COVID-19 Limits Public Land Access for Horseback Riding
Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, governments everywhere are urging citizens to stay home, except for exercising and essential activities. “Essential activities”—and exercise—for many horse owners include trail riding. However, in many parts of the country equestrians who trail ride on public lands have been impacted by trail and public land closures.

Public lands are managed by several local, state, and federal agencies, meaning rules and closures might vary, even within the same area.

“In Washington state, Governor Inslee issued the ‘Stay Home – Stay Healthy’ proclamation (in response to COVID-19), which ordered all citizens to stay home,” explained Joan Burlingame, of Ravensdale, Washington, an avid equestrian and backcountry rider. “It included authorization for essential activities within certain boundaries,” which allowed for activities such as exercising, including horseback riding.

“People in Washington state began flocking to state lands, basically taking the governor’s order as (an opportunity for) a mini vacation,” said Burlingame. “Trailheads, parking lots, and the trails near the parking lots were so crowded there was no way that people could maintain 6 feet distancing from each other.”

That lead to the closure of state lands, county open spaces, and much of the USDA/Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region in Washington. It also meant a temporary halt to trail riding for Washington horse owners. Other states have followed suit, particularly those with major metropolitan areas.

Alex Weinberg is the recreation manager of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, with an office in North Bend, Washington, although he’s been working from home for the last four weeks due to the pandemic. The I-90 corridor, the area along the major highway that stretches from Seattle over the mountains and into the eastern part of the state, has a population of 2.25 million and is Washington’s most heavily impacted Forest Service region.

“Intuitively and initially it sounded like a great idea (to the public) to get outside and on the trails,” said Weinberg. But the area quickly became overcrowded and too dangerous with potential exposure to the highly contagious coronavirus. In the Pacific Northwest Region of the Forest Service (which includes Oregon and Washington) “all developed sites such as picnic areas, parking areas, and trailheads are now closed, and it’s now lawful to be in those areas.” This includes equestrian usage; huge U.S. Forest Service signs are posted everywhere declaring the areas closed.

“Technically, an equestrian could park along a road, but it’s not legal to ride to the trailhead,” said Weinberg. “The intent and spirt of the proclamation are to stay home” and minimize risk of coronavirus exposure.

Most Oregon state land has also been closed, including the entire park system (outside of the coast) and its campgrounds, day use areas, trailheads, parking areas, and restrooms. The executive order did not close state forest land, so dispersed (nondeveloped) camping and trails on state land remain open, although the executive order states that “Individuals are directed to minimize travel, other than essential travel.”

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In Idaho, the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands remain open, including trails, parking areas, and recreation sites, although the website encourages the public to fully comply with the governor’s statewide stay-home order. The website also mentions that BLM-managed facilities such as restrooms might lack supplies, so visitors should prepare accordingly. Idaho BLM offices are closed to visitors, but staff is still available by phone or email.

To find out if Forest Service lands near you are open for trail riding, Weinberg recommends either going online or calling a visitors’ center. “We are still taking calls” in the Pacific Northwest Region, he said, adding that phonelines have been rerouted, so workers can safely work from home.

In Oregon, Forest Service ranger stations and visitor centers are offering virtual services to citizens.

The question remains: When will public lands reopen? “We are just dealing with a lot of uncertainty right now,” said Weinberg. “Our general sense (in Washington) is when the governor loosens the stay-at-home (order) we can begin lifting our limitations.”

Much depends on availability of Forest Service staff and PPE (personal protective equipment). “Recreation will be opened shortly after it’s lifted—but I have no idea when,” he added.

As regulations ease—or as time drags on—more equestrians will likely begin returning to the trails. For the time being, trail riding might require more planning than usual to ensure a safe and successful outing. Before you set out on public land, check with the land manager about what is open, including parking, turnarounds, and trails. While trails might open back up, trailhead parking for vehicles may still be closed.

“I am assuming there will be a ton of signage at all sites and there will be monitoring, but it will be up to individuals to recreate responsibly so we can get recreation open to everyone again,” said Weinberg.

Information in Your Area

For information about closures on your regional U.S. Forest Service public land, check out this website and select your state or specific forest or grassland. Find up-to-date information on changes or closures for BLM lands, facilities, and services by visiting this site and choosing your Western state.