What a concept!! Why would someone trail ride if they have to work while going down the trail?? A dedicated volunteer service organization by the name of the Black Hills Backcountry Horsemen of South Dakota (BH BCH SD) is THAT type of group. If you enjoy trail-riding, have some interest in packing but also appreciate being to ride on public land trails, this might be the organization for you! In the current US fiscal times, trail maintenance has been limited to non-existent on public lands that include; US Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and National Park Service (NPS). Whether you live in South Dakota or out of state, if you enjoy trail riding in the Black Hills of South Dakota, trail issues are prominent concerns. The limited budget of the US Forest Service plus a recent Mt Pine Beetle epidemic has created havoc on the existing trail systems in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Several organizations that enjoy utilizing trails in the Black Hills currently volunteer time, labor, and resources to assist with trail maintenance. The recreational users that benefit from their efforts include: horseback riders, mtn. bikers, hikers, runners, etc. The BH BCH SD currently is one such organization that has partnered with the US Forest Service to assist with trail maintenance in the Black Hills. The BH BCH SD has also been contacted for trail assistance with other public land entities such as BLM, NPS, and SD GF&P.
The BH BCH SD formed in 2010 due to a variety of issues occurring locally on public lands. Concerns were arising from equestrian users that trails in the Black Hills were heavily impacted; by other recreational user groups, by dead/down trees, lack of signage and insufficient maintenance. Additional concerns arose due to lack of support or input from equestrian users on proposed public land activities. The BH BCH SD hosted an informational event February of 2010 that received an outpouring of support from; equestrian groups, landowners, recreational trail riders, and other horse related entities. The BH BCH SD was officially recognized as a state chapter by the Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA) National Organization in 2011 after formal bi-laws and appropriate organizational guidelines were achieved.
The BH BCH SD was formed with several goals in mind for the Black Hills area. The first goal was to; provide equestrian input on public land activities with the second goal to provide trail assistance. The benefit with the BH BCH SD is that the group formed with a specific purpose to assist public land agencies with trail maintenance by volunteering labor, time and horse expertise. The public land agencies have been very receptive, especially during these economic times that most agencies are experiencing. The BH BCH SD actually formed a partnership with the US Forest Service – Black Hills National Forest to assist with annual maintenance on trails that might not see any trail maintenance due to budget cuts. It has been a tremendous undertaking by a service volunteer organization. The BH BCH SD has experienced growing pains as any organization does in a partnership. The overall benefit has been worth the effort expended by BH BCH SD members. It has taken time and patience with numerous meetings to navigate governmental processes appropriately. The “behind the scenes” has been accomplished by a hard-working BH BCH SD board that remain driven to accomplish the goals previously mentioned.
The Back Country Horseman of America (BCHA) has a membership of roughly 13,000 individuals. The BCHA is a nationally recognized non-profit organization that advocates for equestrian users on public lands. Currently, there are 212 chapters (including BH BCH SD) and affiliates in 32 states of the US. The actual formation of the BCHA occurred in Montana’s Flathead Valley in 1973. Several backcountry horse users discussing concerns around a campfire laid the foundation for what has steadily grown into the BCHA organization of today. The BCHA has volunteered time, skill and resources towards keeping trails open to horse use and promoting responsible recreation. In 2021 BCHA members contributed $8.4 million in annual volunteer value from public service. When public land agencies are limited by budgets, they readily look to volunteer organizations with proven track records to assist with public land management goals. One hundred and eighty million dollars of sweat, skill and time by a recognized 40 year old organization is commendable by any standards!
So what does the BCHA actually do?? BCHA members have assisted with; clearing trails of deadfall, repairing gates/fences/corrals, building bridges, hauling gravel for fill on trails/bridges, general maintenance at horse camps or trailheads (painting, graveling, etc.), and creating new trails. The goodwill is not just limited to trails! BCHA members also invest many hours into educating adults/children in responsible recreation practices, education with other user groups, packing, trail riding and trail cooking. They also participate in food drives, restoring historic structures, picking up litter, transporting fish for stocking, etc. The BCHA has also been at the forefront with assisting the US Forest Service on their trail reclassification system. In 2005, BCHA was forced to file suit against the USFS for failing to seek public input before developing a new trail classification system. This new system immediately and arbitrarily downgraded 59% of the trails to a level below equestrian standards. It changed the standards for time-tested horse trails that have evolved over nearly a hundred years. Since that time, BCHA members have donated hours attending meetings with USFS representatives to see how each Forest has implemented the new trail classification system in their area. The trails can be managed for other uses in addition to stock, however they must continue to be managed to include horses. Bottom line - Any trail work by the USFS will be expected to meet and maintain design standards for equestrian trails!! If interested, additional information about the BCHA can be reviewed on the national website at: www.bcha.org.
Well, how does all of this affect us locally in South Dakota? The current BH BCH SD organization has signed a Volunteer agreement with the Black Hills National Forest as a formal agreement to assist with trail maintenance. The BH BCH SD has been designated specific areas in the Black Hills to maintain annually. The Black Hills National Forest esp. the Black Elk Wilderness area near Black Elk Peak, has seen trails covered by deadfall from Mt Pine Beetle killed trees. A requirement of the Forest Service is that BH BCH SD members must receive specified training and certification in; CPR/First Aid, cross-cut and chainsaw use. The skills and training come in handy for the difficult work encountered by BH BCH SD members.
Our BH BCH work group at Iron Creek Horse Camp in May 2022 after a weekend of clearing trail in the Black Elk Wilderness, South Dakota
Brad, John, Larry and Don installed a new equestrian friendly gate on Trail 40 near the Gold Run Trailhead at Deerfield Lake, South Dakota
Ralph with his horses. We don’t even mind getting a little wet to make sure the trails are ready to ride!! in the Black Elk Wilderness, South Dakota
Shara and Shelley celebrating another beautiful day of riding in the Black Hills, South Dakota
Renee Bechen riding Kit Carson ponying Scotch – packhorse
in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming near Tensleep Trailhead
BH BCH SD members riding in the Wiggins Fork valley during
the 2011 Wyoming Rendezvous
Don and Jim installing a new hitch rail at the Daugherty Trailhead along Trail 40 near Mystic, South Dakota
Jim and Alice Allen riding their mules along the trail in Wiggins Fork
river valley during the 2011 Wyoming Backcountry Horsemen Rendezvous.
BH BCH SD members gathered for picture during the Wyoming Rendezvous 2011
Pictured – Tom and Deb Carter, Terri and Blake Batchelder, Jim and Alice Allen,
Jana Morris, Chris Boylan, Doug and Renee Bechen, Mark and Sheryl Kirkeby, Marge Kjerstad
Work weekend held at Old Baldy Trailhead during June 2013 with BH BCH SD members.
Pictured – Ray and Sue Sugzda, Jim and Alice Allen, Doug and Renee Bechen, Lori Johnson,
Brad and Jane Bilka and Amy and Harry Rasmussen
Renee Bechen on Kit Carson ponying Scotch crossing the Wiggins Fork River
at Lost Cabin TH above Dubois, WY during the Wyoming Rendezvous in July 2011.