SUTHERLAND—Riders do not want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but they have concerns about new equestrian opportunities in O’Brien County.
The O’Brien County Conservation Board heard comments from riders at its monthly meeting April 14 in regards to its March 10 decision to open the 19-acre McCormack Prairie Area east of Sutherland to equestrian use.
Patty Vollink of Sanborn asked about rules the county adopted in March for trail riding, which include requiring people to register before riding. There is no fee, but riders would be expected to write their name and the date of their visit on a record at the parking area.
Assistant director Amber Wetherell said the primary goal of registration is to have numbers of riders to use for grant applications to fund potential improvements or additions to equestrian opportunities in the county.
Vollink pointed out that if the prairie does not get a high volume of use, this should not be taken as a sign of low interest and may instead be an indicator of how suitable McCormack Prairie is for equestrian use.
“The size of the area and the miles of trails is an important consideration,” Vollink said. “I have walked through McCormack Prairie and it is a small area.”
She added that although she and other riders she has spoken to are appreciative of the board’s efforts to allow equestrian use, they are disappointed with the area chosen and do not want the board’s efforts to stop with McCormack Prairie.
“Disappointment comes from the fact that 20 acres is a small area to ride in and developing two miles of trails there is questionable. I believe this was a legitimate concern of ours, and was worth expressing,” Vollink said.
In a letter of support to the board, Jolene Hultgren of Storm Lake, president of the Western Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Iowa, noted that few counties in the area have more than four miles of bridle trails.
“I just want to thank the board for making that decision and listening to the horse riders in the area to try to do something, to show that you did listen to the concerns,” Hultgren said at the meeting. “This was maybe what the solution could be for now to kind of set the stage for being able to work with the board on maybe other areas that open up.”
Hultgren first visited the board in November at the invitation of county residents familiar with her organization. Several of those at the meeting expressed frustration that the board has sought advice from Hultgren instead of consulting regularly with riders living in O’Brien County.
“We have invested many hours in the quest to make Hannibal and Waterman areas accessible to horseback riding and other public activities. From the beginning, we have offered to help clear trails, post signs and do whatever else is needed,” Vollink said. “I hope you will include us in your plans to get ready for horses.”
Riding opens at McCormack Prairie on May 17. Conservation director Brian Schimmer said he intends to mow trails there before that day. He asked anyone interested in suggesting routes for trails to contact him.
Schimmer said he hopes to get one to two miles of bridle trails out of the McCormack Prairie property, in addition to the approximately two miles of riding on gravel roads to get to the area from the designated parking spot.
Those roads include a portion of Wilson Avenue which is a Level B minimum maintenance road that is narrow and heavily rutted. Schimmer said the road would have new gravel before it opens for riding on May 17.
In previous meetings the board had discussed getting permission from neighboring landowners to expand the trails beyond the county-managed area into adjacent private property. Board chairman Royd Chambers asked if that was still a possibility.
“No, that is not. That did not work,” Schimmer said, but did not provide further details as to why.
The board has submitted an exemption waiver request to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to see if land-use restrictions on the 159-acre Hannibal Waterman Wildlife Area east of the Prairie Heritage Center could be lifted. Those restrictions prohibit equestrian riding but also prevent mowing of trails, something the county previously had when they were unaware of the full restrictions.
The letter was submitted to the Habitat Stamp Fund committee, which meets twice a year to review requests.
If approved, the county will be able to resume grooming several miles of trails in the area that are accessible to people with disabilities and could open the area to equestrian use as well.
“That was our original goal and it still is,” Vollink said. “More people need to experience the beauty and the peacefulness of this area of our county.”