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Thursday, April 8, 2010 01:47 pm

A right to ride

Bill would ensure horseback riding rights on public lands

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Horseback riding remains a popular activity at Illinois state parks, nature preserves and recreation areas. Ivar Johansson (left) joins Wells and Cori Bowman on a trail ride.

Horseback riding has long been a part of Illinois history, but the state’s equestrians want to ensure their right to ride the trails at state parks, nature preserves and recreation areas.

Though many commercial equestrian camps go back 40 or 50 years, horseback riders could still be denied access to public lands, since there is no current provision that guarantees their right to ride.

“Horses have been around since before Illinois was even a state,” says Frank Bowman, president of the board of directors for the Horsemen’s Council of Illinois. “As we were developing laws and statutes for the state, nobody ever included horses.”

Bowman says he wants members to have the security of a state statute that establishes pack and saddle animals as official trail-users.

“We’re not looking for additional trail expansion or money, we just want to acknowledge them as a user of trails,” Bowman says. “Basically, we’re just looking to include their access onto public lands.”

The bill passed in the Senate on March 10, and is currently assigned to the House Agriculture and Conservation Committee. A companion bill was previously introduced in the House, but could not move out of the Rules Committee, Bowman says.

During a hearing for the companion bill, Rep. Richard Myers, R-Macomb, said he had some concerns with the bill due to complaints from parks and a state forest in his district. The bill applies to all state-owned public lands, including state forests and parks.

“I know I’ve got some parks in my area that have had some real problems with the horsemen,” Myers said. “As long as horsemen stay on the trails, they don’t have a problem. But they tend to wander on their own and go off the trails.”

Myers told Bowman that he would agree to vote for the bill, but under the condition that the Horsemen’s Council makes sure members follow the posted trail signs, and do not ride on closed trails.

“I guess all I’m doing is appealing to ask your horsemen to honor whatever trails there are, and to work with the state forests and parks to the best of their ability, or their rights may be eliminated altogether,” he said.

Though the bill does not apply to federal lands, Tim Pullman, a district ranger in the Shawnee National Forest’s Hidden Springs district, says he’s seen some environmental impact from increased equestrian traffic.

“There was kind of an explosion of popularity in the ’90s,” he says. “The horseback riding camps developed faster than trails were constructed by the forest service.”

Erosion is the most common problem, Pullman says. Another issue with horseback trails is called trail “braids,” which are caused by inexperienced riders going around technical features and obstacles, creating easier paths that may confuse future users.

Four years ago, the forest service launched a cleanup effort, and Pullman says they’re still working to make sure the trails stay in good shape. The forest service continues to make an effort to move certain paths to more stable ground, away from muddy areas and sensitive plant species.

“Keeping up the maintenance will always be a struggle,” he says.

Bowman acknowledged that there will be rule-breakers in every group, but the council is just looking for inclusion in the official statute.

“Our organization promotes responsible horse ownership,” he says. “We want to work with land managers to try to keep trails open.”

Contact Diane Ivey at divey@illinoistimes.com.

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