Back-country hikers know the old saying, "Leave nothing but footprints; take nothing but pictures."
These days, horsemen and women have to be equally conscious of treading lightly on our natural landscape. Development and encroaching urban sprawl threaten farms, ranches, open space and trails. To save them, horse people must show they have political clout, are an economic force, and demonstrate good land stewardship, both on and off the farm.
Here are some frightening statistics: In 1982, the United States had 611 million acres of grazing land available, including National Forest, Bureau of Land Management areas, private farms, and agriculture-friendly open space. A mere 20 years later, grazing land had been reduced to 575.7 million acres. On average, the U.S. loses 192 acres of open space an hour, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Even in our most rural areas, large ranch parcels are being fenced, subdivided and sold off into smaller parcels. Increasingly, ranchers who have been friendly to equestrian activities on their land are retiring. Many heirs would rather make a living in more reliable professions and are selling the ranches, for the most part, in small parcels. Public lands in the West are also under threat from increased oil and gas drilling, and the creep of suburbia.
As subdivisions spring up in former agricultural areas, our new neighbors may not understand that farm and ranch living includes flies, manure, dust and mud, depending on the day or the season. They may have encountered a rare horse and rider who weren't polite to them on the trail. Maybe they never got over a bad horse experience.
Whatever the reason, it's up to us to advocate for open space and to educate communities on the economic and social value of horses.
Hundreds of case studies prove the power of working together. A boarding stable in Albuquerque has accessed the extensive Rio Grande trail system through neighbors' yards (with permission). They close gates and clean up after themselves. They lobbied the City Open Space Division for a trail spur on a city-owned easement nearby, and got one.
However, when the Open Space Division put in a bike path, it also put up signs that prohibited horses. The community of horse people, once simply a group of casual trail riders, has now galvanized into a political force. The group is pushing Open Space to honor its promise to allow equestrian access to that spur of the Rio Grande trail system.
Near Washington, D.C., a handful of equestrian activists and a concerned heir to the Callithea Farm managed to preserve a 97-acre horseback riding paradise in the midst of skyrocketing housing values. The process took five years and hundreds of volunteer hours, but eventually their efforts worked. The land was placed in a conservation easement, to be preserved for generations.
To stop such development, though, takes dedication, a little money, and stick-to-it-ness. Those attributes, says Kandee Haertel, with the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource (ELCR), come into play in any discussion about conservation. Even in some heavily urban areas, like San Francisco and Boston, equestrian trail and land advocates have, by bringing interested people together and working tirelessly, won their small fights against encroaching development.
But how do you get involved? Haertel and others offer us a primer on land-conservation techniques, both as users and landowners.
Barbara Weitz of Bay Area Barns and Trails, a San Francisco-area conservancy group, emphasizes building relationships with a wide variety of individuals and groups. Getting to know your neighbors isn't enough, Weitz says.
You have to know local reporters, who can help publicize your fight. You should be linked in with the community gossip-the person who knows who's selling what and who's buying it. Get to know a friendly real estate agent or two who list houses in the neighborhood.
Call to Action
• Be a good steward of the land you own and the land you use.
• Attend public hearings about zoning changes that may affect trails.
• Build relationships with reporters, real estate agents, and government officials.
• Hold an "open barn" and demonstrate how horses contribute to the economy
• Join local, regional and national equestrian open space advocacy groups.
Weitz suggests hosting an "open barn," where you invite neighbors, your local feed purveyor, farrier, veterinarian, horse-curious friends, and local politicians to visit your friendly, clean, safe facility. However, be aware of liability issues: Don't charge anyone money and don't let them ride. When you've got their attention, explain how much money your small horse-keeping operation puts back into the local economy. Allow your local horse professionals to chat up the politicians.
These important outreach programs can help build the support you'll need later when the for-sale sign goes up on the property next door, or when a shopping center developer is eyeing your favorite trail.
Don't forget to network with other local horse clubs. Haertel adds that horse people need to break the boundaries of their riding disciplines. Everyone who cares about horses needs to care about conserving all types of equestrian land.
Haertel recommends taking $75 of your horse allowance money and, instead of buying a new saddle pad, use it to join your local, regional and national equestrian open-space advocacy groups. Ideally, you could join a local horse council, which is an affiliate of the state horse council. Most states have such organizations, and some have trail advocacy groups as well.
"The very best that an individual rider can do," Haertel says, "is join and pay attention to a local, regional and national group. And when they send you something, or ask you for something, respond." They need your financial support, yes, but they also need you to be part of their overall numbers, so they can show how many people are interested in the issue.
If there is no local group, consider starting one, says Weitz. It's easy and inexpensive to start a 501 c(3)-a nonprofit educational and outreach organization. Weitz says she has helped eight or nine different groups get started.
Don't remember your high school civics class? No problem. Our government is built on public participation (government by the people, for the people).
In most cases, developers must seek zoning changes to put high-density housing or commercial buildings in rural or semi-rural areas. They also must hold public hearings. So keeping track of zone change requests is one way to make sure you know what the potential plans are for parcels of land.
A knowledgeable neighborhood association president-or even a member of the city or county planning commission-can explain the local process to you. (It's different in every county.) At every city, county or state hearing, the public is allowed to voice its opinion. With the advent of e-mail and the Internet, communicating with local lawmakers is often only a mouse-click away. Organized advocacy groups will often write the letter for you, to which you need only add your own name and address.
In most communities, a show of public force will often sway council members on approving or denying a zone change. At the hearings, sign up to speak so your county or city planning departments can record that you are a voter in their district.
Lessons in Stewardship:
1. Show your gratitude to landowners. Find out who owns the land where you ride and thank them for letting you use it.
2. Get to know the person who manages the land. Frequently, this is not the landowner, but it is the person who decides how and when you can ride. Let him/her know how much you enjoy riding there.
3. Help with maintenance on the land where you ride.
4. Learn about the land and what it takes to protect it.
5. Get to know other users, such as fisherman, hunters and hikers.
6. Join other equestrian organizations. Check out the state horse council, local trail organization, or other horse clubs. Find out what land issues they are involved in and why. Begin building a valuable partnership.
7. Do everything you can to make horseback riding a respected part of the outdoor community. Find ways to contribute. Host scouting educational sessions. Ride in community parades. Perform community service projects. Join other groups in maintaining land. Make sure that you get photos and news releases in the newspapers about the activities.
8. Write personal letters to public officials to let them know you appreciate what they are doing with land access and protection.
9. Attend planning and zoning meetings. Almost every city, county and state owns a considerable amount of undeveloped land. They hold open meetings at which decisions are made about how that land will be used.-Source: Equestrian Land Conservation Resource.
The Millstone Trailblazers, a group of concerned New Jersey trail riders, came together to protect a network of trails endangered by urban sprawl. They drew a map of the trails, equestrian households, and horse-related businesses along the trails so they could illustrate to town planners just how important horses are to the community. They held public meetings and invited neighborhood associations and newspaper reporters. They also assumed responsibility for trail maintenance.
Members managed to incorporate as a nonprofit and have their trail plan adopted as part of the New Jersey township's community master plan. They protected the trail network, which shows how community coalition-building can accomplish even the most difficult goals.
All around him in New Mexico, rancher B.W. Cox watched his neighbors sell their ranches off in 100-acre parcels. But Cox wanted to keep his 32,000-acre spread, Montosa Ranch, intact. He's aging, and with two sons uninterested in taking over the family cattle operation, Cox had to find an alternative that would provide for their inheritance, but not require subdividing and selling his ranch in smaller parcels.
In 2003, Cox, with the help of a local banker and architect, placed the ranch in a conservation easement with a small limited development. It is the largest such project in New Mexico, and one of the larger easements in the country. The ranch abuts the 300,000-acre Cibola National Forest, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's 90,000 acres, and provides miles of preserved open range land. Just five, 640-acre lots sit on the entire 32,000 acres.
Cox will continue ranching there until his death, when the neighbors will take over the cattle operation. A corral area of 10 acres has been specified in each homesite, allowing buyers to build a barn, a pasture and a house, while the rest of the land remains open to endless back-country riding.
You don't have to make an elaborate speech. Just say that you are opposed to the zone change and the development, and why. Generally, you only have two minutes to make your case; commissioners appreciate brevity.
Find out who in your neighborhood sits on the zoning committee or a park planning board. Talk to your county commissioner or his or her staff about the land you want to save, and why it's important to their constituents. If you can convince him that enough people support saving the parcel or denying the zone changes, you may just get the right vote.
"People need to get involved in the early planning of your local community," says Haertel.
In June 2005, the American Horse Council released a comprehensive economic-impact study. It contains ammunition in the form of statistics that show just exactly how much money horses put into national and state economies. And it's no small potatoes.
"We're a huge economic impact, and most people don't even think that," Haertel says.
The study says that horse owners have an average family income of about $75,000 a year, recreational horse owners make up the bulk of the population, and the horse industry provides about 1.4-million full- time equivalent jobs.
The study also breaks down the horse industry's economic impact by state (see resources box). It can be powerful to present the number of horse-related jobs in your state or county. If land turns into subdivisions, the area becomes unfriendly to horses, and those jobs could disappear.
Become a Good Steward
If you own significant acreage yourself, you may want to consider a conservation easement. An easement is an agreement between a landowner and an organization, such as a land trust, to limit the land's uses. In exchange, the farm owner gets a significant tax advantage. In seeking a conservation easement, you can assure that your land will remain undeveloped for generations. Sometimes an easement will allow limited development in order to pay the financial obligations of the landowner.
Conservation easements are advantageous on a number of levels, but the farm owner has to be committed to it. If you know of a property owner who may be interested, a local land trust organization may be able to help you develop a presentable option.
You also might prove your commitment to the land by participating in, or even helping to organize, a trail maintenance day. Clear brush, repair drainages, cut down low branches, and invite the local 4-H kids or Pony Clubbers to join you. You can generate a lot of publicity for your organization or cause by inviting a reporter along.
Most important, remember the old hikers' adage: When you venture out on trails, follow good land practices. Stay on marked trails, don't bushwhack (it causes erosion), and avoid riding in muddy areas (erosion, again). Follow trail rules that include riding single file, packing out all your trash, and, importantly, smile and be friendly to fellow trail users. Allow them to pet your horse (if he's friendly), and answer their questions about back-country riding.
Remember, whenever you are out on the trail, you're an ambassador for horse people everywhere.