formed in 1997. The brainchild of the United States Pony Club, the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource staff provides information to horse enthusiasts regardless of breed and discipline about land protection, public and private land-access issues, land-use policies and land-stewardship programs. Program director Rick Jorgensen said there is a need to increase awareness of the problem nationally and for all horse enthusiasts to coalesce around this issue.
Nola Michels, editor of the Back Country Horsemen of America San Diego Unit newsletter, has worked assiduously to keep the San Diego trail systems open. She says development pressures are such that there is no room for squabbling among trail users. “If the multi users don’t get together and fight for trails together, they will all lose,” she says. This may mean forging unusual alliances, not only among riders, hikers, bikers, and conservationists, but trying to draw other nature enthusiasts, historic preservationists, and others into the throng — and getting politicians involved.
No matter how trails are protected (through zoning mandates or permanent conservation easements or any such method) the reality is that if nothing is done, there will be more alarming releases sent out like the one MASOOI issued.
Contact: Rick Jorgensen, Program Director, Equestrian Land Conservation Resource, 1800 North Kent Street # 1120, Arlington, VA 22209; 703/525-6300; www.conservationfund.org (click on “resources”)