Horse outfitters apply for Panthertown permits

The U.S. Forest Service has been working on a master recreation plan for Panthertown Valley for more than two years now.

During a Forest Service public meeting on a proposed recreation plan in late 2003, a controversy emerged over the impact of horseback riders on trails in Panthertown Valley. Some hikers said they wanted certain trails to be off-limits to horseback riders.

Since then, the Forest Service has received requests from two commercial outfitters that want to offer guided horseback trips in Panthertown Valley. The Forest Service plans to approve the outfitters’ requests.

“Horseback riding is a fairly common use in Panthertown. The fact that someone is doing it for profit is immaterial,” said Erin Bronk, a ranger with the Nantahala National Forest. “What we are looking at is the use itself, and right now it is a permitted use. How could we say you can ride but you can’t do trail guides?”

Currently, horseback riding and mountain biking are allowed on all of the Panthertown trails due to the lack of a recreation plan. The Forest Service acquired the Panthertown tract in the mid-1990s. The master trail plan will address whether certain uses should be limited on some trails. The master plan began in late 2003 but was temporarily put on hold.

“We got sidetracked because of the storm damage,” Bronk said, referring to tropical storms in the fall of 2004 that washed out trails, roads and bridges, and required erosion repairs throughout the Nantahala National Forest.

Commercial outfitters and guides are required to have permits to operate with the national forest. As part of their permit terms, commercial outfitters have to help with trail maintenance and pay a permit fee that varies depending on how much the outfitter makes. The fee amounts to 3 percent of the outfitters gross revenue while operating in the national forest, a portion of which is kept by the local forest service. The minimum permit fee is $90 a year. A portion of the outfitters’ permit remains with the local forest service district.

“We can use that to do things like monitor their use and see if there are impacts on the ground,” Bronk said.

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