With off-highway vehicles gaining in popularity throughout the Rim country, the Arizona Game and Fish Department is teaming up with the Tonto National Forest to stage OHV patrols the next two weekends.
"We'll be working in cooperation with Game and Fish to make sure people keep out of areas and off trails that are closed to motorized vehicles," Walt Thole of the Payson Ranger District said. The current policy for the Tonto and some other national forests in Arizona is that all areas are open to OHVs unless restrictions are posted.
"We do post many hiking trails closed to motor vehicles to allow people to enjoy an unmotorized experience," he said. Craig McMullen, a field supervisor for Game and Fish, said all motor vehicles considered off-road will be subject to being stopped by the patrols. "OHVs include ATVs, motorcycles, jeeps and trucks," he said.
He also explained that citations will be issued for safety and equipment violations as well as for riding in a restricted area. "Penalties vary from civil traffic to a class 2 misdemeanor based on the violations," he said.
Thole said the restricted areas are easy to understand and remember.
"One closure in the Payson area that's been in effect since 1985 is the Highline Trail to the face of the Rim," he said.
Other closed areas include Round Valley Meadow and Bradshaw Meadow near Pine.
"They are both posted to protect the meadow," he said.
"We are also responsible for the Mazatzal Wilderness and Hells Gate Wilderness, which are both closed to motorized vehicles. The boundaries are posted by signs that say 'Wilderness Boundary.'" OHVs are prohibited in all designated national wilderness areas, Thole said.
Some trails in the Rim country, he said, are actually open to motorized vehicles.
"To keep from getting into trouble, people need to look at individual trails and see what the sign says at the start," he said.
The patrols are not intended to be punitive or intimidating, according to McMullen.
"We are just reminding people to respect the wilderness area boundaries and other areas that are closed to motorized vehicles," he said.
Off-road vehicles, Thole said, are a growing problem in the Payson area.
"A lot of it has to do with the current policy of allowing people to go off road or cross country," he said. "There are areas that are seriously deteriorating, losing soil and top soil. There are new roads being made all over the place. It's just out of control."
The situation has led to an initiative to reform the OHV policy in Arizona's national forests.
"The Forest Service intends to introduce a policy change involving an environmental impact statement," Thole said. "It would reverse the current policy so that everything is closed to off-road vehicles except those that are posted open."
The Forest Service is holding a public meeting and open house where the proposed change will be discussed from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. April 24 in the Payson High School auditorium.
"It will be the first public meeting to get the planning process started," Thole said.
Jim Anderson from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, the planner in charge or orchestrating the change, and Ed Armenta, district ranger for the Tonto National Forest, will make presentations at that meeting.
"This would be a statewide change for all national forests in Arizona the Tonto, Apache-Sitgreaves, Prescott, Kaibab and Coconino," Thole said. "One of our objectives is to be consistent from forest to forest."
Thole said the timeline the Forest Service is following would call for implementation of the proposed changes in the summer of 2002.
The ultimate decision makers, he said, will be the forest supervisors who head the state's national forests.