Legislation seeks to quell horseback-riding debate

Lansing – A pair of bills passed last month by the state
Legislature attempts to put an end to the controversy as to where
horseback riding may or may not occur on state-owned lands.

A debate arose two years ago over trail-riding regulations when
DNRE Director Rebecca Humphries signed a land-use order that
restricted bicycle and equestrian use in the Pigeon River Country
State Forest to designated trails. That order was part of a
long-overdue updated management plan for the PRCSF, also known as
the Big Wild. The plan had not been revised since 1985.

At issue was the fact that a significant portion of the PRC was
purchased with state Game and Fish Fund money (hunting and fishing
license fees) as well as federal excise taxes on sporting goods.
That means the DNRE is mandated by law to manage the PRCSF
primarily for hunting and fishing and to preserve that opportunity
in perpetuity. Some recreational activities taking place in the PRC
were not compatible with hunting and fishing.

The PRCSF consists of approximately 177 square miles of pristine
northern Michigan wilderness. It is the largest uninterrupted wild
area in the Lower Peninsula and is the home of Michigan’s elk
herd.

Senate Bill 578 and House Bill 4610 call for the formation of an
Equine Trailways Subcommittee and for the DNRE to develop a
state-wide trail system for horseback riders.

“This (legislation) is something I_have been pushing for for
years,” said Bob Jacobson, president of the Michigan Conservation
Foundation and a member of the Pigeon River Country Steering
Committee. “All of those recreational activities (like horseback
riding and bicycle riding) should be on fixed, identified trails
only, not throughout the backwoods.”

That’s what SB 578 establishes. The bill reads in part: “Within
1 year after receiving recommendations from the advisory council
under subsection (4), the department shall establish a plan for a
statewide trail network that includes Michigan trailways, pack and
saddle trailways, and other recreational use trails. The plan for a
statewide trail network shall be designed to accommodate a variety
of public recreation uses and shall specify the types of uses that
are allowed on each trail segment.”

The bill further states: “A person shall not use pack and saddle
animals on state-owned land except on pack and saddle trailways
that are open for access by pack and saddle animals.”

That last sentence is key, because it makes it illegal for
horseback riders to leave designated trails and ride cross country,
which is what created much of the controversy in the PRCSF.

HB 4610 establishes a six-person Equine Trailways Subcommittee,
which will be appointed by the DNRE director. Two members of that
subcommittee will be appointed to the Michigan Snowmobile and
Trailways Advisory Council, which was expanded from nine to 11
members.

“It’s basically a two-year process,” said Jim Radabaugh, the
state trails coordinator for the DNRE. “The subcommittee is
required to make recommendations within a year after it is formed,
to the advisory council. The advisory council then has one year to
make a plan.”

The legislation calls for the development of riding trails,
something Radabaugh said the state already has.

To date there are some 21 equestrian campgrounds with more than
500 sites available to riders. The state allows horses on over 200
miles of trails (not including forest roads and seasonal roads), in
addition to the Shore-to-Shore Equestrian Riding and Hiking Trail,
which provides over 400 miles of trails – half on state land -_and
stretches from Empire on the west side of the state to Oscoda on
the east.

“We already have trails established,” Radabaugh said. “We have
been doing this and we will continue to do this.”

HB 4610 also calls for a review of existing trail regulations.
It calls for a review of regulations in the PRCSF no later than
June 15, 2010; the Lapeer State Game Area no later than Jan. 1,
2011; and the Lost Nation SGA and the Blueberry Ridge Pathway no
later than Jan. 1, 2012.

Radabaugh said the Pigeon River Access Work Group is reviewing
the trail-riding regs for the PRCSF_and will make recommendations
to the DNRE director at the Natural Resources Commission meeting
May 6 in Lansing. Public comment will be taken at the NRC’s June 6
meeting, when any recommendations will likely be up for director
action.

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