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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?

Clark has spearheaded the move toward low-impact horsepacking for more than 8 years. The Professional Guide Institute, which he founded and runs from the campus of Western Montana College, produced a video in 1992 that focused on how horsepackers can run their businesses (bringing paying people into the backcountry) without destroying the terrain. Instead of land-management officials spouting off, Clark had like-minded, professional outfitting buds talk about the low-impact things they do and the ways they’ve found to keep from destroying the resources they love. In Clark’s opinion, it’s the only approach that will reach outfitters.

“These folks don’t respond well to outsiders who come in and tell fifth-generation outfitters how to do things,” he says in reference to Leave No Trace, Inc. (LNT), the Boulder, Colorado-based organization in the lead to lessen the impact of both two- and four-legged backwoods users. In its horsepacking efforts, LNT is joined by the Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA) and by the Lander, Wyoming-based National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

Clark, an LNT Master (which allows him to teach others), doesn’t mince words about LNT or NOLS. He says that LNT comes across as a quasi-bureaucracy, and that its “ethics” will eventually become regulations that will affect outfitters’ use of public lands.

“I don’t have problems with LNT philosophy,” Clark tells me as we make our way through a lovely, sage-lined valley. “But I do have concerns about the fact that, as time passes, the group will grow, and so will its power and influence. It won’t be long before you’ll have to go through one of their courses to get your Special Use Permit renewed.”

He also objects to the way LNT’s Master’s courses are handled. “I’ve tried for 2 years to get a Master’s course set up in Yellowstone, but they won’t allow it. It has to be run by NOLS staff, and there are a lot of (horsepackers) who don’t like that.”

“Dick’s a great guy, and he has a lot of good points,” says Susan Benepe, outreach program coordinator for NOLS. “He thinks his group ought to be able to run its own Master’s courses, and I can see a time when other groups will run the classes. But we’re not there yet. NOLS has a long relationship with LNT, and right now, we’re the ones entrusted by LNT to run the Master’s courses not just for horsepackers, but for other user groups as well.”

Scott Reid, education and project manager for LNT, tells me he realized long ago that some “old-time horsepackers” view LNT staffers as “a bunch of young people from Boulder telling others what to do. There’s going to be resistance, but we just have to remain patient. More than 100 people have gone through our Master’s course for horsepackers, so we’re making headway.”

Both Reid and Benepe note that NOLS and LNT, in their fight to sway stubborn horse people, have a particularly strong ally in BCHA.

“We go out into the backcountry for the same reasons backpackers do, because we love it,” BCHA executive secretary Peg Griewe tells me. “When we adopted our constitution in 1986, there was an emphasis on environmental awareness and low-impact travel. Our rationale was simple: For a lot of years, horse enthusiasts made unnecessary negative impacts on the environment. There’s no arguing about that.

“But these days, with all the lightweight gear that’s available, we don’t need to travel as heavy as we once did. Plus, we’re losing a lot of our historic riding areas because of backlash by other user groups. We’re fighting to save (and continue using) those areas by preaching environmental awareness to our 14,000 members.”

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