Equestrian “Right to Ride” Bills and the Trails Advisory Council

By John Gonway, MMBA Advocacy Director

After a great deal of negotiations by the Backcountry Horsemen of America, the Michigan United Conversation Clubs, Michigan Mountain Biking Association (MMBA) and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (the “Department”), the Equestrian Right to Ride Bills (House Bill 4610 sponsored by Tim Moore and Senate Bill 578 sponsored by Cameron Brown, the “Equestrian Bills”) are booked for passage and delivery to the Governor’s desk. As you know, the Michigan Mountain Biking Association wrote an official letter of opposition to the original versions of the Equestrian Bills due to the broad and sweeping nature of the bills in their original form. Advocacy Director John Gonway and Executive Director Marne Smiley, along with other leaders of the MMBA, have been heavily involved in monitoring the bills, writing letters and providing testimony at legislative hearings. The end result: a number of substantial changes were made to the bills that made them more palatable for mountain bikers.
 
The mission of the Michigan Mountain Biking Association is to encourage equal and fair access to state land (whether they be state parks, state forests or other state lands) in order for the residents of the State of Michigan to enjoy the land that has been preserved for all. This position means that all non-motorized trail users (mountain bikers, hikers, trail runners, orienteers, equestrians, skiers, mushroom gatherers and other non-motorized users) should have access to non-motorized trails in a fair, equitable and sustainable manner in light of the science, sustainability, and volunteer contributions of such user groups. However, it is the position of the MMBA that sharing the same trail with the equestrians presents certain user conflict issues due to a horse’s instinct as an open range animal and the risk a horse poses to itself, its rider and a mountain biker upon encountering a mountain biker on a trail. In addition, trail degradation caused by horse hoof and horseshoe, along with the inevitable presence of horse manure, provide a user experience to other non-motorized users that is less than ideal in the best circumstances and acutely challenging in the worst circumstances.
 
The original drafts of the Equestrian Bills did not account for these differences in user groups and attempted to reopen all trails to equestrians that were open to them as of May 7, 2008. This date was later modified to be January 1, 1999. The MMBA’s response was to ask: What exactly does this mean? Would it take mountain bike trails that are closed to equestrians at this time and reopen them to equestrians? Would this happen even in places where the equestrians and cyclists resolved to have separate trail systems, such as Pontiac Lake Recreation Area? How would it impact Fort Custer Recreation Area where the equestrians had abandoned their existing horse trails and are now using multi-user trails that have been built by MMBA members?
 
It was difficult for anyone to understand the impact of the original drafts of the Equestrian Bills.
 
Ultimately these original bills were revised substantially. While the MMBA still does not support these bills, it is important to know that they represent the fight of a user group to advocate its interests in a manner that is reactionary to its loss of access rights to Pigeon River Country State Forest. The MMBA is empathetic to the equestrian user groups who are no longer permitted to ride these established trails. We can certainly understand how they feel having lost trails of our own from time to time. It is our opinion that the intention of this initiative is not to make a grab for all trails in the state. Instead, it is an attempt at establishing a framework in which the equestrian community has defenses against trail closures.
 
However, it also establishes a special interest user group with rights above and beyond those of other non-motorized user groups. A greater calling for all non-motorized users to aspire to is the creation of a statewide council of non-motorized user groups necessarily that would give each user group a seat at the table to mediate what should be minor differences amongst these user groups. A baby step was made toward this end by the creation of the Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Council which was created under an executive order by Governor Granholm—a council upon which the MMBA Director of Advocacy John Gonway has a seat. Let this be the first step of many in the creation of a trail council not only for all user groups, but also one in which non-motorized users have a true impact on the responsible expansion of access for all users. (It should also be noted that the Equestrian Bills would codify into law the Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Council as described below.)
 
The following is a short summary of the important points of the Equestrian Bills as they currently stand:
  • First, any restrictions on pack and saddle animals (“Equestrians”) that were in effect as of the date the bill passes into law shall remain in effect until reviewed pursuant to the review process under the bills.
  • Pack and saddle animals will have access to all State Forest lands unless they are otherwise already restricted by the Department;
  • Pack and saddle animals shall be prohibited from accessing State Parks and State Game Areas unless it is expressly allowed by the Department;
  • Any further restrictions of access by pack and saddle animals may only be made if conditions are not suitable for pack and saddle animals because of public safety concerns, necessary maintenance, or for reasons related to the mission of the Department, which reasons shall be supported, to the greatest extent practicable, by a written science-based rationale made available to the public. Prior to determining that there are maintenance concerns that lead to further restrictions of pack and saddle animals, the Natural Resources Commission shall hold a public hearing, at which the Department must provide a specific rationale for its restriction, and there is a sixty day waiting period prior to such restriction (provided that the Department can close any trail immediately if there is an imminent threat to public health, safety, welfare, or to the natural resources or environment for a limited thirty day period). In addition, a written statement of the restriction shall be posted at the trailhead and on the Department’s website;
  • The bills set forth that the Department shall review the existing restrictions on access by pack and saddle animals to the Pigeon River Country State Forest by June 15, 2010, to the Lapeer State Game Area and the Gladwin Field Trial Area by January 1, 2011, and to the Lost Nation State Game Area and Blueberry Ridge Pathway by January 1, 2012.
Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Council
 
In addition, the Equestrian Bills also codify into law the Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Council within the Department, which council shall advise the Director of the Department on the creation, development, operation, and maintenance of motorized and non-motorized trails in the state, including, but not limited to, snowmobiles, biking, equestrian, hiking, off-road vehicles and skiing trails. The council shall consist of eleven members as follows:Not fewer than five members shall be an owner of an ORV or a snowmobile;
  • Not fewer than three members shall be an owner of snowmobile;
  • Not fewer than one member shall possess experience as an instructor in snowmobile safety education and training program or an ORV safety education course;
  • Not fewer than one member shall be a resident of the Upper Peninsula; and
  • Not fewer than two members shall be members of the Equine Trailways Subcommittee created under the Equestrian Bills.
The Equestrian Bills also provide for the creation of a statewide trail network for pack and saddle animals and the creation of an Equine Trailways Subcommittee (consisting of six members) as a subcommittee of the Michigan Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Council. The Equine Trailways Subcommittee shall provide written recommendations for the establishment of the Statewide Pack and Saddle Animal Trail Network and shall provide its recommendations to the Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Council within one year of passage of the Equestrian Bills. Within one year after the Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Council receives such recommendations, this Committee shall then make a recommendation to the Department which in turn will have one year to review such recommendations.  Thus, any change to the status of equestrian restrictions may lead to a process taking as much as three years.

All activities of Equine Trailways Subcommittee shall be conducted at public meetings and be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

In conclusion, the process is detailed and is time consuming to change the status of a trail; in addition, members of the Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Council, as well as the Department, will have a say in the matter before changing any equestrian access rights.