Horseback riding for a better future
Protecting the land horses and riders roam

For many people in Pagosa, horseback riding is not so much a hobby as it is a way of life.

A new area non-profit organization, founded by Beverly Compton, seeks to capitalize on this passion, to encourage riders not just to ride the land, but to understand it, to love it and to care for it.

Horseback Riders for a Wild San Juan Mountains (HRWSJM) was founded to help monitor the management of public lands around Pagosa Springs.

“We believe the use of public lands is not a right but a privilege that comes with the responsibility of stewardship,” said Compton, who moved to Pagosa Springs from Aspen this past summer. “Our organization also believes that the most important responsibility of public lands management is to protect the ecological health of these lands.”

Through seasonal activities, Compton, who has devoted her life to environmental protection, is hoping to inspire and enlist the help of horseback riders to preserve the public lands they ride on. HRWSJM will also educate the public on local ecological issues and work with land management agencies. The San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA), with its federally recognized non-profit status, is the fiscal sponsor for the new organization; under the SJCA umbrella, HRWSJM will be able to apply for grants and seek private and corporate tax-exempt donations.

By next summer, Compton hopes to host local backcountry trail rides that will feature descriptions of the riding areas and their ecological importance, as well as the threats to its ecological integrity. “The goal for these rides,” said Compton, “is to educate and inspire riders to help with public land protection.”

With the recent snowfall in Pagosa, however, the HRWSJM winter speaker series will offer a pleasant way for horse enthusiasts to keep up with their passion and stay warm and dry at the same time. The five-part series of environmental educational slideshows will feature lectures from local experts on a variety of wilderness topics for horseback riders and the general public alike.

Indeed, the presentation information promises to be valuable to anyone living in the Southwest.

Monique DiGiorgio, conservation strategist for the Western Environmental Law Center kicked off the series with a lecture on the Southern Rockies Ecoregion. In addition to defining just what exactly an ecoregion is, she also explained the role the San Juan Mountains play in keeping the Southern Rockies Ecoregion connected. DiGiorgio also discussed current threats to the health and connectivity of this fragile ecoregion, and the solutions to these threats. The first presentation was held Wednesday, Nov. 12, at Higher Grounds Coffee.

The second session is entitled, “A Citizen’s Plan for a Wild San Juan.” The goal of this discussion will be to present and brainstorm strategies for protecting large regions of wild habitat and promoting sustainable local communities with economies that benefit from wildlands and wildlife protection and restoration. Jimbo Buickerood, staff organizer at the San Juan Citizens Alliance, will facilitate this discussion on Dec. 10, 5:30 p.m., at Higher Grounds Coffee.

Thirdly, Roz Wu, fire ecologist with the Pagosa Ranger District, San Juan National Forest, will make a presentation on “Wildland Fire.” She will talk about why fire is critical to the health of our forests and, additionally, discuss the different fire regimes of different forest types, and what types of fire are found in our local forests. She will also explain the challenges to reintroducing fire back into our ecosystems.

“The South San Juans are very fire dependent,” said Compton. “Fires have historically been a very prevalent, active, consistent presence in the forest. Wildland fires are critical. Fires should be as common as snow in our ecosystem and fires are as important. The current thinking and belief is to suppress fires, but it is important to allow them to burn.” Compton explained that she hopes that Wu’s presentation will provide people with good, solid, scientific information about wildland fires, so they can feel more comfortable allowing them to burn as long as living centers and people’s homes are protected. Wu will present her program at Higher Grounds Coffee on Jan. 14, at 5:30 p.m.

The fourth talk in the series, led by Mike Reid, Colorado Division of Wildlife District Wildlife Manager, is slated to be “Horseback Riding with Wildlife, Riding in Bear and Mountain Lion Country.”

Compton, for one, is particularly looking forward to this discussion. “It’s an interesting and different mind set not to be at the top of the food chain, in an ecosystem,” Compton told The SUN. “It can be a really good thing. I love it. Since development of so-called first world countries,” Compton went on, “there has been a constant desire to eliminate anything bigger than us. But, for me, respect and understanding for wildlife species that could harm us is a sign of a human that can embrace the whole natural world.” Reid will make his presentation Feb. 18, 5:30 p.m., at Higher Grounds Coffee.

The final presentation in the slide and speaker series will be “Riding on the Pagosa District Areas.” Phyllis Wheaton, visitor information specialist with the Pagosa Ranger District, will list the best suited trails for horses and those that are not well suited for horse travel, horse trailer friendly trailheads, as well as the ecological damage done to trails by horses, and how to minimize this. Wheaton will speak on March 18 at 5:30 p.m. at Higher Grounds Coffee.

The winter speaker series and the summer education trail rides are just the beginning, though. Compton has still bigger plans for promoting conservation efforts in the South San Juans.

HRWSJM will join with the SJCA to initiate a San Juan Wilderness bill proposing an extension of existing wilderness areas. Compton and the SJCA, working with the Colorado Environmental Coalition, plan to develop a monitoring program where riders can adopt a local area and ride it once a month to monitor use, abuse and any significant changes on the landscape.

And yet another project remains in the forefront of Compton’s plans. HRWSJM and the SJCA will join forces with the organization Save the HDs to protect the 40,000 acre HD Mountain roadless area west of Pagosa Springs, which has been targeted for 57 new coalbed methane wells with 28 miles of new service roads. Current drilling in the HDs, said Compton, is outside of the roadless area, but with the recent leasing of the remaining roadless acres on the Roan Plateau, the HDs will be under more drilling pressure than ever. HRWSJM is calling this the “Most Endangered Campaign” because, Compton says, the HD Mountains hold some of the best remaining stands of old-growth Ponderosa Pine. “They are a haven for the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl. And, too, they contain 1,000 year-old pre-Puebloan archeological sites. Ignacio Creek, which runs through the HDs is perhaps the most pristine, low-elevation watershed in the entire San Juans,” according to Compton. HRWSJM plans to lead trail rides in the HDs, organize letter writing campaigns, provide public testimony and make slideshow presentations to stop the proposed drilling plans and the destruction of this wild landscape, said Compton.

For more information about HRWSJM, the speaker series, or any of the issues mentioned in this story, contact Beverly Compton at 731-3471, or via e-mail at bevkresz@centurytel.net.