Neighbors Rise Up To Fight Atv Noise

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Heavily rutted, makeshift roads have been carved into the soil by dirt bike and ATV tires, directly beyond a "road closed" sign.

Trash is scattered everywhere, from beer bottles, beer cans and empty beer cases to articles of clothing, rusted bed frames and automobile doors.

Fences have been barreled through. Vegetation has been trampled. Wildlife has been frightened away.

The noise on weekends and weekday afternoons has been compared to the roar of a freight train that never stops, yet never passes.

Welcome to the Tonto National Forest, the land of many uses. Or at least that portion of it which lies along Houston Creek in Star Valley and which, neighboring homeowners say, has been taken over by rowdy kids and their off-road vehicles whenever school is not in session.

"We have nothing against motorcycles and ATVs," said Robert Sanchez, whose home on Starlight Drive backs the area in question. "We own an ATV, and my wife used to own a motorcycle. We just don't want these kids riding them in our back yard and destroying the forest."

Sanchez and his wife, Victoria, purchased their Star Valley land in 1982, and have lived on it since 1993.

"We chose this spot for its beauty and quietness," he said. "My neighbor had a sign that said, 'Where in Heaven is Star Valley?' That's how we feel. This was heaven for us."

Until 1996, Sanchez added, when a pit on the other side of Highway 260, once used by local off-road bikers, was closed by the county.

"That's when they started coming over here, more and more. And then in '97 or '98, they brought a bulldozer in and made their own roads and even a race track for themselves. In the national forest!"

Sanchez and his wife are not the only nearby homeowners who are upset by this chain of events.

"We put up with the motorcycles and four-wheelers all day screaming engines, slamming doors, wheels spinning, dust flying, people yelling," said Sanchez's closest neighbor, who requested anonymity. "They don't leave until one or two in the morning. I try to tune them out as best as possible, but it's really hard."

In August of last year, 28 other homeowners and residents signed a petition that was sent to Gila County District I Supervisor Ron Christensen in hopes that a solution could be found.

"The motorcycles are a danger to horse riders as well," wrote Teri Hallman.

"Please look at the damage to this piece of forest!," wrote Marilyn, Teddy and Buck Tomerlin.

One year ago, Christensen responded to these and similar concerns with a letter.

"Per the forest service, the public land used by the (motorcycle and ATV drivers) is not a closed area, and there are no immediate plans to change that," he wrote.

However, Christensen did pass along two suggestions made to him by former Payson District Ranger Steven Gunzel: "First, for the county to establish a noise ordinance; secondly, that the local trails association promote an educational program on trail etiquette, with emphasis on being a good neighbor when in the vicinity of a subdivision or residence."

"It is a very nice letter," Robert Sanchez now said, one year later. "But it was all words. There has been no action. What we need is action. And since that letter, I've called Supervisor Christensen six or seven times. He has not returned my call."

Christensen could not be reached for comment by press time. But according to new Payson District Ranger Ed Armenta, the only workable solution will be one which involves all concerned.

"Yes, there is a problem out there," Armenta said. "There's a lot of use, a lot of dumping going on out there. And I understand their concern about noise. But it is a legitimate use of national forest land, and everybody homeowners and users needs to be involved and working together in order to come up with solutions."

Armenta has several possible solutions in mind, but closure of the area is not among them.

Instead, Armenta is considering the idea of creating a buffer zone between the homes and off-road action "if there's enough land out there to do that."

Another approach, he said, might be to institute "a forest order for specific operating times, in daylight hours, such as between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. And we are now talking to the county about enforcing their noise ordinance."

No matter what, Armenta said, the virtually meaningless "road closed" sign at the entrance to the area" needs to come down." Over the long term, Armenta added, he would like to see a change in the forest service's overall policy on the use of off-road vehicles.

"Right now it's 'open unless posted closed.' We need to reverse that to 'closed unless posted open.' We need to establish areas where ORVs can go."

"But we'd have to do the environmental analysis for the NEPA (National Environmental Protection Agency) to get that under way," Armenta said. "Unfortunately, that takes some dollars, and as far as I know, the state does not provide funding for planning."

In other words, if you live on Houston Creek, don't start holding your breath just yet.

Residents of Star Valley will hold a public meeting with local off-road vehicle users and Payson District Ranger Ed Armenta at 9 a.m. Saturday in the office/activity center of the Houston Creek RV Park.

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