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Horsepacking: A New Breed?

Some well-meaning, leave-no-trace horsepackers are trying to rein in their environmentally uncouth brethren. The question is: can they change practices and attitudes that date back to the wild west days?

As soon as the weak spring sun creeps over the crest of Montana’s Pioneer Mountains, I jump out of my tent, even though the world around me is frigid and covered with an inch of newly fallen, wet snow. I don’t want the Montana horsepackers I’m here with to think backpackers are lazybones types inclined to snooze while daylight’s burning.

After putting a pan of water on the ancient Coleman two-burner and stoking the fire, I take a little prebreakfast stroll. On this late-April morn, the surrounding willows are still leaf-free, and the sage-covered hills are blanketed in white. It’s a pretty sight. But as I walk along a little creek, I can’t help but feel something is sorely amiss. After a few minutes, it hits me:

The horses and mules are gone. When you’re in the middle of a horsepacking trip, this is important stuff, worthy of a sprint back to camp to awaken one’s horse-supplying compadres.

“Uh, Dick,” I say to our leader, obviously anxious about our horselessness, “aren’t we supposed to have numerous equines in that there pasture?” Richard Clark, professor of biology and outdoor recreation at Western Montana College in nearby Dillon, who invited me on this trip into Beaverhead National Forest, crawls from his tent with far less haste than I expected for a horseman suddenly sans steeds.

“They’re gone?” he asks, almost with disinterest.

“Seem to be,” I reply.

“Oh, well. I’d better go get ‘em.”

As he puts on his boots, I can’t help myself. “You know, Dick, a lot of my backpacking buddies chuckled when they heard I was coming up to Montana for a horsepacking trip–sleeping with the enemy, so to speak. But I told ‘em, Hey, I won’t be out with run-of-the-mill yahoos who wallow in horse caca. I’ll be among enlightened people, environmentally concerned horse aficionados who know a thing or two.’ I assumed you folks knew how to keep track of your ponies.”

Clark, a perpetually jovial man of 60, chuckles. “Well, that’s the price you sometimes pay when you’re practicing minimum-impact horsepacking.”

****

To many a dyed-in-the-woods trail lover, the concepts of “minimum impact” and “horsepacking” just do not coexist. We’ve all hiked trails akin to ditches (to knee-deep, even) because of excessive horse traffic. We’ve had to do the Horsey Two-Step on manure-studded paths while swatting flies. We’ve encountered horsepacker campsites denuded of vegetation, trees scarred where horses were tied, riparian areas trampled into muddy oblivion, and, of course, air ripe with the smell of a barn.

Even if we graciously accept, as we probably should, the “few bad apples” defense, it’s obvious that blame for much of the damage to trails and camping areas can fairly be laid at the hooves of horses, on the backs of which squarely sit their riders. Yet, I’d heard through the hiker grapevine that winds of change are blowing, that horse people of all stripes-from chaw-chewing, pistol-packing pro outfitters in Montana to crisp-and-clean dilettantes from Aspen-are spouting low-impact ethics.

I was suspicious, I admit, so I sniffed around for proof, and right away, Clark was named as one of those leading the charge to clean up both the image and the practices of horse users, particularly professional outfitters in Montana. When I phoned to ask about his efforts, he invited me to join him and a couple of his “Outfitting 101″ students on a ride through Beaverhead. To say I jumped enthusiastically at the chance would be exaggerating, but I did accept. If the horse-impact tide is turning, I wanted to see it firsthand in a region where both horses andhow to say this tactfully?…an independent way of looking at things are integral. If low-impact backcountry ethics are making headway with horsepackers in Montana, then maybe all of us who love the backwoods will soon see eye-to-eye.

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