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Instead of arguing over access, equestrians, bikers, and hikers must work together to preserve their treasured trails

By Jennifer M. Keeler for ELCR

Multi Use trail bike credit Carl R. Knoch, York County Rail Trail Authority

Photo courtesy Carl R. Knoch and York County Rail Trail Authority

On a sunny summer day anywhere in the country, outdoor enthusiasts hit the trails in droves to enjoy nature’s splendor.  But unfortunately, interactions between hikers, bikers, and equestrians on popular trails can be less than friendly.  When altercations occur, tensions mount and emotions run high as the respective user groups rally their troops to defend their “turf”.  But instead of protecting rights to trail use, these clashes only foster continued ill-will and misconceptions which can even lead to government intervention and loss of path access for everyone.

Conflicts can occur because a trail experience for hikers and bikers is very different from horsemen.  Horses are live animals whose natural instincts can influence their behaviors and affect the way they react to situations encountered on the trail: they may interpret a speeding bike coming towards them as a moving monster; hikers carrying big backpacks can look like a bear; barking dogs can startle even the steadiest of mounts; and not everyone is familiar with how to yield on the trail to allow a horse enough space to safely pass.

On the flip side, many people have very limited exposure to horses, do not know how to act around them, and may even be afraid.  Horsemen who thoughtlessly ride their mounts in wet areas or during muddy conditions can cause considerable damage to trails for other users.  And no one likes walking or riding a bike through horse manure.

Dr. Gregory Miller, President of the American Hiking Society (AHS), believes that the transformation of paths into multi-use routes to meet public demand can also create problems.  “Trails may start out as being intended for a particular user group, such as a hiking route through a forest,” he said.  “But then other types of users begin to use the area due to high demand, and all of a sudden those narrow paths and sharp corners aren’t necessarily ideal or even safe conditions for everyone.”  Regardless of who got there first, the reality is this:  public land and open space is being rapidly lost due to continued development and population growth, while at the same time the number of trail users on those shrinking areas is increasing.  And misunderstandings only add fuel to these potentially volatile situations.

While dramatic battles between trail users can make headlines, create heated internet debates, and even lead to government intervention, across the nation millions of trail users successfully and peacefully coexist on public lands every day.  How do they do it?  “Prominent signage and improved design of trails is beneficial,” said Jim McGarvey, Chairman of Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA).  “But by far the most important tools are education, respect, and common courtesy.”

trail-signOpinions vary as to whether or not hiking, biking, and equestrian trails should all be kept separate in order to keep the peace.  While there are cases for single use (such as a high-velocity mountain bike experience, or climbing trails for hikers which are too steep to be safe for horses or bikes), the overriding argument is that there’s only so much land and limited budget funding to keep trails open, so most areas have to be shared.  “Problems are often matters of perception rather than reality, and those that are real can almost always be solved with a proactive approach,” explained Michael Kelley, co-founder of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA).  “The most important task is to build a community of trail users and open space advocates into a positive force to enable them to use trails together, and to ensure that those trails will be available for future generations of enthusiasts.”

This cooperative attitude is catching on.  BCHA, AHS, and IMBA regularly invite representatives from each other’s organizations to speak at national conventions and meetings and work together on issues.  While national organizations set positive examples for their membership, the most critical aspect of successful trail sharing between different users starts with individuals taking responsibility and becoming active in their local communities.  Riders must take care to avoid an attitude of entitlement to trail use, and take personal responsibility for the open areas they enjoy using.  “People need to be connected to a piece of property and recognize the value.  If horsemen just ride through, leave poop everywhere, and don’t give back or make any effort, it’s just as bad as hikers coming in for a day picnic and leaving all their trash behind,” said Miller.

In addition, horsemen can’t wait until a sudden policy change threatens their trail access.  “Make an effort to know who the key people are in your area, and have them know you so that they are aware that you’re using the trails and want to support them,” McGarvey explained.  Another key is to learn the policies and processes which affect public land: while every region and open space may be different, the connection made with local officials is invaluable in finding out what applies to a particular area, such as periodic reviews, public meetings, and land management plans.

Equestrians can take their organizational efforts even further.  Great strides can be made in fostering good relations with other user groups through volunteer work; regularly meeting with representatives from other area user groups (such as local hiking and biking clubs); and embracing opportunities to come together through participation in work days, rides, social events, fundraisers, competitions and events.  “These types of joint events can be an opportunity to meet more people and build camaraderie between all groups who enjoy the land, and forget their ‘differences’ as everyone works together for a common goal: a safe and enjoyable experience on the trail,” McGarvey noted.

multi use trail horse bicyles credit New Jersey Horse Council

Photo courtesy New Jersey Horse Council

Unfortunately, even under optimal conditions for trail sharing, conflicts can happen and quickly escalate into a heated confrontation between user groups.  Regardless of the circumstances, emotion is best removed from the equation.  “It’s so important to take a little ‘time out’, try to get together, and focus on shared objectives such as protection of the land and a quality user experience,” said Miller.  “Agree to disagree on some points, but try to find common ground.  If people don’t play nice, then no one will get what they want.”

Even if equestrians suddenly discover land or trails have been closed to them, McGarvey echoed taking a calm approach.  “Find out when there is opportunity for public comment or appeal to the new policy, whether it will be at a town meeting or between drafts of a land use plan, and take advantage of it,” he said.  “Bring your friends to show support, and use facts, not hysterics and anger.  Remember, people have to be aware of what’s going on in their own community, take ownership of their land areas, and accept responsibility for its conservation.  You can’t take it for granted and blame everyone else later.”

Despite the different needs and experiences of various trail users such as hikers, bikers, and equestrians, building a land and trail community based on respect and cooperation will dramatically reduce conflicts and benefit everyone.  “When you get people together, they find they have more in common than they thought,” said McGarvey.  “Due to budget cutbacks across the country, if we don’t all get out there and work together, trails will be closed because they can’t be maintained.  And once a trail is closed, it’s usually gone forever.”