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2001/09/18

Shelby County Trail Riders Rally Shelby County has the largest population of horses of any comparable county in the nation, says Linda Dennington, who has been representing Shelby County's equestrian community on the issue of trails in Meeman Shelby Forest State Park. We also have both a state park and a wildlife reserve area in our own neighborhood. Yet we must haul our horses many miles to other parks in order to ride in safe, beautiful environments. Something clearly is not right, said Linda Dennington. In the past, there has been a riding trail in Meeman Shelby Forest State Park, but for the last twenty years the equestrian public community has been denied access to the park and the wildlife reserve area. There has been a two-mile trail reserved for renters, but it has been closed for the past three years, and has been badly eroded due to heavy traffic. An ironic situation, to say the least, given the nearly fifteen-mile hiking path and five-mile bicycle trails offered in the park to others. Following several town meetings, the vote of the people was to provide a plan to TWRA director Gary Myers and Commissioner Milton Hamilton in Nashville asking for access to an existing eight-and-a-half mile dirt trail along the Mississippi River and a connecting gravel road. Most of this territory is in the Wildlife Reserve Area, and is used by hunters only three days out of the year. This trail would be used for short one-day, non-rental riding trips -- nothing like the large wrangler trail riding camps with thousands of miles of trail and overnight camping facilities. It would be open for use to the general public as a multipurpose trail for hikers and bicyclists as well. Our plan includes the use of volunteer work from the community to help the park maintain trails and provide money-making solutions such as paying for annual permits to ride in the area, proof of Coggins papers, the posting of signs (cautionary signs, as well as closing notices during hunting season), and heavy fines for those caught riding on non-designated trails. We want to protect this forest as much as anyone, and have no intention of taking over the park or allowing it to be damaged in any way. This plan was sent with a letter of support from Sen. Mark Norris, who helped spearhead Commissioner Hamilton's go-ahead to study our plan and reevaluate the situation at the park. In addition to thousands of letters of support from within the community to Hamilton, Mayor Jim Rout, and Gov. Don Sundquist, we also have documented support from State Legislator Barbara Cooper. Hamilton's request for reevaluation was passed along to Assistant Commissioner Mark Williams, who assigned Nancy Dorman -- director of planning for the state park's office of strategic planning -- to do the research. Her findings were basically the same as they have been for the past twenty years: In order to do the necessary in-depth research, funds would be needed from the public assembly. Her report claims that horses would threaten and endanger the wildlife, based on data she obtained from Richard L. Knight and Kevin J. Gutzwiller's 1995 book Wildlife Recreationists (Island Press). This is upsetting to the equestrian community, for these people have never set foot in Meeman, and have no idea of our plans, and that other Tennessee state parks have reported information that contradicts the findings presented by Knight and Gutzwiller. Additionally, we feel our request for such a small amount of trail space would leave plenty of undisturbed land for wildlife in this 13,500-acre park. Please consider that over the years more animals have been killed or at least disturbed by gunfire. For even more years, mounted rangers and police have riden in our state parks and have never reported any harm to wildlife caused by horses. Also, there are no known transmittable equine diseases, meaning no harm can be caused to people or wildlife. Dorman also makes claims of soil erosion and exorbitant cost, despite our request for access to an existing gravel road and dirt trail that is not in the high silt-erosion areas of the park. The only cost we can imagine at this point would be for the posting of new signs. There appears to be no need for the hiring of additional rangers or park employees, according to information found in state park statistics. Dorman's last issue claimed that having trails along the Mississippi River's edge would have a negative impact on water quality. This statement raised a few perplexed looks, and once again there are statements from surrounding parks that have lakes for public swimming, fishing and wildlife that have no problems with the presence of horses. State Legislator Barbara Cooper would like to get to the bottom of this ongoing issue, and has sent a letter of request to Hamilton to attend a town meeting we have planned for October. It is our hope Sen. Norris and interested equestrian organizations and other government officials will be in attendance to hear the issues and concerns presented to me from the equestrian and general community regarding the park. Those issues include: the closing of park bathrooms five days of each week; the closing and non-usage for years of rental cabins; the terrible condition of the existing hiking and biking trails; and reports of negative test results of the park's water and soil presented to the equestrian community by park manager Smalley, when in fact no testing has been done. In addition, there are reports of state parks' need for additional funding, yet Smalley apparently receives awards for returning unused monies to the state government. There are also complaints from the park that there is not enough manpower to ensure adequate park management. However, there are many parks with thousands of miles of multipurpose trails, wrangler camps, rental cabins, camping, swimming, fishing, hunting, and dining establishments -- parks that somehow manage quite well with fewer park managers and staff than Meeman. It should be noted that these parks are profitable. Finally, Smalley has suggested that we "could take our group and money and buy land elsewhere." This is a preposterous statement, because we feel we have already done so at Meeman with our tax dollars. Meeman is a publicly funded park, and we feel we are entitled to use the park. We would like to come to an amicable agreement with park officials. Our organization would bring with it funding and volunteer community awareness programs to the park, and we have viable means of doing so. We learn from newspaper articles that state parks are in dire need of funding and attention, but at the same time it seems they are turning away organizations that could provide both. Our town meeting will be October 11 at 7:30 p.m. and is open to the public. Anyone interested in supporting our park issues can contact me at lindadennington@aol.com, or at Box 1545, Millington, TN 38083.

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