By Laurel A. Florio for Equine Land Conservation Resource
So many aspects of equine activities, such as sport horse training, ranching, or recreational riding, rely on large areas of land; be it for grazing, riding arenas, turn-out or, to a smaller degree, trail access. Sometimes land-locked forests provide fabulous multi-use opportunities for riders to enjoy the trails, but oftentimes access is restricted to trailer parking gateways. The need for trail access over privately-owned land is essential to equine use, and the lack thereof threatens to minimize trail availability in many parts of the country. This article provides a good basic overview for anyone interested in learning more about how trail easements can support equestrian access.
Access to Land
Community conservation is a catchphrase that highlights the benefits of land conservation for an entire community. For example, the conservation of a farm benefits not only that landowner but the entire community by providing open space, aesthetic, and natural beauty values. Similarly, the concept of community conservation can lend itself to the establishment of trail easements over private lands, highlighting the communal engagement necessary to maintain trail access and the bucolic nature of the area
Many private landowners may be willing to conserve specific areas of land for the exclusive use of trails or trail access. The coming together, for example, of a rural community to encourage linking trail easements to accommodate such access is common. To make this happen, landowners will grant a conservation easement over a trail (trail easement) allowing access to larger trail networks or just the continuation of a rural trail. Conservation easements are very common over large swaths of land and are becoming more common to protect the strips of land making a trail network.
The landowner can donate to an organization the strip of land to be used for the trail easement or the conservation easement over it. Likewise, some organizations may pay the landowner for the conservation/trail easements to ensure continuity of the trail whether to a specific trail network or as a stand-alone community aesthetic. Trail easements are used to provide access over private land and held by a conservation organization or even a municipality or governmental agency.
Establishment of the Trail
A conservation easement over a large parcel of land will be written differently from a trail easement. Although both will have specific provisions regarding longevity (perpetuity usually) and other legal and contractual sections, two of the most important aspects of trail easements are its purpose and location. A trail easement is usually a network of strips of land over many different properties that are connected to provide access to a greater trail network or exist for recreational use in the community. Its purpose is straightforward, recreational use, but it can be qualified as non-motorized, multi-use, or even equine only. Of course, some trail easements permit multi-users (pedestrians, bicyclists, motorized vehicles, and horses), and the users learn to respect each other and strive to provide a peaceful and safe experience for all. Usually, the trail is posted as to acceptable use, thus making it very clear to all. And, often the more types of users, the more volunteers are available for periodic maintenance and trail improvements.
Secondly, the location of the trail easement is very important. Community conservation is the ideal way to bring together the landowners to establish and map the intended trail easements. Coupled with one or more conservation organizations willing to hold the trail easements and ensure their protection, the design and location of trails will determine their viability as a recreational asset to the community. Additionally, the actual physical location of the trail is important as the better the footing, the better the experience for all users. Mud in the spring may garner rocks in the summer. The location of the trail itself can make or break the project and the success of the intended network over time.
Each state has its own laws pertaining to conservation easements, which are directly related to the establishment of trail easements. Horse centric organizations can partner with conservation organizations to establish trails for equine use only or include other groups for multi-use recreation. Each conservation or trail easement is established under the laws of the state in which the land resides. Some trail easements may be so extensive that several states must cooperate in the linking of its trails to provide miles of access.
The laws of the state in which the trail system will be located dictate the structure of the trail easement. Although there are many template examples of such easements used throughout the country, each must be tweaked to adhere to state law. The online resource Model Grant of Trail Easement with Commentary from WeConservePA is such an example. Some of the most important things to consider when writing a trail easement are:
- Access points, trailer parking and boundary lines to prevent encroachment onto private property outside the bounds of the trail
- Footing to prevent erosion (natural or other)
- Trail maintenance and upkeep (volunteer teams or the organization holding the easement)
- Perpetual or fixed term of years and if the latter, renewal
- Signage, trash, and safety
- Trail etiquette
Additionally, it is imperative that both landowners and conservation organizations engage local legal counsel familiar with conservation easements to ensure adherence to local, state, and federal laws.
Examples of Trail Easements in Local Communities
There are many examples of language used in conservation/trail easements that are specific to certain uses and the states in which the land is located.
Two communities in particular have utilized local talent and other resources to come up with a sound system of trail easements to support accessibility of trails for neighboring horse communities.
The Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) Trail System in South Woodstock, Vermont is an excellent example of community conservation and equine trail use. This system consists of over 100 landowners participating in the establishment of 400 miles of multi-use trails; most of which are located on private land. Landowner permissions for equestrian access are about fifteen percent permanent trail easements. The remainder are licenses, which remain in effect indefinitely but can be revoked by the landowner at will. Many landowners in this area prefer licensing because it does not impose restrictions on the rights of future property owners. These landowners often allow other uses, such as snowmobiling, hiking and mountain biking.
GMHA, by virtue of its mission, offers easements that address equestrian use only. Additional use permissions or easements can be established on the same land as the GMHA easement, but for some landowners this gets complicated and can lead to user conflicts or awkward relationships with other user groups. The decision to establish a permanent trail easement is generally a matter of the heart of the landowner; there is no financial or tax advantage in a linear trail easement in the State of Vermont. Those who have done it receive their compensation in knowing that they have done their part to preserve equestrian trails for the future, even if the trail is a multi-use trail. A system of this size generally thrives on multiple user groups, thereby enhancing the concept of community conservation and involvement beyond just equine use.
Another local example of trail easements used to increase accessibility is the Walthour-Moss Foundation (W-MF). This Foundation is a 4,000-acre natural treasure for equestrians in the Carolina Sandhills region of North Carolina. The unwritten rule allowing horseback riders to cross private property to access the Foundation lands was in jeopardy due to loss of contiguous farmland.
The Foundation sought to retain that system of accessibility by capitalizing on the community’s emotional attachment to the Foundation lands as well as its desire to maintain the horse-friendly culture and physical access for users. By securing perpetual trail access easements from numerous landowners, the Foundation was able to ensure access to its land. Additionally, neighbor to neighbor encouragement facilitated the continued sense of community conservation necessary for perpetual trail access via such easements.
The use of perpetual trail easements has been proven to successfully retain both a system of accessibility as well as community in many horse-centric areas threatened by development and diminishing farmland in different parts of the country.
Local land trusts, other conservation organizations, and some local government entities are usually familiar with the process. They can provide both legal and technical assistance to groups seeking to retain or establish a trail network with the use of trail easements. The Equine Land Conservation Resource www.elcr.org can provide additional information and contacts.
Faced with the loss of land or access for horses and riders, these resources continue to influence and inspire necessary change to ensure horse-related communities will survive and thrive for the benefit of this and future generations.