Stewardship on Four Legs
BCHW and WLT trail ride

Partnering with the Backcountry Horsemen of Whatcom County

On a beautiful day in mid-July, four Whatcom Land Trust staff members mounted three horses and one mule to join members of the Backcountry Horsemen of Whatcom County (BCHW) on a trail ride. As we rode through the mixed landscapes of northern Whatcom County, we talked about the importance of stewarding these lands for future generations and how horses can play an important role in ensuring continued access to these beautiful places.

Part of northwest Washington’s irresistible draw is the endless supply of opportunities for outdoor recreation. There are limitless ways to experience nature from high to low altitudes and wet to dry seasons. Recreation is important to the Land Trust as we seek to protect a vast swath of special places in Whatcom County. Over our history, we have factored in recreational use on properties where it can complement our other priorities such as the enhancement of habitat, water quality, and working lands. With this in mind, we have partnered with a multitude of recreational interests to protect land including Galbraith Mountain, Stimpson Family Nature Reserve, Lake Whatcom and Lookout Mountain Parks, and numerous other County and District parks.

BCHW member clearing fallen trees at Edfro Creek

For the backcountry horsemen, like many Washington residents and recreation seekers, observing the land isn’t enough. It’s a give and take relationship. Mike McGlenn, Trailhead Chair of the Whatcom Chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen Association (BCHW), has been a strong and long-term supporter of outdoor recreation, land protection and the Land Trust, and has led the chapter in a variety of positions since 1986. McGlenn points out, “The majority of modern horse users are conservationists at heart and practice ‘leave no trace’ or ‘be gentle on the land’ principles” BCHW helps build and clean up trails, pack in supplies for maintenance and transplant fish in high lakes that are difficult to reach by foot or vehicle. McGlenn and 130 other horsemen haul out garbage and work with private and government agencies to open and maintain public access to these trails. In 2017, 13,000 members of the national organization (BCHA) volunteered for 324,000 hours and completed almost $13 million worth of work on trails from coast to coast.

  • Horse use is allowed on selected Land Trust protected properties, so don’t be too surprised if you come across a horse and its rider or even a pack string (a group of horses and/or mules packing in supplies) while you’re out. McGlenn offers this advice if you do come across a horse on the trail:
  • The hiker or biker should make their presence known to the horseman as soon as practical by talking to the rider. This will let the horses know there is a person in that big package of nylon.
  • The hiker should step off the trail on the low side. If the horse is going to spook he will spook away from the hiker, going uphill instead of off the bank down the hill.
  • The hiker and the horseman should continue to talk during the passing so the horses continue to be aware of the hiker’s presence.
  • Please don’t hide behind a tree or stump, we are all much safer if we can see each other and the horses can see you.
  • A pack string is difficult to stop and manage when stopped, the rider will be inclined to keep moving along. He is not being rude but trying to keep you and his stock safe.
  • Common sense and courtesy are more important than who has the right of way. Talk to each other and see who has the easiest and safest way to allow the passing of the stock and hikers or bikers.
  • Dogs should be under control and leashed on Land Trust property. Most riding horses have experienced dogs but one charging up in front or behind can cause a wreck.
  • When walking around horses in a trailhead keep in mind that you don’t want to come up behind them and startle them. Come up to them from one of the quarters, preferably the front right or left talking to them. It doesn’t really matter what you are saying just that they know someone, a person, is approaching.

“Communication and courtesy are key in all meeting situations with stock, hikers and bikers. I have been riding trails since 1985, 36 years, and I still learn something every time I ride the horse,” McGlenn says.

Mule string packing timbers

McGlenn emphasized the importance of acquiring land as soon as possible and figuring out what to do with it later. Once developed, land can never fully revert and it can be difficult to recreate a natural environment. Community recreational user groups like the BCHA offer direction for Land Trust properties through open dialogue and inspirational ideas. McGlenn is undaunted by the idea of leaving the seeds of this legacy behind, referencing a quote by Nelson Henderson, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

To learn more about the Whatcom Chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen visit their website here.

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