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Back Country Horsemen of America – From the East Coast to the West Coast

Just over 1 ½ years ago, a group of Florida equestrians, concerned that their access to the state’s public lands was diminishing at an alarming rate, founded the Florida Forever Back Country Horsemen (FFBCH) in March, 2007. The group became an affiliate of its parent group, Back County Horsemen of America (BCHA), just one month later. Said FFBCH President Truman Prevatt, “the FFBCH was formed as I suspect most BCH chapters are formed - to address issues facing recreational horseback riders concerning their right to ride on public lands.” Despite living in a state where large parcels of land have been added to the public inventory over the past 17 years, Florida horsemen were finding that their opportunities to use these lands were either decreasing or being eliminated.

In 1990, the Preservation 2000 ballot initiative was passed by Florida voters, which established a one billion dollar fund to purchase land that would be conserved for public recreational use over the next decade. In 2000, Florida voters overwhelming supported another preservation ballot which added additional funds for the continued purchase of private lands that would be converted for public use. These measures have placed over 1/3rd of the Florida’s land in public ownership, increasing recreational opportunities for many user groups with the exception of equestrians. Recognizing this trend, FFBCH was born.

With the philosophies of its parent organization in mind, FFBCH members set a priority of mending the strained relationship between horseback riders and the state’s land managers, which was marginal at best. A vicious cycle was in place with most horsemen not recognizing the need to help land managers with trails leading to resentment of equestrians’ use of the land by the same land mangers. With the majority of Florida’s land in state ownership, it was clear that this was a situation that needed to be addressed immediately. As a first step, FFBCH approached the issue with a two-tiered plan focused on Withlacoochee State Forest, the largest state forest in Florida. First, the group would work to repair relations between equestrians and Forest Service personnel and second, it would work to reopen the forest’s equestrian trail that had been closed due to hurricane damage since 2004 with volunteer labor. In just one year, FFBCH accomplished each goal, utilizing ideals central to BCHA – those of partnership, education, and volunteerism.

In addressing its first goal, “we were able to, through a long process that included reaching out to land managers on both the state and local level, turn the situation around. FFBCH worked with the Withlacoochee staff to reroute trails off Forest Service roads and onto wooded trails, as well as create new routes away from badly eroded areas to more sustainable trail treads”, said Prevatt. Following another BCHA mantra, that it is necessary to recognize public lands must be shared by all, FFBCH assisted in the formation of a trail committee consisting of equestrians, mountain bikers, and hikers. These efforts were tremendously successful and within a year the relationship between FFBCH and Withlacoochee staff has become a partnership that is actively solving problems facing land use in the forest.

At the same time, FFBCH tackled its second goal by partnering with the Florida Department of Greenways and Trails, the agency responsible for the equestrian trail at Withlacoochee. After three hurricanes severely damaged this area in 2004, the trail was closed and never reopened due Greenways and Trails inability to accomplish the needed work on its own and the lack of any organized group stepping forward to offer assistance. FFBCH took on this role, holding the first work day at the forest in October, 2007. This past June, the 10 mile Withlacoochee State Trail officially opened to equestrians. “It was with chain saws, loppers, pole saws, individuals with tractors, and gloved volunteers dragging brush that we have cleared ten miles of horse trails that have been mostly impassable for years,” said work crew member Steve Stackhouse. Needless to say, FFBCH is very proud of this accomplishment and forest service personal are equally thankful for the 345 volunteer hours donated by the group.

“The first year of FFBCH has been a successful one. We managed to turn a poor working relationship with the land managers in West Central Florida into a partnership. This has resulted in a triumphant effort to coordinate and connect trails in three different locations under the jurisdiction of three different land managers into an integrated trail system. We intend to build on these new working relationships and expand this model to other land management agencies in 2008,” stated Prevatt as he summed up his group’s first year.

FFBCH is an affiliate of Back Country Horsemen of America, which was founded as a service and educational organization with a determination to protect the heritage of recreational stock use, not just in the wilderness, but on virtually all public lands. To this end, the 16,000 plus members of Back Country Horsemen of America have donated an impressive 1,646,519 volunteer hours to date at a value of $37, 205,036 as a gift to all users of public lands in the U.S. If you would like to help, visit http://www.backcountryhorse.com or call toll free 888-893-5161.

 

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