In 1973, a group of Montana cowboys formed the Back Country Horsemen of America to fight to preserve horse access to public lands in the face of emerging regulatory barriers.
On an Oregon Cascades hillside splashed with fall colors one late-September morning, the barriers facing Becky Hope and a half-dozen other Back Country Horsemen were physical, not regulatory.
Downed trees &
some of them with trunks two feet or more in diameter &
were scattered like jackstraws along Winchester Ridge Trail in the Waldo Wilderness, blocking passage every few yards.
For unsuspecting hikers or horse packers, the obliterated trail would mean disappointment and a ruined outing at worst, or a sudden change of plans at best.
For Hope and her posse of volunteers, however, the downed trees were a good excuse for a day of riding and working in the mountains.
With a pack horse laden with axes, saws and other hand tools, the group of six women and two men had come to clear trail.
"The Forest Service assured me this trail was logged out just last year," Hope said. "Obviously, a lot of trees blew down over the winter. A lot of trees."
Most of the downed trees were dead snags left behind by a forest fire that swept along the ridge several years ago.
When it's passable, the Winchester Ridge Trail provides "a great day ride" over a 13-mile loop, Hope said, with vistas overlooking the Six Lakes Basin.
But the jumble of downed trees made the south half of the loop useless.
"I don't expect to get through the whole field (of downed trees) today," Hope told her fellow volunteers at the trailhead. "We're just up here long enough to put a dent in things."
The denting would have to be done with hand tools, because they were about two miles inside the wilderness, where chainsaws and other power tools are prohibited.
With sharp cross-cut saws, however, two-person teams were able to slice through the thickest trunks in a matter of minutes.
"If your arms get sore, switch off," Hope said. "The reason we have so many bodies up here is so we can switch off."
It took every available body, however, to lift or roll some of the larger sawed-off sections of log away from the trail.
The band of volunteers was able to remove 25 to 30 trees from the trail before it was time to saddle up for the 40-minute ride back to the trailhead, and the two-hour drive down the mountain to Eugene.
The Back Country Horsemen's contribution to keeping recreational trails open is "significant," said Ryan Brown, recreation planner for the Middle Fork Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest.
"They get a lot of work done out there," he said. "We value very much their contributions."
Hope says the Forest Service is relying more and more on horsemen, mountain bikers, hikers and other recreational users to do trail maintenance that once was the exclusive province of federal employees.
But not all of the group's volunteer community service work is as labor-intensive as logging out blow-downs.
"With all the cutbacks over the years, they sometimes don't have personnel to even check their own trails to see what needs to be done," Hope said.
Riding trails and reporting back on their condition, hauling trout into high lakes for release for the state fish and wildlife department, and packing gear and personnel into backcountry work sites for public employees or other volunteer groups are among the other services BCHO volunteers have routinely provided in the 15 years since the first chapters were organized in Hood River and Klamath Falls.
Hope got the Eugene-area Emerald Empire chapter going about eight years ago, when she and her husband, Matt, moved to Pleasant Hill from Washington, where they were active in that state's Back Country Horsemen affiliate.
The organization's founders had based their philosophy on working with public land managers, rather than against them. According to a history posted on the group's Web site, the founders believed "a service club, doing work in the back country" would have more credibility in helping shape agency management than another protest group that simply criticized proposed changes.
Nationally, Back Country Horsemen average more than 110,000 hours per year on service projects.
In addition, the organizers "recognized that some of the complaints against back country horse use were justified" and decided an educational program promoting responsible use of public lands "should be a fundamental principle of the group."
The BCHO and its chapters promote "leave no trace" camping and stock-use techniques, such as traveling and camping on durable surfaces, not cutting "switchbacks," keeping stock single file on trails, tying stock well away from water sources and scattering manure.
The group puts on several educational and training seminars in Oregon every year, including an annual three-day Horse Packing and Wilderness Skills Clinic in Klamath Falls that draws more than 3,000 people, Hope said.
But the group is not all work. Its calendar also includes plenty of trail rides, campouts and other purely recreational activities.
"We ride a minimum of one day a week just as a group of friends," Hope said. "But as Back Country Horsemen, our main focus is to keep trails open."
Back Country Horsemen ride high to keep trails open