By Chelle Grald, GMHA Trails Manager
“There is more to lose than land. A way of life and an understanding of who we are is also at stake. Horsemanship is important to our country’s history and lore. It teaches us responsibility and stewardship and how to care for another life form. When we protect this, it enriches our communities.”
John F. Turner, 1997 president and CEO of the Conservation Fund, Wyoming rancher, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
In the previous issue of GMHA magazine, we documented the value of preserving trails and the equestrian way of life in our community. We saw that it has a positive effect on property values, the local economy and the physical health of community residents. As horse people, we know intuitively that the GMHA region is worth preserving. What can we all do to make sure that our 4-town area retains its trails, open space and horsey character? If you are a landowner, what are your choices? If you’re not, how can you help?
First – a Strategy
Trails are not preserved unless an organization steps up to preserve them. This area hosts lots of trail organizations – hikers, bikers, riders, snowmobilers, municipalities, ATV riders, and cross-country skiers to name just a few. Each of these organizations uses trails and most do some work to develop and maintain them. It is important to work together with all of these users, but first we as GMHA need to know our priorities. Simply stated, our priority is geography and access. There are only a few ways to exit the GMHA grounds on trail without using paved road. Our first priority is to secure those possibilities to prevent GMHA from becoming landlocked in the future. Beyond that, we look at the trails immediately around GMHA, expanding in concentric circles and evaluate their quality and connectivity to other trail systems. We look at views, variety and suitability for horse traffic. A map is created that highlights key trail systems on both public and private lands. From there, we make goals and begin to address each owned segment of trail individually because ultimately, it’s all up to the landowner.
Landowner – What’s Your ‘Win’?
Trail preservation has to be a win-win for both GMHA and the landowner. The ‘win’ is different for everyone. If you are a landowner and also an equestrian, you know that sharing your trails makes you a good neighbor to other equestrians, and will make them more likely to share theirs. The more trail-sharing equestrians we have in the community who share that philosophy, the stronger the trail system becomes. In communities like Southern Pines, North Carolina, and Aiken, South Carolina, with predominately equestrian populations, trail systems can grow and sustain naturally based on this principle alone.
But not all landowners in our region are equestrians. We are a diverse community that still as a whole supports equestrian lifestyles, but not everyone is here for the horses. Some landowners like to see the horses cross their property. Others are happy to allow access but not near their residence. Some landowners want to see the trails shared by multiple user types, such as wheeled vehicles, hikers and snowmobilers. Others want to keep their trails equestrian or equestrian-pedestrian only. Some landowners prefer access to be restricted to specific dates and times, while others support free and respectful use without time restrictions. Many appreciate help with trail maintenance that GMHA and other organizations can provide and see the opportunity to keep their trails open as a way to enhance the value of their property. Some really believe that permanent conservation is the way to go and want their property to remain open to horses forever. Others do not want to constrain future owners in that way. The bottom line is that each landowner is unique and is in charge of what represents a ‘win’ for them. It is our job to listen, be flexible, and educate where that is helpful.
Layers of Protection
As GMHA interacts with new landowners, the most common questions revolve around the question of liability. Many have owned property in states where both the law and the culture are vastly different from Vermont. Naturally, they want to minimize risk and protect their investment. Vermont’s land liability laws are formed out of the philosophy that shared land use is a good thing and a necessary part of the character of a rural state. Consequently, landowner protection is very strong. The entire statute can be read on The Vermont Statutes Online, but in summary it states that “An owner shall not be liable for property damage or personal injury sustained by a person who, without consideration, enters or goes upon the owner’s land for a recreational use unless the damage or injury is the result of the willful or wanton misconduct of the owner.” Consideration refers to payment. This means that when a landowner gives a user access for recreational use without taking money, the user can’t hold the landowner liable for damage or injury unless it can be proven that the landowner actively intended to harm them. So the law is favorable for recreational use, and perhaps that is why so many wonderful trail systems already exist in the State, such as the Long Trail and the immense VAST system of snowmobile trails.
Beyond that, additional layers of assurance can be provided to landowners by trail organizations. GMHA trail users sign waivers of liability that name landowners among the protected. Our organizational insurance also provides liability protection to landowners who can be listed on our policy as additionally insured at no cost to them. We are glad that the regulatory climate in the state supports recreational use of private property and build upon that platform by making sure our trail users understand that they ride at their own risk. We further work to ensure landowner privacy by providing and erecting ‘no horses’ signs in areas that are off-limits and signs reminding riders to stay on trail and respect the land by leaving only hoofprints behind.
The Trail Preservation and Use Toolbox
Trails can be preserved, whether or not they are shared. A landowner may choose to preserve his or her trails for personal use. Most, however, like to see them shared and used respectfully and according to their wishes. Agreements between individuals and organizations to use trails range from the general to the specific and from short-term to perpetual.
- License – this is a written document that describes the trails, time and dates of access and clarifies maintenance responsibilities and any other provisions that both parties agree to. It can be written for a set period of time or can stand until it is revoked by either party is nullified by property transfer. If you are a GMHA trail landowner and have filled out and signed our permission form, this is the type of agreement we have together. Sometimes a landowner wishes to make a trail use agreement with more than one organization – such as a local snowmobile club or foxhunting group and GMHA. In such cases, it is sometimes beneficial to add a joint maintenance agreement to the license that clarifies who will coordinate trail maintenance and how it will be conducted. We have found these agreements to be very helpful and beneficial to all. While simple permissions and licenses are useful tools, they both leave the question of the long-term health of the trail system in question.
- Permission – The simplest form of granting access. It can be a verbal agreement, a handshake or a written agreement. This most informal of agreements is completely sufficient for many purposes, but with so much unclarified, the potential is higher for something to happen that breaks down the relationship on either side. There is also no guarantee that the permission will continue when the property changes hands either through inheritance or sale.
- Trail Easement – A trail easement is a perpetual legal agreement specific to a trail or named set of trails. An easement can be very broad, granting access to the easement holder and the public, or it can restrict what kind of access, when and under what conditions access can be used. Trail easements are carefully crafted to help achieve a landowner’s vision for conserving the agricultural, wildlife, and scenic resources on their property. Each is customized to the landowner’s goals and runs with title to the land forever. GMHA currently holds 26 trails under easement for equestrian use. These trails have been generously donated by landowners who share our vision for keeping our area healthy and horsey forever. Totaling about 10 miles in distance, these trails represent an excellent beginning. They are like a puzzle that is coming together but still has many missing pieces. It should be noted that as the puzzle fills out and this area becomes more widely conserved, the unique value of this area increases. Other areas that have accomplished this across the U.S. have seen it increase property values across the board. A rising tide lifts all boats. These easements are individualized to the landowner and all allow for multiple uses of the trail, according to each landowner’s wishes. Our use of those trails in terms of frequency and purpose, maintenance, and all other provisions are outlined clearly in the easement documents, which are prepared by GMHA. The process is friendly and straightforward. To learn more about our easement process, take a look at the Landowner section of gmhainc.org. There you will find answers to frequently asked questions and learn about current easement donors. Clearly, GMHA would like to preserve more trails forever, so appropriate easements on strategic trails continue to be a key part of our preservation plan. Should a landowner wish to establish an easement with a different holder, such as a municipality or conservation trust, we are also happy to provide help and support to ensure that equestrian use be upheld wherever possible.
- Purchase and Donation – When appropriate and necessary, conservators can simply purchase the property to protect the trails residing on it. This is usually done when the trail is critical and/or the seller is willing to offer the property as a bargain sale for tax advantages. Many large trail areas, such as the Walthour Moss Foundation in North Carolina, were begun with a donation of a large tract of land. Subsequent expansions came in the form of additional donations, purchases, and conservation easements. Donations to a land trust are not incompatible with trail easements. A landowner can donate a tract of land to a land trust and layer a trail easement to another organization with that as long as the uses are compatible.
- Conservation Buyer – A Conservation Buyer Program is a unique form of donation used by many trail preservation organizations. The Program matches interested buyers with properties that are worthy of protection. A conservation buyer is usually able to take advantage of the significant tax benefits associated with a conservation easement donation.
For example, if a buyer donates a conservation easement shortly after their purchase, they may be eligible for tax deductions up to 50% of their adjusted gross income with a rollover of 15 years. Conservation buyers can often consider the purchase of properties that are more expensive because of the tax savings an easement donation can offer.
As a community we all benefit from the protection of wildlife habitat, unique views, agriculture, and our historic heritage. We at GMHA are happy to help conservation-minded buyers and sellers to come together and to work with all involved to secure equestrian easements on those properties.
The Role of Everyone
If you are not a landowner, but would like to see GMHA surrounded by a healthy trail system forever, is there anything that you can do as an individual to help? Why yes, there is a lot!
- Support the Trail Fund – Your donation, no matter how small, helps us to be a better steward of the trails we maintain. It helps us to repair damage, improve and sustain trails, and that makes for good relationships and happy neighbors who also enjoy the benefits of well-maintained trails. The donations of many, such as in the case of the recent Rush Meadow Ring purchase, can also be used to secure property to preserve trails when appropriate.
- Be a Trail Steward – Keeping track of the condition of 400 miles of trails is a lot of work! We work cooperatively with other trail users and with lots of volunteers to get it done. Would you like to be a steward for a section of trail, keeping watch and reporting on its needs throughout the year? We’d love your help. We also have a need for members who can ride our 70 miles of Member’s Loops and other trails, clipping and clearing branches as needed. It’s a fun way to get out and enjoy your horse with a mission.
- Pass the Word – When you see that an equestrian property near you has been offered for sale, pass the word to your equestrian friends and to us at GMHA. It is in all of our interest to encourage equestrian properties to stay horsey. Speak about trail preservation to your friends. Encourage others who are in a position to preserve trails to do so.
- Be a Respectful and Thankful Trail User – I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough. To a large extent, we as riders can spell the future for equestrian trail use around GMHA. It takes awareness and self-discipline to choose to not use a trail when the conditions are wet or when it has seen a lot of traffic recently. It takes empathy and kindness to tread lightly and avoid compromising landowner privacy. We need to realize that everyone we see when out riding, whether on foot, bicycle, or car, is a neighbor and might be a landowner. By treating each kindly, giving the benefit of the doubt, and just being nice, we can help secure important relationships into the future.