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The Incredible Back Country Horsemen

According to Montana volunteer Mark Himmel, vice chairman of BCHA, every single trail you have ever ridden has been touched by the hands of a BCHA volunteer. Next year will be the 55th anniversary of Back Country Horsemen of America. Oh, and I should mention… about half of their members are women!

Their website states:

Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA) is a nation-wide organization that is committed to protecting the access of equestrians to public lands. We are devoted equestrians who love to ride and explore new trails.

Unless you are a member of a BCHA chapter, you probably don’t know a whole lot about this dedicated group of volunteers. Currently, there are 212 chapters in 31 states. There are roughly 13,000 members doing trail work nationwide. Each chapter operates independently. They recognize that horseback users bear some responsibility for maintaining the trail system, as well as insuring that the trails are not overrun by other user groups.

back country horsemen
How are public lands managed and funded?

BCHA volunteers are watchdogs, paying attention to legislation that affects horse use or access to public lands. Mark gave me a great overview of how our public land trail system is managed.

The US Forest Service operates under the Department of Agriculture. There are 9 regions across the US. According to Mark, (although he implied that he will anger some people by stating this), the primary function of the US Forest Service is to protect the watershed. However, the Forest Service website defines its mission as follows:

To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

Mark told me that the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, owns flatlands that borders the forests. Often they cross BLM land in order to access the forest trails they maintain. The BLM and national parks are under the management of the Department of the Interior. The BLM mission statement is virtually identical to the Forest Service, substituting “public lands” for “forests and grasslands.”

Mark says that every trail is on a map and has an assigned number. The Forest Service evaluates the trails on a rotating basis. Funding from the government is based upon how many miles of trails are needing maintenance. For instance, the Bob Marshall wilderness in Montana has 26,000 miles of trail on a 5-year rotation.

The role of Back Country Horsemen of America

Back Country Horsemen volunteers help to maintain public lands at all levels. They work with all of the agencies I have mentioned. BCHA members clear trails and check for erosion. Mark’s assigned area is the Bob Marshall wilderness in Montana. He volunteers 2 weekends a month, putting in 8 hour days. The group averages 12 miles per day, and cut or remove between 70-120 trees or tree limbs per workday.

Volunteer work groups average between 7 and 20 riders. Mark likes to keep it around 7. They do it because they enjoy it, and they like the fact that they are making a difference. In addition to trail maintenance, the groups help the Forest Service by providing pack animal assistance. Their website states:

The majority of our pack trips with horses and mules assist trail crews get food, camping gear, and trail maintenance equipment into areas where four-wheeled vehicles cannot go. We help two-footed trail workers get more done by packing in what they need.

BCHA members train volunteers about horse safety and chain saw use. They work closely with the American Horse Council, the American Hiking Society, Scout groups and other recreational use organizations. They contribute time and energy to local 4-H programs and teach youth proper horse safety. They plant seeds in those youth to enjoy and appreciate horseback riding, with the hopes that some of those young riders will join the organization when their careers begin to wind down.

Gypsies of the forest

Mark joked that he likes to say that BCHA members are like the gypsies of the forest. They move around a lot and most of the time no one sees them. I would be the first to admit that I, personally, had no idea how much impact the organization has on all of the trails that I take for granted.

In addition to maintaining our beloved trails, BCHA chapters are a wealth of information for trip planning. Search out a local chapter in an area where you’d like to ride. Find out where you can horse camp, what kinds of facilities are there, what trails are available, how to access the trails, and what time of year is best to visit. Find out how far in you can go based on what size and type of rig you are driving. Locate the best parking spots, and figure out how long you want to stay in one place before you find the next great place to park and ride.

I asked Mark if he had a key point that he wanted me to share. He replied, “Encourage folks to get out and see what we do!” I questioned him as to whether or not he thought the average horseback rider or trail user had any idea about how much BCHA volunteers contribute? He responded that they were the “best kept secret of the Forest Service.”

I am signed up for NetPosse notifications. I know that BCHA volunteers have been involved in many missing horse scenarios over the years. They have contributed invaluable eyes, ears, and hands to recovery after wildfires have decimated public and private lands. Since 1995, BCHA members have contributed over $170 million in volunteer hours.

I’d like to suggest that you utilize this incredible wealth of information when you are planning a ride or a camping trip. And I’d also like to suggest that you never miss an opportunity to share your appreciation with these hard-working folks. Their efforts make our trail riding experiences far safer and more enjoyable. Happy Trails!

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