Thursday’s meeting of the Yadkin Valley Trailriders served a dual purpose – to learn more about Stone Mountain State Park and to serve as a regional caucus and legislative update from the North Carolina Horse Council.
Stone Mountain State Park Superintendent Bill Meyer explained to the group of close to 50 horse and trail enthusiasts that he has worked with equestrian groups in the past during his time at Medoc Mountain State Park.
Meyer reported that the state park has opened another five to six miles of trails for hikers and equestrians in the park from the existing parking area to Combs Knob. “There’s been a lot of work put into it, and we are actively maintaining it. There are some pretty steep switch backs on the trail.”
In addition to work inside the park, Meyer said state park officials are working to determine how to and where to connect with the E&A Rail Trail being built by the Elkin Valley Trails Association. The northern portion of the E&A Rail Trail is for hiking and equestrian use with the Yadkin Valley Trailriders working alongside and in conjunction with EVTA to create the route, while the areas closer to Elkin are for hikers and mountain bikers.
“We get about 450,000 visitors each year at the park, and good part of that is campers. We have the largest state-run campground in western North Carolina,” Meyer said, noting that a large majority of the visitors are people who are hikers and equestrians.
Funding from the NC Connect Bond will aid plans to expand the hiking and backpacking opportunities in the state park as well as work at the visitors center, with $1.4 million slated for Stone Mountain, Meyer reported.
“We are always open to suggestions,” he said.
Questions from those attending the meeting included inquiring about the timeline to connect the EVTA trails with the trails in the park. “I think I can safely say it’ll be a year,” Meyer said. “There are some issues. There is a route now, but it’s not ideal for horse traffic and will take blasting through some rock and additional work to make it usable for horse traffic.
“It is not number one on our priority list, but it is up there,” he said.
When asked what those with the group and EVTA could do to speed that process up, Meyer used the phrase, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” He suggested members stay in contact with, voice their opinions and send letters to their legislators and the state park service. Until a letter from Sen. Shirley Randleman was sent to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, there wasn’t even a sign indicating where to leave Interstate 77 to find Stone Mountain State Park, Meyer noted.
Another in attendance asked if there were any plans to expand the park’s plans to include equestrian camping opportunities. She said with Basin Creek Trail and Stone Mountain within riding distance, camping would give people an opportunity to spend the weekend. “It would be packed,” she said, noting that most of the riders have to go out of state to enjoy camping with their horses.
“If there were camping facilities, it would stay busy because people could ride two areas,” she noted.
To make equestrian camping a possibility, it would require a barn and dedicated area for those park users.
Meyer said there are no plans for equestrian camping at the time. “Twenty-five percent of our use is equestrian, and 75 percent is hiking trails,” he said. “Other activities we’re exploring too is mountain biking. We don’t have it but we certainly have room for it.”
He said another concern with connecting a federal trail like Basin Creek Trail to the state park is monitoring who is in the park. “A major concern of the parks is uncontrolled access,” Meyer said. “I’ve been working with the system 30 years now. We always like to know who’s in our park, but you lose that when you connect trails.”
Funding is one of the keys to making expansion of any services at the state park, and Meyer said one element missing at Stone Mountain is a Friends of the Park group. “Stone Mountain desperately needs a friends group, an independent group with interest in the park. We have no way of accepting donations, and the friends group can help us with issues in the park like maintaining trails. They are very important because they can lobby for us. A friends group can be a very valuable partnership for the park.”
State Horse Council holds caucus
Sue Gray, executive director of the North Carolina Horse Council, spent several minutes updating the Yadkin Valley Trailriders on how the council and its lobbyists have been supporting horse owners’ interests and the legislation which has passed and changed to benefit the equine community.
She compared the horse council to a donkey, explaining that donkeys are used in the pasture to scare off coyotes and other predators which may harm livestock, and in the same manner the council protects the livestock involving legislative issues.
“We have 53,000 households in North Carolina with at least two horse owners. It is a $2 billion industry to the state of North Carolina,” Gray said of the equine industry, noting the lack of betting on horse racing keeps that industry from being much larger. “We are one of the fastest growing industries in the state.
“Last year in 2015 legislative session, we had the most equine-friendly legislation passed and signed by the governor,” said Gray, noting that the council will have an appointment to the Cultural Heritage Resource Board which was created as part of the Outdoor Heritage Act, which regulates hunting on Sundays, a day when equestrians can enjoy riding without fear of hunters, she said.
Other legislation she highlighted were the Farm Act of 2015, which clarified horse farms as agritourism; the Property Protection Act, which some have coined the “Ag-Gag” bill; an ordinance regulating animals, which prohibits local entities from establishing “standards of care” for farm animals such as shelter requirements and other care for livestock, including horses; and Equine Access to Public Land Bill.
She encouraged those in attendance to be involved in their local Farm Bureau boards, since “no agricultural bill passes without support of North Carolina Farm Bureau,” Gray said.
In listening to the conversation with the state park superintendent, Gray said she heard some of the issues the council needs to be working toward are the needs of state parks and expanding opportunities such as the connection with Basin Creek Trail. “I’ll bring them forward for you, and we’ll see what we can do,” Gray pledged.
Also, she said the horse council has employed a part-time trail consultant who can assist with projects such as the Yadkin Valley Trailriders and EVTA efforts on the E&A Rail Trail, and her services are free to them.
Trailriders support EVTA efforts
The Yadkin Valley Trailriders have a fundraiser benefit ride scheduled for May 14 to support the trail building efforts to Stone Mountain.
The ride, for horseback and wagons, starts at 10 a.m. and will cover 14 miles in the State Road area, with supper at 5 p.m.
The event, to be held at Henry Key Farm, 815 Mountain Park Road, State Road, will allow riders to participate in the ride and eat for $25 each in advance, or $30 at the gate. Those interested in just enjoying the pinto bean and chicken stew, but not riding, are welcome for $10 in advance or $15 at the gate.
Also, a raffle for a Henry 22 lever action rifle is being held, with tickets costing $5 each or five for $20.
For more information and to advance register, call Larry Wagoner at 336-428-8545, Marty Garris at 336-466-3681, Becky Triplett at 336-469-9676 or Tommy Holcomb at 336-957-8937.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.