Efforts to bolster horseback riding tourism could threaten federal money

By SHANNAN O’NEIL

Capital News Service

LANSING- An attempt to increase tourism through horseback riding could jeopardize $25 million in federal funding.

Rep. Greg MacMaster, R-Kewadin, introduced a bill to open more state land to horseback riding. The bill would allow horseback riding in state forests, state parks, state gaming areas and lands the Department of Natural Resources manage unless there are specific land restricts to the property.

This would give riders more opportunities than riding on a small number of two lane roads and trails, said Chris Bailey, legislative aide for MacMaster.

“Quite a few states around us have very strong horseback riding tourism base,” Bailey said. “We’re basically missing out on what they call a billion dollar plus tourism opportunity.”

Wisconsin and Montana’s opportunities for horseback riding bring in a lot of tourists. Horseback riding tourism brings a lot of money into a state because the horses and riders need a place to stay, eat and ride, Bailey said.

“By doing this, hopefully, that pulls some of those people from down south to us,” he said.

However, the state receives $25 million in federal funding specifically for hunting protection. The requirements of getting this money include keeping the environment and hunting industry protected. Many feel that horseback riding threatens this funding.

From 2006 on, the ability to ride on state land has declined. Horseback riders were able to ride cross-country through state forests and on trails.
Michigan has approximately 80,000 recreational horseback riders using around 2,478 miles of trails around the state, Bailey said. MacMaster is one of them, and like many riders, would like more land to ride close to his home such as the Pigeon River County State Forest in Otsego, Cheboygan, and Montmorency Counties, Bailey said.

The Pigeon River County State Forest has 375 miles of trails open to horseback riders. This piece of land is very enticing for riders, said Mary Dettloff, press secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.

The bill identifies Pigeon River County State Forest specifically.

“It’s called the big wild because that’s the way we manage it,” Dettloff said. “We manage it to maintain its wild, undisturbed environment. That’s attractive to a lot of people. You get the feeling you’re in the middle of nowhere, no matter where you are in the Pigeon.”

Dettloff said the department is working with legislators to get more options for horseback riders but this bill is not the right way of getting to the end goal.

It could threaten approximately $25 million in federal funding from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act given to the Department of Natural Resources, Dettloff said. The Pittman- Robertson Act money is funded by the 6 percent federal excise tax on guns, ammunition and other hunting equipment. After the federal government collects the tax, it’s divided up and given back to the states.

This money is supposed to support hunting, Dettloff said.

A large portion of that money went to purchasing the Pigeon River County Forest. This means that there are specific guidelines that the Department of Natural Resources has to follow to continue to receiving the funding.
The requirements include not allowing anything that hurts the environment and affects hunting.

Horses are large animals that cause the ground to be uprooted causing erosion, Anderson said.

Bailey said that horseback riding does not affect this. Horses help the environment with their natural manure, he said.

If cross-country riders go into the woods, their presence not only distracts hunters but cause concern for injuries, Park said.

The Department of Natural Resources has been in communication with the federal government to see if the law would put the Pigeon River out of compliance, and they say it would because of those reasons, said Dettloff.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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