Thursday, November 11, 2021

Virginia Highlands Back Country Horsemen Win Regional Foresters Honors Award

“Sustainability is the buzzword” - Nancy Sluys

by Merri
November 11 2021

At the virtual Regional Foresters Honors Award ceremony on November 3, 2021, the Back Country Horsemen of the Virginia Highlands Chapter won the prestigious Regional Foresters Honors award in Region 8 for their trail rehab project in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area in Southwestern Virginia.  

The George Washington & Jefferson National Forest nominated the Virginia Highlands BCH group for the award in the category of "Delivering Benefits to the Public" for their trail project.

The award recognizes the extraordinary initiative, logistical coordination, and field expertise of the Virginia Highlands Back Country Horseman.

Endurance rider Nancy Sluys is president of this Back Country Horsemen Chapter, which boasts a number of AERC members. “We applied for a National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance trail grant and got it,” Nancy said. “The grant was for $15,000, and we also did some very effective fund raising and raised the whole amount as a match.

“In fact as the project went on throughout the year and people saw what we were doing, we got lots more donations and have now far exceeded our goal, which has allowed us to do even more work than originally planned.”

This past week the BCH group brought the year-long project to an end. They improved a 14-mile section of the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail (which is used on the Iron Mountain Jubilee Endurance ride), plus several miles of connecting trail.

Matt Helt, the Dispersed Recreation Program Manager for the USFS, commented: “What set the Virginia Highlands Chapter of the BCHA apart is their collaboration with the districts. They went out and got a grant from the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance, $15,000 to support work on the Virginia Highlands horse trail, which is heavily used by their members and the horse community here.

“So instead of just traditionally matching it with their labor in kind, they did that and they raised another $15,000 cash. So that $15,000 turned into $30,000, and they turned in about 1000 hours of volunteer labor on top of that.”

The group projects included raising trail bed, fixing mud holes, shoring up stream banks, repairing and hardening grade dips, improving drainage, and filling ruts.

“It all has to do with water,” Nancy said, “and its damaging effects on our trails. Since our storms continue to be stronger and because of the lack of maintenance (the Forest Service lacks the money and staffing to maintain the trails properly), water has been allowed to run down the trails instead of sheeting off like it is supposed to, causing increasing damage to trail tread due to volume and velocity eroding away trail tread and depositing sediment into nearby streams, causing environmental damage and safety hazards.

“The work we have done may look drastic at the moment, but it is doing its job by allowing the water to sheet off the trail, instead of down the trail where it causes rutting and eventually erodes the trail away, causing it to become unsafe for users and the environment, and causing possible future closures.

“Sustainability is the buzz word. And because of the work we have done, these sections of trail have been made sustainable, which means they will be around for a long time and will need less maintenance in the future to keep them in good shape. Pretty soon nature will soften the rough look, the leaves will fall and the weeds will grow back, and all you will see is a pretty trail that will be around for your children and beyond.

“I’m very proud of my group. It was so rewarding to go back and ride the trails that we have improved!

“We hope folks will see the big picture and realize that we are looking out for everybody’s interests. We love these trails and do not want to see them erode away to nothing. Please consider joining us on a work day sometime to learn more about sustainable trails and why we do what we do.”

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