Horses have long been granted access to public lands, often receiving preferential treatment as historic trailblazers. But as stock trails fall victim to disrepair and closure, backcountry horsemen are finding that what once was a right has become more of a privilege.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I could have taken my last ride down Forest Service Trail 222 three years ago. This backcountry route, which follows a mountain stream to where it spills out of an alpine lake, is a favorite among locals in southwestern Montana. It’s touchstone country, the kind of place horsemen are compelled to visit every year.
In the summer of 2007, I pulled into the trailhead and found a posting that informed me FS 222 had been closed until further notice because of safety issues. In all fairness, the trail did need some work. “A retaining wall on a steep mountain traverse had failed, and I can still recall the unnerving sound of rocks crumbling under hooves and tumbling down to the canyon floor. So, I drove away from the the trailhead, thinking that I’d enjoy next year’s ride all the more on a newly repaired trail.
But a year later, FS 222 was still closed to stock travel. Was this a case of a disappearing trail in my own backyard?
Darin Fisher signed on as a wilderness ranger with the Hebgen Lake Ranger District in 2007. It was a two-year contract, but the job would utilize his trail-building expertise and possibily springboard him into a permanent position. In that role, Fisher saved FS 222, also known as the West Fork Trail.
“It was a dangerous route, and somebody could’ve gotten hurt,” Fisher says. “Sections of the trail needed rebuilt, not just repaired. But those projects are expensive and the Forest Service doesn’t have lots of money.”
Fisher’s boss encouraged the ranger to apply for a grant to repair the trail, and the project was awarded funding from the Madison-Beaverhead Resource Advisory Committee. But when he reported the windfall to the District Ranger’s office, he was told the trail wouldn’t be repaired. The Forest Service had sunk a lot of money into the trail and was considering closing it to livestock permanently.
However, the grant funds were earmarked for FS 222, so they had two choices: accept the money and repair the trail, or forfeit the funds. Fisher’s project was given the green light and work crews rebuilt the failed retaining wall the summer of 2008.
“The funny thing is, if I would’ve asked the district ranger’s office for permission to apply for the grant ahead of time, they would’ve said ‘no,’” says Fisher, who is now the trails manager in the Flathead National Forest in northwest Montana. “But, since the money arrived first, it happened. Who knows what would’ve happend to FS 222 otherwise.”
“That’s the problem with horsemen. We’re the silent sentinel type. We stand on the hill watching and waiting to see how change will affect us. Instead, we need to get involved early in the process to promote our interests and to develop relationships with trail managers.”
– Dennis Dailey, Backcountry Horsemen of America
Forest Service managers have the authority to classifty a trail’s intended use according to the Trails Classification System, says former district ranger Dennis Dailey, who’s now with Backcountry Horsemen of America. This means that district rangers determine what trails will or won’t be maintained for livestock travel. As it turns out, some district rangers don’t wield that authority equitably.
In 2001, California’s Inyo National Forest drafted a amangement plan that reduced the number of trails open to equine travel by 85 percent. BCHA challenged the plan, which was defended by the district ranger who invoked the authority to classify the trails.
California state legislators compelled the Forest Service to revisit the plan and include public input from horsemen’s groups. In the end, the Inyo management plan called for a 50 percent reduciton of equine-accessible trails.
In 2005, BCHA filed suit against the Forest Service, forcing it to redraft the classification system through a public process. While the original classifcation system wasn’t drafted behind closed doors, it wasn’t created in the public eye, either, Dailey says. As such, it favored non-equine trail uses, including a new “hikers-only” trail class, disregarding the fact that the majority of Forest Service trails were historically built for the purpose of transporting poeople and goods into the backcountry by horse and mule.
We weren’t able to keep the Forest Service from creating a hikers-only trail class, but we did influence them to create a menu of trail classifications that accommodates pack and saddle stock,” Dailey says. “However, the power to decide a trail’s classification is still up to the land manager.”
In Dailey’s backyard lies Elkhart trailhead, leading to “some of the most beautiful trails in the Wind River Mountains,” Daileysays. “But those trails are closed to camping with stock, so horsemen don’t go there.”
The closure happened so long ago that Dailey isn’t confident BCHA could win a court challenge to reopen the trail. Instead, the trailhead serves as an ominous reminder.
The lesson is that we should have been involved back when the planning process took place,”Dailey says. “That’s the problem with horsemen. We’re the silent sentinel type. We stand on the hill watching and waiting to see how change will affect us. Instead, we need to get involved early in the process to promote our interests and to develop relationships with trail managers.”