Right-to-Ride Means Responsibility
There’s a group of folks who work endlessly to ensure public land remains public. Nationally, the group is known as the Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA). More than 20 states have chapters or are affiliated with the national group.
Alabama currently has three local chapters: Warrior Mountain, Owl Creek and Central Alabama.
The national group began in the early 1970s with one organization in Montana. Gradually, more and more people joined the effort and started chapters all over the country.
Almost three years ago, Mike Bagwell and a couple of other folks got together and formed the Warrior Mountain Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Alabama (BCHAL). Bagwell serves as the chapter chairman.
Bagwell loves riding in the back country and believes whole-heartedly the privilege also comes with responsibility.
"We try to educate the public about Back Country Horsemen and what its purpose is," Bagwell said. "We try to teach people that in order for public land to remain open it must be cared for."
One way BCHAL tries to educate the public is to get the public involved in local projects in the back country like the Sipsey Wilderness in the Bankhead National Forest.
In May, Bagwell and his Warrior Mountain group helped to clear Trail 208 in the Sipsey Wilderness.
To transport tools down the trail, the group used pack mules and a wagon.
"We have a volunteer agreement with the forest service to maintain Trails 208 and 223," Bagwell said. "We cut them back to a 10 to 12-foot corridor."
Bagwell explained the wider path allows wagons access to the trail.
In the wilderness areas, no power tools are allowed. All the work must be done manually, explained Warrior Mountain Vice Chairman James Alexander.
"What we actually do is — on horseback — carry cross-cut saws, axes and things to cut the trails out," Alexander said.
He recalled, following the April tornadoes, he and members of the U.S. Forestry Service rode into the forest to take pictures of the storm damage.
Since the storms, much of the damage has been cleaned up, in part by the help of the BCHAL.
That volunteer work can really add up. According to Bagwell, the BCHAL donated more than $32,000 worth of work to the Forest Service in 2010.
BCHAL Vice Chairman Ron Hill noted much of that work was done by clearing trails in Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness. Many new trails were created, cleared and marked at the Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham and the Wind Creek State Park in Alexander City.
Hill noted members of the BCHAL have worked hard with local forestry officials to ensure trails remain open and accessible.
"After the tornado damage, all the trails at the Owl Creek Horse Camp were closed," Hill said. "James (Alexander) and some other guys went in with the forest rangers to see what was wrong. Then these guys went back in and cleared it out. The forest service opened it back up in record time. It was opened the next day."
Membership is Growing
Hill said the local chapters are continuing to add members and look to expand their ranks very soon. The state hopes to add three more chapters in the near future.
In 2010, the Warrior Mountain Chapter had 55 members, while the Owl Creek and Central chapters had 42 and 25 members, respectively.
Trail rides are often used to draw in interested potential members. Please contact your local chapter for more information concerning upcoming rides.
Purposes of the Back Country Horsemen
According to Bagwell, the Back Country Horsemen exist for the following purposes:
* To perpetuate the common sense use and enjoyment of horses in America’s back country and wilderness areas.
* To work to insure public lands remain open to recreational stock use.
* To assist the various government, state and private agencies in their maintenance and management of said resource.
* To educate, encourage and solicit active participation in the use of the back country resource by stock users and the general public commensurate with our heritage.
* To foster and encourage the formation of new state organizations and BCHA.
In addition to educating the public and members about the Back Country Horsemen purpose, the group also practices the Leave No Trace principle and encourages everyone to do the same. The group also advocates proThis trail was recently cleared by the Owl Creek chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Alabama.
Not everyone has to be an experienced horseman. Bagwell said most, if not all, of the members are willing to share their knowledge with those interested in learning.
Bagwell relies on Walker Farmers Co-op in Jasper for much of his equine needs.
Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.