SUTHERLAND—Equestrians can still hope for riding opportunities in O’Brien County, but not on the land they first set their sights on.
At its meeting Jan. 13, the O’Brien County Conservation Board voted against pursuing equestrian use on two parcels of land near the Prairie Heritage Center southeast of Sutherland. Instead, the board will consider opportunities for horseback riding in other county properties.
The decision came after extensive discussion of the legal steps involved in removing land-use restrictions on two properties horse riders were hoping to have access to.
The parcels in question are the 159-acre Hannibal Waterman Wildlife Area east of the center and the 134-acre Waterman Wildlife Addition to the west.
Previously, riders had proposed adding a bridle trail to the existing trail network on these lands.
At the board’s December meeting, county conservation interim director Brian Schimmer shared that land-use restrictions associated with the grants used to purchase both properties did not allow horseback riding.
The board agreed at the meeting Jan. 13 that the steps necessary to remove those restrictions were too long to take action on and decided to look elsewhere in the county for more straightforward options.
“Regardless of what happens here tonight, we’re willing to try and move forward and figure something out,” Schimmer said.
Dog Creek Park and McCormack Prairie are under consideration as two alternative properties that could be opened up to horseback riders.
The 110-acre Dog Creek Park south of Sutherland has several trails and a fairly large parking lot that could accommodate horse trailers with minimal need for expansion.
Several riders who visited the meeting suggested longer horse trails could be added on the northern areas of the park.
Also under consideration is the 19-acre McCormack Prairie located along Wilson Avenue between 470 Street and Waterman Boulevard north of the Prairie Heritage Center.
The property was given to the board in 1987. It’s a small parcel, but Schimmer said the board could pursue leasing additional acres nearby to create a larger area for trail riding.
“We can maybe lease some ground around it which is a bunch of trees and hills that are not grazed anymore,” he said. “We could throw together maybe 100 acres in that area.”
It’s a lot of ifs, but may be the surest route for the time being.
Because the board owns both properties outright, they could vote to allow equestrian use without waiting for approval from a state or federal body, which is one of the obstacles in opening up land adjacent to the Prairie Heritage Center.
If the board approved either Dog Creek Park or McCormack Prairie, horse riding could be possible in O’Brien County as early as June when hunting season ends.
The obstacle in the way of opening either the Hannibal Waterman area or Waterman Wildlife Addition to riders is both were purchased with funding from wildlife and habitat conservation funds.
The Hannibal Waterman area was purchased in 1989 with a $55,000 grant from the Wildlife Habitat Stamp Fund, a program overseen by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The Waterman Wildlife Addition was purchased in 2014 with a $100,000 grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, a federal program.
Eligibility for the grants requires a commitment from the county to develop and preserve wildlife and wildlife habitat on those properties. Any recreational use on that land must be compatible with that goal, and according to Todd Bishop, head of the Iowa DNR Wildlife Bureau, horseback riding is generally not considered compatible.
The only way to lift those restrictions is for the county to come to an agreement with the grant program to remove the land from the conservation program.
According to information Bishop shared in a Zoom meeting with Schimmer and several members of the conservation board on Dec. 28, a working group would need to be formed to document the reason for requesting a change.
This request would be reviewed by the DNR Program and Review Selection Committee, which meets a handful of times per year.
If the committee agreed the new use was a better use over conservation, the county would pay back the grant adjusted for current property values. For the Hannibal Waterman area, which has 159 acres, this could be close to $500,000.
“There’s no guarantee even if we move ahead,” Schimmer said. “If we spend six months and nothing happens, then where do we go from there?”
According to Schimmer, the Hannibal Waterman and Waterman Wildlife areas are the only two properties in the county with land-use restrictions on horseback riding that could not be lifted by the conservation board.
‘Next step forward’
Patty Vollink of Sanborn, who originally proposed the route for a bridle trail in the Hannibal Waterman Area, said she has not given up on that area but is open to considering other sites.
“I’m not saying I don’t want to ride here because I do want to ride here, but maybe all of this stuff here is not worth it,” she said.
Denise Steffen of Sutherland, who originally raised the question of allowing equestrian use of public land in O’Brien County, agreed. She suggested making a more thorough inventory of county-owned and managed properties.
“We have 942 acres. Where’s the best place to expand?” Steffen said. “That was originally the ask and that’s to me the next step forward.”
Dennis Vanden Hull of the O’Brien County Board of Supervisors attended the meeting Jan. 13 and said any project will depend on cooperation between riders and the O’Brien County Sportsmen’s Club, which has opposed equestrian activity on public land.
“The thing I think we really have to do now is we really got to get along with them guys,” Vanden Hull said.
John Farrell of Sanborn, president of the sportsmen’s club, said the club is “open to partner with anybody” on projects to find or purchase properties for outdoor recreational use.