Equestrians are pleased about a state decision to shelve a plan to convert horse campsites to regular sites at Ionia State Recreation Area, located 30 miles east of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Becky Humpries, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE), recently urged state park staff to “slow down” and go back and communicate more with horse riders, according to the Grand Rapids Press.
“Everyone is pleased that everyone is going to take a step back and look at it again,” said Mike Foote of Ada, president of the Michigan Horse Council and a member of the Ionia Horse Trails Association. “This thing moved rather quickly and caught some people by surprise.”
The proposal was to convert 18 of 49 equestrian campsites to semi-modern sites. It was expected to generate $10,000 to $15,000 in additional camping revenues.
But timing is everything, and the Ionia proposal comes in rough times for the DNRE. The agency has been under fire from some trail riding factions for its past decisions to restrict riding in the Pigeon River Country State Forest and other areas.
Not wanting to add fuel to a dispute portrayed by horse interests as the DNRE wanting horses off state lands, Humphries sought to blunt that perception by asking staff to go back to the drawing boards.
State parks staff say the proposal was about finding more money in trying economic times, not kicking horses out. The idea developed in response to a $1 million challenge by state parks chief Ron Olson. He asked staff at all 94 parks to find ways to raise revenue and cut costs by $1 million.
“This was never about doing bad things for horse people. It was about maximizing revenues,” said Harold Herta, resource management chief of Michigan State Parks and Recreation Areas.
The equestrian campground at Ionia fills to capacity only three weekends a year, Herta said. Its occupancy averages 33%. Meanwhile, modern campground turns away a “significant number of campers” on summer weekends.
DNR staff met with horse interests to discuss the plan in September 2009. It was proposed as a one-year pilot project that could be undone if it didn’t work.
“They didn’t embrace it, but they understood what we were doing and would try it out,” Herta said.
The memo never got to Therese Kline, a member of the Ionia Trails Association and trails chairwoman of the Michigan Horse Council. She found out in January when she went to reserve an equestrian campsite for Memorial Day and couldn’t. The state park reservation system already had been re-configured.
Kline recently appeared before the Natural Resources Commission and shared her concerns. She said she was pleased with the decision to shelve the plan and the way she was treated by parks staff.
“I think its good that they will get more input from folks,” Kline said.
Ted Kessler, manager of the Ionia State Recreation Area, said he is disappointed about the loss of potential revenue. But he assures that horses and riders are welcome at Ionia.
Several equestrian-specific improvementsa are in the works. They include:
- Installing a new bridge on the equestrian trail system.
- Converting the current group campground to a group site exclusively for equestrians.
- Building and designating a 1 1/2-mile horse and cart trail.
- Improving some equestrian campsites.
Meanwhile, the 49 equestrian sites will be re-configured to make 47 so three of them can be made larger.
The 4,500-acre state recreation area draws up to 200,000 visitors each year. Some come to hike, bike, swim, boat, fish, hunt or ride horses. The area has a dedicated field trial area and clubhouse, a 15-mile horse trail, a 3 1/2-mile hiking trail and a nine-mile mountain biking trail.
“We didn’t think it was an anti-horse move,” Foote said. “It’s obvious that a portion is underutilized. We understood why it was being done, but no one was in favor of it.
“We’re going to try to get more use out there during the week, but we’re going to need a larger area to do that.
“There’s a limited number of trails and only so much to do. In the summer, it’s pretty darn hot camping there.”