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FROM WHERE I STAND

A place for commentary by HUPC members.
This contribution is by board member Margaret Pettis

Trees by M. Pettis

When I was not yet 18, I had to sell Red, my spin-on-a-dime, rocket-quick quarter horse and tuck my shoeboxes and newspaper stuffed boxes full of shiny ribbons and trophies from horse shows and county fairs into a closet in my parents' house. I was headed to the university, not a good place for a horse-between-classes. When Red became the showy mount of another teenage girl on her way to barrel racing stardom in our northern California farm town, a significant part of my life transformed.

All of our childhood, my two sisters and I explored every bramble patch, vine-slung grove of trees and narrow sandy deer trail we could squeeze our three horses through to reach the secret shores of the Feather River. I swam my horse to the other shore, another county, and sun-dried on the beach while the horse any one of five I had had the fortune to call mine over the years- grazed in the shade where it was tied. Ours was a charmed life.

Horses galloped back into my life when I finished college and hired on as the wrangler for a dude ranch near Kooskia, Idaho, then as a mule packer for the Forest Service in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area. Nothing in my young discovery of "wild" places along a riverbank could have prepared me for the rugged mountainous terrain I patrolled for those summers with a pack string for a week at a time. It was sheer joy to travel, spend long days, and awaken in wilderness, daily realizing the incredible foresight of its activists and legislators, and what wild land all Americans may call their own.

My Utah mare died two years ago at 28 years old. For 18 years she and I had explored the hills and mountains above our little town, blending in with wild creatures and open country.

But I know well the impact horses have on wild land. I have seen firsthand the damage done by horsemen who either don't care or don't act to prevent abuse of trees, trails, streams, meadows and other fragile systems of life intolerant of heavy stock presence. It is the men, not the animals, that are the root of the problem.

Given that there is no such thing as light impact with six or eight 800 pound animals carrying 200 pound riders and all the gear a pack horse or mule can tolerate (I won't address the humane issue here), I know how to camp as lightly as possible with stock. I discovered it on my own, was instructed by a knowledgeable Forest Service muleskinner, practiced knots from manuals, and have since witnessed good examples in the backcountry.

However, what I generally see in wilderness sickens me because I know it takes only a little planning to camp right. I offer an experience I had in July as a more than clear example.

The broad meadow skirting the cirque that holds Amethyst Lake is rimmed by one of the worst horse camp disasters I have seen. A mighty fire pit, where flames could have been spotted by an airliner on approach to Salt Lake City, was encircled by sections of logs suitable for table tops. In the charred ring were aluminum wrappers and melted plastic; tossed in the vegetation was an assortment of trash, including a half dozen big, red tomatoes only recently left by the culprits. Green branches had been lopped off pines and laid as bedding, a tent trough remained gouged in the ground, and soil was compressed by too many camping at one site for too long.

But the damage by the horses was most heinous. That the perpetrators of this forest violence had 23 horses with them, I doubt. But they probably moved eight to three trees each. The two dozen spruce and pine trees, exposed and sliced in a precarious elevation with shallow soils, were root-hammered by the nervous striking of shod horses that were barn-sour, not familiar with mountains, left too long, and/or definitely not tied correctly. While I won't present a litany of methods for caring for trees (a rope or nylon line snugged between two trees with a cloth buffer to protect the bark at either end would have salvaged those ancient, now damaged old trees), suffice it to say it can be done.

The trunks were bitten into and scarred by nervous teeth (cribbing.) Ropes had severed the bark. Manure filled deep, churned troughs ringing each tree. The place smelled of urine.

In traveling light, I hadn't carried a camera. But I checked the registration box when I returned to the trailhead to see if the culprit had signed in. One group of stock listed Amethyst as its destination. Was it that group who had so mindlessly destroyed a wild mountain? I shudder to visit that high wild place next year. Will the trees already display the deterioration of their lives?

I recently learned that a bill called the Right to Ride Legislation (HR 2966) has just passed the U. S House. I understand that this bill would protect horse users' rights to use public land, not permit limitations in group size by federal agencies, and essentially allow them an inalienable right to persist in their form of recreation. As you can tell, I support horses as a means of travel in wilderness. I not only believe it represents an historical use, one that can offer great pleasure and access, especially in America's larger wilderness areas (the Uintas included), but also realize that it was included as an acceptable use in the Wilderness Act. Motorcycles, mountain bikes, scooters, snowmobiles, ATVs, and mechanized modes of travel were forbidden. For that, I am so thankful. Preservation of primitive skills (and silence) were precious, recognized values of the wilderness legislation.

FROM WHERE I STAND, the Forest Service must do a better job of preventing such abuse of our wilderness legacy by ill-trained, or intentional, horse handlers, in small or large numbers; closely monitor guides, outfitters and packers who offer frequent, commercial hunting or fishing trips; increase instructive contacts by wilderness rangers at trailheads and popular wilderness camps; and limit the group size in areas where congregations of pack stock would damage sensitive lands.

IS HUPC anti-horse? No. Does HUPC want to see horse use regulated so that the concern for mountains supercedes man's use of them? Yes. Any time an industry seeks to prioritize its form of recreation, we must step forward to assure that doesn't happen.

All of us can enjoy wilderness. But it takes restraint and forethought to do it right... for the land's sake.


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