Riders and environmentalists debate closing trails to horses

FRANKFORT — Kentucky is known around the world for its horses.

It also has some beautiful, environmentally sensitive lands — the kind of places that Daniel Boone would recognize — that are protected in nature preserves.

Those two things have come into conflict on the Brush and Cumberland mountains in the southeastern corner of the state, where a historic horse trail was closed to protect a delicate ecosystem.

On Thursday, the conflict arrived at a legislative committee meeting in Frankfort.

The Kentucky Horse Council, which claims 3,000 trail-riding members, is backing House Bill 312. It would require agencies that manage "state recreation land" to notify the public of any plans to close foot trails to horses and prove that there is a good reason behind the ban.

State officials would be required to "ensure that equine travel on state recreation land grows and flourishes, in keeping with the commonwealth's internationally recognized equine heritage."

Ginny Grulke of Lexington, the council's executive director, says that riding trails on horseback is a rapidly growing pastime, especially among baby boomers.

But, she said, other states are doing a better job of providing places to ride and reaping tourism dollars.

"If you look across the nation, Kentucky is on the low end of public land available," Grulke said.

Environmental groups who oppose the bill in its current form say they are in favor of what is called "adventure tourism." However, they say, nature preserves are "living museums" that should be off limits to horses.

The horse council began working on a potential legislative fix after a horse trail was closed in Harlan County. State agencies "discriminate" against horses in many places in Kentucky, Grulke said, but the Harlan County trail was a last straw.

The trail apparently had been used for more than a century, starting with the 1904 establishment of the Hensley Settlement on Brush Mountain in what now is Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

In modern times, the trail had been the only way to get into the national park from Harlan County.

The state's Wild Rivers Program bought 1,600 acres to protect a stream that tumbles down the mountain. In 2006, the land officially became the Martin's Fork Wildlife Management Area/State Natural Area, and horses were banned.

The area is managed by the rivers program, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.

Besides the stream, the area contains nine plants and three animals that the Nature Preserves Commission considers endangered, threatened or of special concern.

Horses, or any pets, aren't allowed in nature preserves or natural areas.

Don Dott, executive director of the commission, said that horses can bring in the seeds of invasive species on their hooves, coats or manure. The invasive species can then out-compete native species, driving them to the brink of extinction.

Nature preserves are open to hikers. But having to provide trails sturdy enough to accommodate horses and finding room to park horse trailers would strain his agency's limited budget and staff, Dott said.

He said it would be difficult to prove that opening a specific nature preserve trail to horses would, for example, introduce an invasive plant such as garlic mustard. But invasives already are a major problem in every preserve, he said.

Grulke and Dott testified Thursday before the House Tourism Development and Energy Committee.

Also testifying were people who ride horses or run businesses that cater to horseback riders, and environmental groups.

Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said that nature preserves have no place in the proposed legislation.

"They are not 'state recreation areas,' they are remnant natural communities," he said.

Committee members took turns voicing their support for horses and tourism.

But Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, warned that opening state lands to horses could spur demands by other groups, such as people who ride off-road vehicles.

Several committee members said the opposing sides need to get together and work toward a compromise.

At the end of a two-hour hearing, the committee chairman, Rep. Eddie Ballard, D-Madisonville, strongly suggested that negotiations take place. HB 312 "needs a lot of work done on it," he said.