The Cole Creek Trail on the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri that takes users along oak, hickory and pine forests is protected, not by law or ordinance but by a dedicated group of horse people. The same is true for other named and nameless trails and connector paths to the Ozark Trail, a growing system intended to run from St. Louis, Missouri, to western Arkansas.
“They do this because they love to. It’s just what they do,” said Edward Sherman, a recreation manager on the Mark Twain, who said the vast majority of the work is accomplished because of volunteers. “Those are some of the first calls I make. If I have a wind event or a lot of miles to cover to scope out a trail, the first people I call are the Backcountry Horsemen. Without hesitation. They can have someone on horseback and cover 20 miles for me in very little time.”
Members of the Missouri chapters of the non-profit Backcountry Horsemen of America are headed out to their national forests on Saturday, Sept. 25, as part of their annual National Public Lands Days routine – to clean up and fix trails.
This year, the Mark Twain, which has 750 miles of trail including about half of the growing Ozark Trail, also welcomes a new volunteer group, the Poplar Bluffs Trails Coalition. The coalition organized this year to plan, promote, build and maintain trails in the region and will participate in their first National Public Lands Day.
In pre-pandemic years, thousands of volunteers spread across Forest Service units on National Public Lands Day, the largest, single-day all-volunteer event in support of public lands. In the last two years, events were either not scheduled, went virtual or were led by small groups, such as the Backcountry Horsemen chapters.
“That’s what our background is. We work on the trails,” said Candance Hale of the River Springs Chapter of Backcountry Horsemen. “We keep the trail working for not just horses but for everyone. We used to have an event every month. Last year, we didn’t have so many because of COVID. Since May, we’ve had one. But Saturday, we’ll be out there on our regular ride doing what we can then having a potluck together.”
River Springs Chapter will work with the Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the state of Missouri beginning at the Lake Wappapello State Park. Like all the Missouri chapters, the work is varied – they see a need and fill it. That could mean mowing trailhead areas, repairing or replacing fire pits in campgrounds, and removing fallen limbs and trees that impede hikers, bikers and horse riders.
Robin Vaughan, trail master of the Brownfield Chapter, said the goal is safety. Her group will be on the Mark Twain’s Cole Creek Trail doing a variety of tasks, including installing pole lines, which gives horse riders a place to tie their horses instead of around trees. During their ride Saturday, they also will look for other opportunities to improve the trail.
“We have to work together to keep our trails up,” she said. “We do what we
can. There are 20 miles of designated trails, and we are on all of them. It’s our responsibility. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”
But Vaughn said that the work does not start or end with volunteers one day a year.
“You pack it in, you pack it out. When you use the trail, you want to leave it better than when you started, even if it means picking up what someone else left,” she said. “These trails are here for all of us, and we want them to be here and ready to use for a very long time.”
Contact your national forest or grassland to find a National Public Lands Day event or to see how you can help year-round.