Horse trails bill gets second hearing

FRANKFORT — A bill that would end what horseback riders say is discrimination against them on state recreation lands got an unusual second hearing before a legislative committee Thursday, with Wildlife Management Areas in the cross hairs.

Jon Gassett, commissioner of the Department for Fish and Wildlife Resources, told the House Tourism Development and Energy Committee that his agency has done a good job in creating trails for horses.

There are 180 miles of trails on wildlife areas, he said, and more than 500 miles of gravel or dirt roads suitable for horses.

Legislators weren't buying it.

"The perception is that you are dug in, that you are not supportive of the horse industry in our state," said Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington.

The wildlife areas are purchased or leased with money that comes from people who hunt and fish, Gassett said. Part of that money comes from licenses and part from a federal excise tax on hunting and fishing equipment.

Allowing horses — or even spending money and staff time on holding hearings on whether to allow horses — could jeopardize the federal portion of those funds, Gassett said.

The Kentucky Horse Council, which is backing House Bill 312, contends that other states have found ways to expand horse trails on wildlife areas without putting the federal money at risk.

The bill would require agencies that manage "state recreation lands" to notify the public of any plans to close foot trails to horses and to prove there is a valid reason behind the closure.

It also would require that state agencies make sure that horse travel "grows and flourishes."

A hearing on the bill last week centered on state nature preserves. Opponents of the bill say that the preserves are there to protect rare plants, animals and ecosystems, and are not "recreation lands."

Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, said there have been a number of meetings between the horse council and state agencies. He said he hopes to have a compromise bill next week, but it was unclear whether it would be ready in time for a committee vote.

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