Better management of off-highway vehicles in national forests is the focus of a new proposal that will be discussed at an open house from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Rim Country Middle School gym.
"We are not proposing to close the forest to OHV travel," Ed Armenta, head ranger for the Payson Ranger District said. "We recognize OHVs as a legitimate use and we just want to do a better job managing them. The main purpose of this proposal is to limit and restrict motorized vehicles from cross country travel on national forest land."
Steady growth in OHV popularity and unlimited access to the forest have created some environmental issues, Armenta said.
"The numbers continue to grow, and I don't see an end in sight," he said. "It's a matter of lets stop the cross country travel and see if we can address some of the effects that has caused in the disturbance of wildlife, the erosion, the spread of noxious weeds -- those kinds of things that are happening out there."
Another reason for the initiative is a lack of consistency from one forest to the next, and even within the Tonto National Forest.
"The southern (Tonto National Forest) districts do not allow cross country travel right now, as per the land management plan," Armenta said. "The northern districts -- Payson and Pleasant Valley -- allow cross country travel. As for the other forests, some do and some don't."
To achieve a consistent policy and because they have contiguous boundaries, the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Prescott national forests are also included in the project. Several open houses are being held at various locations throughout the state to share information and gather public comments about the proposal.
Exceptions to the proposed ban on cross country OHV travel include:
- Disabled access by local permit;
- Big game retrieval other than turkey and javelina;
- Campsite access within 300 feet of a road;
- Fuel wood gathering by local permit;
- Access to permittees and lessees and administrative access.
Armenta said he has already met with several user groups, and has experienced little opposition.
"So far we've met with the Four Wheel Drive Club and they're in support of the proposal," he said. "We've also talked to the Payson Horseman's Association and a couple of other different users."
Once a ban is in place, Armenta said it will be incumbent upon Forest Service officials to reassess the trails system and make necessary adjustments.
"A big component of this is what's called site-specific planning," he said. "We have to inventory what we have here on the Payson district for sure, because there are trails out there that have been created that may be in better locations than our established trails. What trails can we eliminate? What trails do we need to add?
"We're going to be looking at some intensive use areas, areas where we can turn ATVs loose and they can go cross country in limited areas," he said. "We need to just stop it right now to see what we've got and then work with the different user groups out there and work on establishing a trail system all parties can agree with."
The 45-day public comment period on the project ends June 13. The public can provide written comments during the open house, via the web (http:// www.fs.fed.us/r3/ohv) or by mailing comments to Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Attn: Jim Anderson, Cross-country Travel Project, P.O. Box 640, 309 South Mountain Ave., Springerville, AZ 85938.