Back Country Horsemen continue long path of Putney Woods forest stewardship

The trails of Putney Woods in Langley are clearer, sturdier and more traversable these days, thanks to the labor of dozens of Back Country Horsemen volunteers.

Lorrie Mariner on her Norwegian Fjord

The trails of Putney Woods in Langley are clearer, sturdier and more traversable these days, thanks to the labor of dozens of Back Country Horsemen volunteers.

By two legs, four hooves and four wheels, downed trees were chainsawed, boggy areas were made easier to traverse with small land bridges, and overgrown vegetation cut back. The Island County chapter of the national horse riding group has been the private steward of Putney Woods since 2007 through the county’s adopt-a-park program, and 2015 was a particularly busy year. The club totaled 390 volunteer hours.

A couple of strong windstorms in August and November blew down more than 40 trees across the extensive trails system of Lone Lake/Goss Lake/Saratoga-area forest last year. Having adopted the 600-acre forest means the few dozen Island County Back Country Horsemen members are committed to tending trails with work parties and projects at least three times annually, though the club has surpassed that requirement every year.

“The Back Country Horsemen, they do continuous maintenance throughout the year,” said Catherine Kelley, project manager for Island County Parks and Recreation.

“Without the Back Country Horsemen, it would have been very difficult for our park techs to do tree and branch removal from storms we recently had and with some flooding,” Kelley added. “They’ve provided a wonderful service to the county.”

Three turnpikes, raised land bridges with drain pipes, were built to make that possible. Persistently wet areas made some stretches impassable for regular hikers. Putney Woods is for non-motorized use and frequented by pedestrians, bicyclists and horse riders. A horse or bike rider can cross some of the boggy areas well enough, but a hiker may be deterred from the path. Sally Garratt, president of the Island County horse riding club, said tending to those trouble spots was for the overall benefit of trail users.

“We go in and make the trails passable again,” Garratt said.

“We think, since we want the trails open for everybody, that’s something we want to do,” she added.

In 2015, the club’s members cleared more than 40 downed trees from the trail system near Goss Lake. Trail maintenance means that if a tree falls two miles into the trail, there are two miles of lugging equipment around. True to the group’s name, sometimes horses or mules were used to pack in gear. But most of the time, it was the members themselves.

“You’re looking at the draft horse that drags the railroad ties around,” Garratt laughed.

Railroad ties, sand, gravel, chainsaws, rakes, shovels, hedge trimmers and weed whackers were all needed for different projects. Some of the more industrial labor was handled by a small tractor, but to minimize the impact of that limited motorized use, people and equines did most of the legwork. One photo shown to The Record features Garratt and three other women carrying a railroad tie on the trail.

Such work continues the legacy of the forest’s namesake, the late Gary Putney. He and his wife, Diana Putney, spent countless hours tending to the woods and trails, and they fought to keep the property in public use and later for a large parking lot — large enough for horse trailers — on Lone Lake Road.

The county’s parks department created its adopt-a-park program, modeled after the adopt-a-highway program, in 2007. Today, nine county-owned parks (out of 53 total on Whidbey and Camano islands) are officially adopted by groups, a commitment of at least three work days at the park. Only two properties are adopted on South Whidbey: Putney Woods and Robinson Beach.

Private stewardship of public lands is necessary in Island County. Putney Woods is one of the largest single tracts of property owned by Island County, which isn’t capable of tending to every trail under its stewardship.

“The county doesn’t have all the staff needed to clean and keep clear all of the parks and trails … Otherwise, the trash would build up and wouldn’t look so nice,” Kelley said.

That was well understood and echoed by the Whidbey horse club leaders.

“Government can’t do everything,” said Garratt, who recently met with state legislators to fight for the preservation of public lands.

“I, and I know a lot of my fellow riders, feel a personal responsibility for the trails,” she said.

The Back Country Horsemen and Island County are working together to restore and replace signs and posted trail maps at Putney Woods this year. The county is paying for the signs, and the club will install them. A third turnpike is also being discussed but is not scheduled.

With only nine of the county’s 63 parks adopted, there are public places ready to receive private stewardship. Anyone interested should contact Kelley at 360-678-7965.

Those looking to saddle up next to the Island County Back Country Horsemen can contact Garratt at or 206-914-1482.


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