KALISPELL, Mont. With a project planned nearly every week of the summer, the Back Country Horsemen prove their contention that they are a service organization not a riding club.
Rather than focus on getting together for trail rides or leisurely ambles through the woods, the organization's members prefer to put themselves and their animals to work for the better good of fellow backcountry users.
''We always thought that we were a service club,'' said Ken Ausk, one of the men who founded the group in 1973.
The group volunteers its time, manpower and equine labor to the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies each summer for numerous projects ranging from packing in supplies for wilderness crews to building bridges.
''Wilderness trails is pretty low on the government's priority list, so they don't get funded properly,'' member Greg Schatz said.
Schatz said he and fellow horsemen are happy to volunteer to improve the trails that traverse the wilderness they respect and appreciate. The group often works on clearing trails, which benefits recreationists of all kinds.
''And we don't not go if it rains,'' club president Deb Schatz said.
The reward for the more than 1,000 hours they spend volunteering each year is not only the improved trails they can use, but also the gratitude they hear from other backcountry users. Member Marie Johns said hikers have told her how much they appreciate having trails free of fallen trees.
And being outdoors working with their horses is a reward in itself for most of the horsemen, members said. If the group itself isn't working on a trail section, members are a happy to lend what help they can. The Back Country Horsemen periodically uses horses to pack in to the wilderness supplies for groups such as the Montana Conservation Corps.
''That saves them time and energy. If we can save them a day, that's another day they can do trail work,'' Schatz said.
When the group isn't spending time on the trail, its members are teaching each other and the community how to observe the ''leave no trace'' conservation philosophy and how to use horses in backcountry areas such as the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Teaching conservation has long been a goal of the club, Ausk said.
''As far as going easy on the land, we've been teaching that since day one,'' he said.
Ausk and co-founders Roland Cheek, Lloyd Fagerland, Dennis Swift and Dulane Fulton formed the organization with the purpose of performing service projects and teaching people how to tread ''light on the land'' when using horses in the wilderness.
In the early 1970s, backcountry horse users were noticeably impacting sensitive nature areas, Ausk and other club members said. Horsemen frequently damaged trees by tying up their horses and left garbage or manure behind.
The group has since been active in trying to teach the ''leave no trace philosophy'' through presentations at local venues.
Technological improvements in outdoor gear have made teaching light on the land philosophies easier throughout the years, club members said. Lighter gear has made it easier for people to travel into the backcountry without hefting as much equipment as was necessary in the past.
The decreased weight means that wilderness horsemen can get by with fewer horses. The old standard used to be that two pack horses were needed for each individual. But that ratio has flip-flopped and one horse to every two people is the standard now, Greg Schatz said.
But not everyone knows how to efficiently pack a horse, so the club frequently hosts demonstrations on the topic. That knowledge comes in handy when the group is packing in cumbersome, heavy materials such as gravel and timber needed to build backcountry projects. Ausk recalls one bridge that required the horsemen bring in 12 tons of material.
Not all of the groups' events center on work, though, secretary Keni Hopkins said.
The club has get-togethers and potlucks throughout the year, although the season for service projects is May through August. Membership fees go toward the newsletters that members receive from local and national branches of the Back Country Horsemen.
The club started in the Flathead Valley and has since grown to include chapters in 15 other states with memberships totaling more than 10,000 people. Members, most of whom are around 55 but range in age from 12-85, need not own a horse to belong to the club, they just need to believe in the group's conservation and service philosophies.
In keeping with their conservation concerns, the club has an issues committee that keeps up on land management and other topics that affect horse use in the backcountry. That committee informs the appropriate bodies, such as the Forest Service, of its opinion. And though the horsemen's opinion isn't always heeded, they said they think their voice is heard because of the credibility gained by volunteering.
Whether they're making suggestions on issues, volunteering on wilderness projects or educating each other and the community, Ausk said the current club members carry on the ideals of the founders.
''I think we're still on the same focus as we when we started, that is horse use in the backcountry,'' he said.
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