August 30 2017
by Sarah Wynne Jackson
Even today, over 40 years after its creation, Back Country Horsemen of America still adheres to the principles that guided its founders: keeping trails open for equestrians requires 1) a desire to keep trails open for all and 2) making yourself part of the solution with boots-on-the-ground trail work and generous distribution of responsible recreation skills through clinics and one-on-one instruction. The Buffalo River Chapter in Arkansas applies BCHA’s vision and mission to the wild lands in their state with determination, drive, and heart.
The Lands They Love
The Buffalo River Chapter BCH’s primary focus is the Buffalo National River and its watershed in northwest Arkansas. This National Park Service gem stretches 136 miles from Route 21, through five counties, to Route 14 and a Wilderness area also maintained by the NPS. Within and adjacent to the National River are Wilderness areas managed by the NPS and the US Forest Service, Ozark National Forest land, Wildlife Management Areas, and other conservation land.
Buffalo River Back Country Horsemen cherish this, America’s first National River. It flows freely nearly 150 miles from headwaters high in the Boston Mountains of Ozark National Forest to White River near Buffalo City. This national treasure encompasses almost 96,000 acres of rugged mountain terrain that is best accessed by horseback, massive limestone bluffs, deep hollows, and lush valleys.
Trails That Feel Like Home
BRBCH knows the 75 miles of equestrian trails very well. They ensure that they are clearly marked with yellow blazes, whether they are old road traces, gravel bars, or rocky mountain paths. These Back Country Horsemen remove downed trees, clear windfall, and repair water crossings on the trails that meander gently, crisscrossing the river many times. On the narrow, steep, and challenging trails, they repair washouts, dig out rocks in the trail tread, and lay down durable surfaces where needed.
Buffalo River Back Country Horsemen also maintain horse campsites, like the primitive camps at Steel Creek and Erbie, where recreationists find basic facilities like a pit toilet, fire grates, and places to hightie their horses. On the middle Buffalo, equestrians can stay at Woolum horse camp, which also has ample trailer parking. Wagon Gap and Hathaway camps on the lower Buffalo have no water and no facilities, but they access beautiful trails along the river.
Back Country Horsemen of the Buffalo River Chapter have spent many happy hours on horseback, both clearing and enjoying trails not only in the Buffalo National River, but also through the rest of their state’s stunning and varied landscapes. They help maintain trails in Wildlife Management Areas overseen by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, including the Gene Rush and the McElroy Madison County Wildlife Areas.
Keeping Trails Open for All
The Buffalo River Chapter works and coordinates with the Buffalo River National Park through a special Memorandum of Understanding that outlines their working relationship with the Park. Through regularly scheduled work days, the chapter puts their mission into action. They keep trails open to everyone by clearing brush and deadfall, pruning low-hanging branches, picking up trash, placing water bars to control erosion, and maintaining horse camps.
Their skills are especially valued when work is required in Wilderness areas too fragile for mechanized travel and power equipment. Their steady horses and mules haul equipment and supplies necessary for repairs, and the hard-working BRBCH members use hand saws, nippers, and loppers instead of chainsaws.
In 2015 alone, BRBCH contributed over 3072 volunteer hours to the Buffalo National River and its surrounding areas. Members also volunteered their time in the Ouachita Mountains, the Ozark National Forest, six different Wilderness Areas, and several Wildlife Management Areas maintained by Arkansas Game and Fish, totaling more than 1845 hours of trail work that year.
Promoting Responsible Recreation
In keeping with their mission to educate others on the wise use of our limited back country resource, Buffalo River Back Country Horsemen provide classes in CPR and first aid, packing with stock, and Leave No Trace Outdoor Ethics principles. They also host an annual Youth Camp Weekend that promotes responsible riding, packing, and camping skills to young people in a fun, safe environment.
Chapter members experienced with Leave No Trace, back country packing, and other skills regularly share their knowledge with other members and the general public. Several members are trained and participate in Wilderness Search and Rescue, providing a life-saving resource to the public.
The Original Horsepower
One spring, the National Park Service had cut some logs to be used to repair a badly washed out stretch of trail leading to the Hathaway Horse Camp in the Lower Buffalo River Wilderness. Five members of the Buffalo River BCH and their horses joined three NPS trail personnel in moving the logs to the repair location.
This area of the Ozark Mountains is a rough and rugged place to ride, but the washed-out trail was so hazardous that even experienced BCHers led instead of rode their sure-footed horses up the hill. They used horses and mules to drag thirty-five 8-foot cedar logs a quarter mile from the adjacent wooded area to the damaged trail so the repair could be made, all without the harm caused by motorized vehicles and equipment.
The folks at the National Park Service are so grateful for the sustained volunteerism of Buffalo River Back Country Horsemen that they recently sent the chapter a letter that said in part, “...a BIG THANK YOU for all the volunteer hours donated to maintain horse trails at Buffalo National River. During this latest effort… your assistance put us about two weeks ahead of schedule... We are so thankful for all the park volunteers who help to make Buffalo National River such a great park!”
About Back Country Horsemen of America
BCHA is a non-profit corporation made up of state organizations, affiliates, and at-large members. Their efforts have brought about positive changes regarding the use of horses and stock in wilderness and public lands.
If you want to know more about Back Country Horsemen of America or become a member, visit their website: www.bcha.org; call 888-893-5161; or write 342 North Main Street, West Hartford, CT 06117. The future of horse use on public lands is in our hands!