SUTHERLAND—After six months of debate, an ordinance allowing horseback riding in O’Brien County has been drawn up for approval.
The first reading of an ordinance that will allow equestrian use in designated areas of county-managed land was held at the O’Brien County Conservation Board meeting Feb. 10.
McCormack Prairie is the county-owned and managed property the board is considering designating as open to equestrian use. The 19-acre property is located along Wilson Avenue between 470 Street and Waterman Boulevard southeast of Sutherland.
The exact language of the ordinance remains subject to change, but outlines rules for horseback riding.
Riding would be allowed from sunrise to sunset between the day after the last day of the spring turkey season in May to the day before the youth dear season in September. Littering, starting fires, tying horses to trees or riding within 24 hours of a rain would not be allowed.
If adopted, the ordinance will not restrict any regular activities on McCormack Prairie, such as hiking or hunting. All-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles will not be allowed access, as is the case with other county-managed properties.
A second reading of the ordinance will be held at the board’s next meeting, 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 10, at the Prairie Heritage Center southeast of Sutherland.
O’Brien County Conservation director Brian Schimmer said that with the board’s permission, he will pursue opportunities to expand equestrian opportunities at McCormack by renting adjacent land.
“We hope that you will allow us to continue to maybe try to expand that area,” Schimmer said. “And along with that maybe allow us to look at some of our other areas and continue to explore the possibility of using some of those other areas depending on what works out.”
“We certainly encourage you to look for other areas as well on how we can expand,” said board chairperson Royd Chambers.
Schimmer added that he will be in touch with Jolene Hultgren of Storm Lake, a member of Back Country Horsemen of Iowa, to get advice on how to post signage and add a sign-in system to track trail usage. Hitching posts would also be added to the area.
If the ordinance is approved after the second reading in March, it will be enforceable by May 17 when McCormack would open to riders.
The board discussed designating certain trails at Dog Creek Park south of Sutherland for equestrian use, but took no action.
At the Feb. 10 meeting, the board also moved to submit a letter to the Habitat Stamp Fund committee of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources requesting certain land-use restrictions be lifted from the 159-acre Hannibal Waterman Wildlife Area east of the Prairie Heritage Center.
The letter, which will be submitted by next week, requests that horseback riding, trails accessible for those with disabilities and picnicking be added to the list of compatible uses for the 159-acre property east of the Prairie Heritage Center.
Unlike other county-managed properties, this parcel was purchased in 1989 with a grant from the Wildlife Habitat Stamp Fund which limits recreational use on that property to uses deemed compatible with preserving wildlife and wildlife habitat.
According to past communication between the board and the Iowa DNR Wildlife Bureau, horseback riding is generally not considered compatible.
During those conversations, the board also was notified that mowing trails is not compatible use either, although conservation staff has mowed the trail network every year. If access for people with disabilities is made compatible, the county can continue mowing the trail network.
The board moved on Jan. 13 to not pursue the time-consuming and expensive option of reaching an agreement with the stamp fund to remove the property from the conservation program.
However, meetings between conservation board member Sherri Bootsma, Schimmer and several O’Brien County residents interested in further equestrian opportunities led to interest in asking the stamp fund to make an exception.
“The thing about this is, if this doesn’t work I don’t know where we would go from here,” Schimmer said.
Reasoning provided in the letter stated that these activities would “broaden opportunity for the observation of wildlife within its natural habitat and landscape.” The letter further states that the board anticipates horseback riding will not disturb wildlife more than the bird watching and hiking already permitted.
The request for exceptions will be reviewed by the DNR Program and Review Selection committee, which meets a handful of times per year.