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Horses in Ecological Reserves

By Buzz Williams, Executive Director, Chattooga River Watershed Coalition -- Clayton, Georgia and Linda Conway-Durver. Conway Conservation, Inc. -- Micanopy, Florida

November 1998

An "ecological reserve" is a loosely defined term that could be applied to a number of different management regimes where commodity extraction is not allowed, and where natural cycles are allowed to dominate. These reserves may be further protected under laws such as the Wilder ness Act of 1964, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968. There are approximately 62 million acres of ecological reserves on Federal lands, and another 20 million acres on private lands that are protected either by conservation easement or deed covenant.

Normally, ecological reserves are set aside to protect "natural biodiversity," which we define as the natural array of ecosystem components and processes. Of course, what is natural/unnatu ral and what is tolerable/intolerable often seems to be a matter of perspective and interpretation. Most ecological reserves are established in an attempt to protect and re-create to the extent possible the biodiversity characteristic of a particular ecosystem prior to European invasion of the Western Hemisphere around 1500 AD. We can say without reservation that at that time, shod horses were not a part of the native biodiversity in Western Hemisphere ecosystems. However, unshod horses were common on the American plains and in the inland West by 1700 AD.

Contemporary use of horses in the ecological reserves in the moist forests of the eastern U.S. may be a different proposition than the use of horses in the more arid West, for both historical and environmental reasons. Regardless of the ecosystems or the historical significance of the horse to human activity in that system, our main focus in ecological reserves must be to protect and restore natural biodiversity. Horse impacts on natural ecosystem components and processes must be minimal, and mitigated wherever they do occur.

The problems that we perceive with horse trails in ecological reserves regarding biodiversity protection are:

1) erosion and sedimentation, 2) carrying capacity as related to desired experience,

3) resource damage, and

4) exotic species.

We make the following suggestions to document, research and mitigate impacts in ecological reserves:

1) Increase appropriations for Federal and State agencies that manage ecological reserves.

2) Increase appropriations for Federal and State research programs to address trail maintenance and construction.

3) Develop positive monetary incentives for horse trail construction and maintenance within ecological reserves on private lands, and base construction and maintenance on sound science.

4) Encourage academic participation.

5) Educate the public with economic and ecological facts about horse trails in ecological reserves.

We suggest the following guidelines for regulating horse impacts in ecological reserves:

1) Establish carrying capacities for ecological reserves.

2) Explore the feasibility of user fees.

The current management direction for horse trails in ecological reserves is in an embryonic state of development. Research on the impacts of horse trails in ecological reserves is almost nonexistent. Future management direction will depend on a cooperative effort between public and private land managers, academia, political leaders and informed citizens. Part II . Horsemen, land managers, and ecologists

Years of experience with both groups indicates that land managers and ecologists do not understand horses and riders and vice versa. This discussion concerns ecological aspects of the problem. The current "knowledge" about horse trail impacts can be conceptualized as a kernel of truth in a pile of manure. Lots of concerns have been expressed, but there are few documented facts to back them up. There has been very little meaningful research on the subject and most of what has been done applies to mountain landscapes in the west and is of minimal applicability in other regions.

The following summary statements synthesize the scanty information currently available in the literature. They focus on situations in which the more or less accepted "common knowledge" differs from the documented evidence:

Common belief: Horses cause erosion.

Evaluation: Horses may loosen hillside soils and initiate erosion on poorly designed or mismanaged trails. Continued erosion is not directly related to level of horse use.

Common belief: Horses destroy trail surfaces.

Evaluation: Hooves loosen soil; feet compact it. Horses tend to destabilize hilly/sandy/mucky trails, but may maintain permeability of level or hard surfaces. Horse traffic may cause a washboard effect on some rocky trails. Management can mitigate damage.

Common belief: Horses are more damaging than hikers.

Evaluation: As a general rule, horses wear trails three times more than hikers (and less than bikes or ORVs). But factors other than user type are more closely linked to trail degradation.

Common belief: Horse trails fragment habitats.

Evaluation: All trails fragment habitats and eventually develop the "ribbon of foreigners" characteristic of trailside vegetation, but horse trails don't have to be wider or worse than hiking trails.

Common belief: Horses spread exotic species in their manure.

Evaluation: Exotic invasion has been observed along some trails. Horses can carry viable seeds, but the dispersal process is complex and the facts are largely unknown. Special feeding programs offer a solution when real problems exist.

Concern: Horses might degrade water quality.

What we know: Erosion may lead to siltation. Bacteriological and nutrient effects are seldom detectable except next to stables.

Concern: Horses might disturb wildlife.

What we know: All sporadic human use disturbs wildlife. Many animals are less afraid of horseback riders than hikers. Riders seldom dismount to touch flora or fauna.

Given the above concerns, why should we allow horseback riding on natural areas at all? Riders can be a dedicated and energetic volunteer and advocacy group. The horse rider relationship promotes a non-anthropocentric worldview that facilitates ecological understanding. Horses are useful for patrols and surveys. Horse traffic can be used to maintain firebreaks and seldom-used trails.

How many is too many?

Light use concerns: Lightly used trails may grow over and require more maintenance, whereas moderate horse activity may help to maintain a multiple-use trail.

Moderate use concerns: Traffic on soft or wet stretches must be managed carefully. Erosion will demand maintenance on steep slopes. Management will be necessary to keep riders on the trail and out of trouble.

Heavy use concerns: Multiple-use is impractical on heavily used horse trails; hikers and bikes will need separate trails. The trails will require routine monitoring and maintenance. Additional research is urgently needed. Relevant questions include:

1) Which problem exotics really use horses as vectors for invasion of natural areas?

2) How might trail edge vegetation be stabilized with desirable species?

3) What feeding regimes are practical for eliminating seed in the manure of horses in sensitive areas?

The bottom line is that horse trails can be maintained on most natural areas without unacceptably impacting ecological values, but new management approaches, better user education, and increased user-manager cooperation will be necessary.

 

Mr. Williams is a native of Mountain Rest, South Carolina. He holds a BS Degree in Forestry from Clemson University. He is a highly skilled canoe and cross-country ski instructor and adventure travel trip leader. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a River Ranger on the Sumter National Forest from 1987 to 1990. he was the organizer of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics for which was the Southeastern Coordinator from 1992 to 1994. He has been Executive Director of the Chattooga River Watershed Coalition since 1994. Mr. Williams can be reached at: Chattooga River Watershed Coalition, P.O. Box 2006, Clayton, GA 30525; Phone: (706) 782-6097; Fax: (706) 782-6098;
E-Mail: crwc@rabun.net

Ms. Conway-Durver can be contacted at: Conway Conservation, Inc., 507 NE Cholokka Blvd., Micanopy FL 32667; Phone: (352) 466-4136

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