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BCHA Negotiates Solutions to Keep Trails Open Nationally

Since 2004, Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA) has struggled to make the US Forest Service aware of the impacts that their proposed trail classification system would have on all horse use of trails. An interim final rule on the Trails Classification System recognizes that the Forest Service has listened to BCHA and has attempted to resolve those concerns. As a result of a meeting held in Montana on October 6-8 with the Forest Service and a variety of other user groups, it is apparent that BCHA has not only renewed and strengthened their partnership with the Forest Service, but it has also gained the understanding of the other user groups attending.

Largely as a result of BCHA's 2005 litigation and negotiations on the new system, opportunities that recreational riders had before the historical system was changed in 1999 have been preserved. This will help keep public lands open for recreational horseback riding, which goes to the heart of BCHA’s mission.


Through much of the twentieth century, pack and saddle stock provided a primary means of transportation in our Nation's backcountry and wilderness. The wildland trail system was constructed by horsemen for horsemen. The historical three level system – mainline, secondary and way – developed by the US Forest Service prior to 1915, has served backcountry travelers well.

In the mid to late 1980s US Forest Service trail specialists from around the country met to review their trails handbook. They determined that mainline, secondary and way were not “visitor friendly” and changed the classification nomenclature to “easy, more difficult and most difficult.” The design guides or standards, however, remained unchanged until a small team of agency personnel overhauled the system beginning in 1999.

During the period 1999 to 2004, Forest Service field personnel were directed to inventory the existing trail system using guidelines in the new trail classification system.

BCHA heard rumors of the change, but was unable to learn the specifics until an internal draft fell into their hands in late spring of 2004. BCHA reviewed the draft and determined that the changes could have profound effects on traditional horse use.

The public was not involved in the process! No explanation of the “need for change” was given, no alternatives were considered, and there was no analysis of “effects” of the change on historic uses.

Even though the change could profoundly impact traditional trail use, the agency steadfastly insisted that the changes were within their discretional authority and it had no obligation to involve the public.

After several unsuccessful requests to gain an audience with Forest Service leadership, BCHA felt it necessary to retain legal counsel in order to get an opportunity to express its concerns. BCHA and their attorney were given an audience with the Forest Service team leaders who were facilitating the change process. No Forest Service personnel at the decision making level were present at that first meeting.

BCHA’s Actions:

BCHA was assured that their concerns would be addressed in the final draft. However when that draft was released, none of their concerns were incorporated. BCHA had no alternative other than to live with the new trails classification system or proceed with litigation.

The multiple purpose trail evolved within the Forest Service as a transportation facility to provide “(a) safe and unobstructed passage of loaded animals and foot travelers at a walking gait and in single file; and (b) durability designed to meet expected use and liability of damage from natural causes.” (Forest Service Trail Handbook, 1935). The proposed revision viewed trails in an entirely different manner -- as a recreational facility assigning trail standards to achieve experiences that the agency has interpreted to be appropriate across a spectrum of recreation opportunity. In the proposed classification system, three trail classes are appropriate in wilderness, only one of which would marginally accommodate pack stock, a second trail class would marginally accommodate a saddle horse and rider, and the third class would not accommodate either pack or saddle stock.

Except in fairly rare instances, all Forest Service trails were originally designed to standards that would accommodate equines. Mainline trails were constructed to a standard that would accommodate a full pack string of 5 to 9 animals, with loads up to 8’ wide and 10’ high. They were common throughout backcountry and in western wildernesses up through the 1990s and comprised up to or more than a third of the entire system. At the other end of the trail design spectrum, the standard for way trails was a clearing width of 3’ to 4’ and a clearing height of 8’. Although this is recognizably inadequate for packed animals, it would accommodate a saddle animal and rider through good weather and fall hunting seasons. One can assume that all or a portion of the old way trails would be reclassified as TC1, and as they become logged in over time, they will be inaccessible to all types of stock users.

Had BCHA not litigated, as much as 50% of the wilderness trail system may not have ultimately accommodated pack and saddle stock.

Results of BCHA’s Actions:

BCHA prevailed in its claim that the Forest Service violated provisions of the National Forest Management Act requiring public involvement. The Forest Service released an “interim” decision in October, 2008 to comply with the court's order, and scheduled a listening session to hear BCHA’s concerns.

The Interim Final Rule is a significant improvement over earlier drafts. The new trail standards will permit use of pack and saddle stock in almost all trail classifications. It also provides flexibility to use bridges and provides for signing at trail junctions in most classifications. Overall, the interim rule addresses most of the concerns that BCHA had with the initial rule, but there are still areas, such as trail classification 1, where BCHA remains concerned. There is a 60-day comment period for the new interim final rule (from October 16, 2008) during which BCHA will express its remaining concerns.

BCHA urges anyone to express their concerns with the proposed new rule during this comment period. Go to http://www.backcountyhorse.com for a link to the Trail Classification System Interim Final Rule.


Back Country Horsemen of America is a non-profit corporation made up of state organizations, affiliates, and at large members. Their efforts have brought about positive changes in regards to the use of horses and stock in the wilderness and public lands.

If you want to know more about Back Country Horsemen of America or become a member, visit their website: http://www.backcountryhorse.com, call 888-893-5161, or write PO Box 1367, Graham, WA 98338-1367.

The future of horse use on public lands is in our hands!


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