Pigeon River & Beyond - Back Country Horsemen, Michigan

Mr Dick Kleinhardt interview to the house reporter

Gongwer Wednesday May 14

No More Horse Riding Off Pigeon River Trails

Last week Dick Kleinhardt found out he would be an outlaw if he kept riding horses on remote trails in the Pigeon River Country State Park.

On May 8, Department of Natural Resources Director Rebeca Humphries signed a land use order that restricted horse riding and camping in the 118,000 acre park that is home to the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi.

For the last 20 years Mr. Kleinhardt has hauled his horses to Pigeon River to ride with his children and grandchildren, who joined him and about 50 other citizens at a Tourism, Outdoor Recreation and Natural Resources Committee meeting on Tuesday to discuss the restrictions.

"I think, frankly, it is discrimination," he told the committee.  "Of the 12 legislative offices I spoke to about a week ago, only two of them had heard of the Pigeon River legislation," he said.

Speaking in support of the restriction, Department of Natural Resources Legislative Liaison Dan Eichinger said it was a balance that his department was looking to create. "The unregulated, off-trail riding is having an impact on the wildlife and the Pigeon River," he said. "Many of us agree that the Pigeon River is being loved to death."

There is still 280 miles of trail available for horseback riders in the Pigeon River area, according to the DNR. But those 280 miles are limited to part of the Shore-to-Shore Riding-Hiking Trail, county roads, open forest roads and open service trails. Riders had previously been advised not to travel outside of those roads and trails but no formal restrictions had been in place until they took effect on May 9. Much of the now-available trails are on roads with motor vehicle traffic.

Rep. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) asked Mr. Eichinger why the DNR had decided to hire a conservation officer after the regulation was in place.

"This is about horse riding going off the trail, yet you didn't hire a CO to deal with it (before), yet now you're hiring a CO after the riders can't go off the trails," asked Mr. Casperson.

Mr. Eichinger admitted the DNR had done a poor job on enforcing trail-riding rules, but said that enforcement had to happen along with regulation.

Amy Spray, resource policy specialist for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said the new regulations would give teeth to what had been informal recommendations. "It's really the difference, if you're from local government, between planning and zoning," she said.

The MUCC supported the new restrictions and Ms. Spray said her organization is open to the idea of an access pass that would allow horse riders and others to contribute to buying and supporting land.

Of the Pigeon River's 118,000 acres, 53,000 acres were purchased with funds from hunting and fishing permits.

In order to qualify for federal Pittman-Robertson funds, Mr. Eichinger said that the DNR could not appear to use the Pigeon River lands for purposes other than hunting or wildlife management. "Lands purchased using hunting funds can only be used for hunting or wildlife management," he said.

He said the DNR was advised in a federal pre-audit report that $10.6 million the federal government had given recently could be revoked.

Following the meeting, Committee Chairman Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch, said he wanted to talk with various committee members and had yet to hear from some interested parties, including the National Rifle Association. He said today's meeting was scheduled before the DNR order was signed and he would have preferred to have heard comment before then but would have to learn more before any potential legislative solutions could be examined.

"We may very well have another committee meeting on this," he said. "I'd like some time to sort through this."