Kentucky Heartwood oral comments on HB312

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The following are comments were delivered to the House Tourism, Development, and Energy Committee on February 11 during a hearing on HB312. 

Dear Members of the Committee,

My name is Jim Scheff, and I am the Director of Kentucky Heartwood. I hold a Masters Degree in Environmental Science and am currently a graduate student researching the ecology of Kentucky’s forests at Eastern Kentucky University.

To be clear, neither Kentucky Heartwood nor myself are opposed to the responsible use of horses in the enjoyment Kentucky’s public lands. However, we strongly oppose House Bill 312 in its current form.

To begin with, this overreaching bill elevates one interest group’s prerogatives above all others, including the agencies and professional land managers tasked with the responsibility of managing Kentucky’s natural resources for current and future generations. Horses are an important part of Kentucky’s cultural identity and deserving of recognition and a certain level of access to recreational land, but this does not mean that the Kentucky Horse Council should be allowed dictate land management policy in Kentucky.

Horses can have significant impacts on the environment, including the spread of invasive species and substantial amounts of erosion – both significant and costly environmental challenges in Kentucky. As such it is critical that access to public lands by horse be evaluated carefully by land managers, and take into account conflicting uses, mandates, and the condition of the resource. This bill is startlingly deficient in that it puts the burden on land managers to prove harm rather than on user groups to show that they can access the area without degrading the lands in question.

We are adamantly opposed to language in the bill allowing horses in State Nature Preserves. Suggesting that State Nature Preserves be open to horses indicates either an ignorance of the fragility and importance of these areas or an arrogance that one group’s preferred recreation should be allowed to degrade the rare and endangered species and natural communities protected by statute in these special places. We hope it’s the former, and that with education the Kentucky Horse Council and its advocates will see fit to withdraw these lands from the current legislation.

Regarding State Wildlife Management Areas, we know that there is great concern among hunting groups that recreational horse use in Wildlife Management Areas will disrupt hunting opportunities and effectively drive these areas out of the small pool of public lands open to the hunters. While we can’t speak for a majority of hunters, we know that many are particularly upset that lands bought with their hunting license fees, as if to add insult to injury, may be for practical purposes taken away from their use.

Last week, Tom Fitzgerald of the Kentucky Resources Council offered alternative language to assist the equestrian community in finding greater access on Kentucky State Lands while protecting the most sensitive of places and allowing deference to the agencies tasked with their management. We find his proposed language to be reasonable, and hope that this committee will consider it as an alternative to the current bill.

We understand that most horse enthusiasts love Kentucky’s natural beauty. What is unfortunate is that this legislation, as proposed, has left conservation advocates, hikers, hunters, and other user groups feeling like the Kentucky Horse Council is using their association with First Lady Jane Beshear and the upcoming World Equestrian Games to force a narrow agenda on the rest of us.

Part of the long-term solution in Kentucky must be the acquisition of new lands for the myriad and often conflicting uses enjoyed by the public. House Bill 310, introduced last month, will accomplish this with a 3/8 cent sales and use tax to fund a Land Stewardship program in Kentucky. Despite the current economic downturn and budget crisis, we feel that such a fund would be embraced by Kentuckians and add nothing to the state’s financial woes. We hope that the Kentucky Horse Council and First Lady Beshear will join the conservation community in promoting this excellent opportunity to both protect Kentucky’s natural heritage and to grow the outdoor recreational opportunities so desired by the public.

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