What's a Trail Really Worth?

By Bonnie Davis (From Spring 1997 Trail Tracks​, the national newsletter of American Trails​​)

Economic impact extends not only to the actual trail user but to businesses that derive an income from users of the trail.

To advocate preserving, developing, or expanding equine use on trails, horsemen have always cited rights, tradition, and recreation. That used to work if horsemen formed a united front, but with more users demanding wider use, we need to include other trail values so we can maintain a hoof-hold on trails.

Today the bureaucratic trail planning system usually includes the buzzwords "financial cost" and "economic impact." Trail users must present economic impact figures on just how much money a trail generates.

Economic impact is the dollars and cents generated because of a trail. These are monies spent by trail users for trail riding-- dollars that are generated or circulated because of the trail.

How does a group find economic impact figures? How does a group go about "dollar and centing" it? Who do you talk to?

The answers are, right in your own barn... on your own trails... among your own riding companions... with your own economic impact generated by your horse.

The majority of horses owned in this country are pleasure horses that are used for riding on trails. Unlike bikers and hikers who can go home, take off their hiking boots or park their bikes, a pleasure trail horse can't be parked and forgotten. A horse has to be fed, maintained, and housed. So the biggest economic impact of an equestrian trail system is the cost of maintaining the animal used on the trail system-- the horse.

Where is your horse boarded? Do you board in a barn or stable that is on or close to a trail system or park? If those trails were closed to you, would you stay in that same barn or move to another that is on a trail system open to horses? What do you pay in board bills to have your horse close to that trail system? That figure is a significant economic impact.

At the Ed Levin County Park in Santa Clara County (Calif.), 24 miles of multi-use trails were fenced. Horsemen who had ridden in the park for the previous 24 years were reduced to an 8 a.m. opening and a dusk closing. In fact, gates were often closed at 2 and 3 in the afternoon and not unlocked for a day or two.

After months of complaints, a meeting was held with park staff, county park directors, and trail users-- including individuals who boarded horses around the park and those who trailered horses into the park. More than 100 horsemen attended, bringing with them some economic impact figures: nine stables near the park house more than 1,200 horses used primarily in the park for trail riding. Board bills range from $125 up to $250 per horse per month.

As one stable owner stated, "My place has 150 horses. More than 135 of them are ridden in the park on the trails as pleasure trail animals. I took a couple of days and asked each of my boarders why they're at my place and where they ride. Most said they rode in the park and are at my place because I've got easy access into the park for trail riding.

"If these trails are closed or unreasonably restricted, I'm going to lose easily 95 to 125 boarders because these people are going to move someplace else so they can have a trail to ride on. I can't have that kind of loss and stay in business. so when those restrictions go up and those gates stay locked, remember park staff is affecting not only my business but the monies I put into the county."

Using this stable's economic impact, average board bill is $205 per horse per month. With more than 125 boarders stabling directly because of the park and trails, a dollars and cents figure of $307,500 is generated each year as a direct result of the park and its trails. And this figure is conservative because other boarders also use the park and trails but don't consider it the primary reason for boarding at this stable.

Projecting my own economic impact statement, I stable two horses at another barn on the edge of Levin Park. I board there specifically because it's close to trails-- across the pasture and I'm in the park, on a trail, and can ride for up to 100 miles. To keep my two horses in this stable, I pay $370 a month. For 1993 alone, my economic impact to Santa Clara County via the stable was $4,440. Add the other 112 horses in this barn to my figures and the total for this barn is $253,080 yearly. Add the other eight barns and a conservative economic impact for boarding horses around Ed Levin Park for trail riding is several million dollars a year.

Vet and shoeing bills add another million dollars per year. Feed and tack stores also profit from the horse owners around the park. Plus there were figures on horses trailered in; all had to pay park entrance fees of $3 to ride the trails. So these estimates were totaled at $5 million per year and presented to park staff on what the trails of Ed Levin Park are really worth to Santa Clara County.

The outcome of the meeting was received in a letter from the director of the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department. It stated: "It was decided that gates in Ed Levin Park would be closed between the hours of dusk and dawn by park personnel, but will not be locked."

This was just one trail system in one park. The horseman on a trail is a visible aspect of trail use, but the economic impact of that horseman is just beginning to be realized.

Horse trailer license fees should also be accounted for. Simply count the number of trailers in the area, call the department of motor vehicles for an estimate of license fees, and multiply by the number of trailers to get a yearly economic impact. A portion of license fees goes to the county or city, and part to the state. So when one horse owner sells a trailer because of lack of trails to haul to in a reasonable distance, not only do the city and county lose revenue, the state loses also.

On top of trailer fees, add the cost of fuel for the towing vehicle. And don't forget those other dollars spent by horse owners when returning from a trail ride-- dinner at a local restaurant, groceries bought at the local grocery store, and so on.

In some areas, commercial packers, dude ranches, or rental strings also use trails. They pay a business license, a percentage fee, and insurance premiums to the part or trail system. They hire individuals to lead groups and maintain the property, so employment is also an economic impact. If the trail was closed, how much money would a park or county lose because of the closure of that business?

What is the economic impact on tourist trade in the area? How much is spent in air fares getting there? In motels, restaurants? At local stores for clothing and gear? All are directly related economic impacts because of a specific horse-related service in a specific area using a specific trail.

Some businesses close to trails cater to trail users, and their very existence can be directly related to trail users. For example, a small deli-restaurant in Fremont, California, located on the Alameda Creek Trail has placed hitch posts in a small grove of trees off to one side of the establishment. On a sunday, all 18 hitch posts have horses tied to them as riders sit at picnic tables in the trees enjoying lunch.

According to the owner, Al Wilson, "I'd say 25% of my weekend business comes from the horsemen on this trail. I also get a lot of hikers and bikers from the other trail, but I'd never have thought a trail could help me out with business like this has. It was sort of an afterthought when we opened, and business on weekends was slow. If I lose this trail business I would definitely feel an impact. I'd probably lay off one or two of my weekend help."

So economic impact extends not only to the actual trail user but to support businesses that derive an income from the individuals who use the trail.

In addition an economic impact can be generated for the agency owning the trail. The sales of T-shirts, jackets, books, patches, and maps, plus parking fees and trail permit fees, are all monies derived for an agency because of the trail. If the trail wasn't there, there would be no sales.

All of the volunteer hours spent developing and maintaining trails are economic impacts, too. Those hours and the cost of hauling volunteer personnel, equipment, and volunteered stock in to do the work are economic impacts and should be calculated and documented. volunteer economic impacts are generated dollars to keep and maintain trails with little financial cost to the agency.

As more and more users begin to venture out on the trails, there is going to be more demand for trail space. As agencies feel budget cuts and less tax monies flow in, trails are going to suffer.

Trail users who want to maintain their particular trail use or expand their trail systems must look beyond the tradition, the right, and the recreation aspects of trails. Trail users with the best economic impact statistics to offset financial costs are the ones who are going to hold on to critical trail space.

Facts and figures documenting what a trail is really worth can help the equine community be among the next century's trail users.

Bonnie Davis is a free-lance writer who lives in Fremont, California. She is active in environmental as well as equestrian matters.

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